Are NIMBYs Killing The Economy? A Second Look At Ryan Avent's Gated City

andreas feininger photo

Image credit Andreas Feininger

A few weeks ago I reviewed Ryan Avent's new e-pamphlet, The Gated City, in which he made the argument that limits on density, whether by NIMBYs or historic preservationists or zoning rules, create limits on oppportunity. Ryan quickly responded to my review with a quote of my last paragraph about the "darwinian struggle" and he is right about that one, I wince when I read it now. he concluded:

Urbanists heed the evidence and understand the damage that development restrictions do to middle-class mobility and the national economy. If you love the look of the place so much that you're willing to ignore its impact on people, you're going to wind up with bad places and poorer people.

My reaction to Ryan's book was visceral and immediate; I am the past president of a major Canadian architectural preservation organization, I have made the argument that heritage is green, and I really don't believe that knocking down Greenwich Village to build 40 storey apartment buildings is either a good thing or necessary. I think there is a sort of Goldilocks density that is not too low, not too high, that is just right. A density and city size that is resilient in the face of peak oil and climate change.

mayors of toronto

Mayors David Crombie, John Sewell, Art Eggleton and Barbara Hall. Image credit Lloyd Alter

But then last Thursday I had an epiphany; I attended a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Jane Jacob's The Death and Life of Great American Cities, where four former mayors of Toronto described their "interactions" with Jane Jacobs, and I realized that Ryan was right. And if I had taken off my historic preservationist hat and thought like the architect/developer I was 15 years ago, I would have seen it immediately.

In 1995, huge swathes of downtown Toronto were zoned industrial. Thousands of square feet of gorgeous old brick buildings were vacant, restricted to hammering metal and sewing. Hundreds of acres were surface parking lots. I wish I could find my old bylaws, the uses permitted were so archaic and ridiculous, but were updated to include software; suddenly everyone in downtown was in the software writing business and turning buildings into lofts, hiding the mattress when the building inspector showed up.

20 niagara street

Then a very left wing mayor Barbara Hall got elected, and along with chief planner Paul Bedford threw out the old zoning in "the Kings", the industrial zones east and west of the city core along King Street, and opened them up for residential and office uses. I was the developer of the very first condominium built under the new rules, a little building with 24 units overlooking a park. One should never be first; I blew my brains out and now have to write for a living. But the changes in zoning started a revitalization of the city that is breathtaking, it is unrecognizable 15 years later. Ryan was right; the removal of zoning restrictions triggered an economic boom that continues to this day.

Where Ryan may be wrong is that this redevelopment happened in parts of the city where there wasn't any Greenwich Village, where there were not a lot of NIMBYs. In almost every city in North America, including New York, there are vast areas where metal-bending used to take place, that has now been globalized. Our cities are large enough that you don't have to fight these battles in established neighbourhoods.

Significantly, almost all of the good old brick buildings that I loved so much are still there; they got converted instead of demolished, and the new developments are happening on the parking lots. We didn't lose heritage and other older buildings because of the removal of zoning controls; they were saved because they were now able to accommodate new uses.

Jane Jacobs supported Barbara Hall in removing these zoning restrictions; she wrote in The Economy of Cities that "Economic life develops by grace of innovating", that cities are the economic engines of society, and you can't have a zoning bylaw that restricts uses to metalbashing and animal rendering. I think Jane would have had a good time talking to Ryan.

But what is there, and who is there, matter. You cannot make a blanket statement that every old building and every person trying to preserve it is standing in the way of progress and prosperity. Our cities, and our citizens, are bigger than that.

More Ryan Avent:
Ryan Avent's The Gated City: Are NIMBYs Killing The Economy? (Book Review)
Quote of the Day: Ryan Avent on Anti-Rail Bias in the Stimulus Bill
Why American Public Policy Is Biased Against Transit Based High Density Living

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