Chicken vs Egg: Does Suburban Sprawl Represent the Free Market or Over-Regulation? Neither.


Postwar suburban sprawl, courtesy of George Bailey and his Savings and Loan

A lot of the Libertarian types think that those of us promoting higher densities and urban life are trying to limit freedom of choice. Joe Mysak wrote in Bloomberg about us:

The notion appeals especially to people who like to think they'll be in charge after the revolution. They would apparently love nothing more than for the population to be confined to Soviet-style concrete-block high-rises and be forced to take state-run streetcars to their little jobs at the mill.

According to the American Conservative, Libertarian Foxter John Stossel "defends suburban sprawl and accuses its opponents -- like Kunstler -- of forcing lifestyle choices onto others "by limiting where they can build."

Austin Bramwell of the American Conservative disagrees.

Mr. Martini's castle in the suburbs. But how will he get to work now?

He writes in the American Conservative:

The fallacy of this view has been pointed out about 100 times. For the 101st time: sprawl -- an umbrella term for the pattern of development seen virtually everywhere in the United States -- is not caused by the free market. It is, rather, mandated by a vast and seemingly intractable network of government regulations, from zoning laws and building codes to street design regulations. If Stossel wants to expand Americans' lifestyle choices, he should attack the very thing he was defending, namely, suburban sprawl.

Matthew Yglesias, no libertarian or conservative, actually concurs, and looks at the thrilling zoning bylaws of Phoenix.

Chapter 6 covers single family residential zones. You've got your R1-35 areas in which you need 35,000 square feet of land per dwelling unit, your R1-10 areas where you need 10,000 feet, and then separate zones for 8,000 square feet per unit; 7,000 square feet per dwelling; and 6,000 square feet per dwelling....And you can go so on and so forth throughout the whole thing. The point, however, is that walkable urbanism is illegal in most of the county. Not just giant skyscrapers, but anything even remotely non-sprawling.


Mr. Martini used to live in a dense, racially mixed, urban neighbourhood and could probably walk to his restaurant.

I think they are all wrong; It is not free market and it is not statist regulation; it is the basic nature of the development business. (see Dumb Question Dept : "Why is New Housing so Big and Lousy?")

Suburban real estate development is about one thing: upgrading the value of the crop that you grow on the land that you own. You buy land good for corn and not much else; you contribute to the campaigns of local politicians so that you own them; you tell them what you want to build and they tell the municipal planners what to put in the bylaw. Like the farmer with corn, you worry about irrigation and drainage,(water and sewer); unlike the farmer, you just put up the down payment and skip out, leaving the real cost to your purchasers.

Developers like big lots because they cost pretty much the same to service as small lots but they get more money. Builders like big houses because they are cheap to build; the bigger it is, the cheaper per square foot. The banks like them too; the bigger it is, the less paperwork per dollar loaned.


Mr. Potter didn't think much about giving loans to everyone who walked in the door. "You see? If you shoot pool with some employee here, you can come and borrow money."

If you really want to see free market smart growth, here are a few ideas:

1. Ban political donations of any kind from developers and anyone related to real estate to municipal politicians.

2. Eliminate mortgage interest deductibility, which promotes home ownership over rental for no good reason.

3. Charge development fees based on all of the externalities; the price per foot of picking up garbage, running transit, supporting social services, providing police and fire protection, on a per square foot or per linear foot of frontage basis.

See also in TreeHugger:
Dumb Question Dept : "Why is New Housing so Big and Lousy?"
5 Alternatives to the Buy vs Rent Question
Do Hard-to-get Mortgages mean Better Cities? :