Housing Complex

What Does Ed Glaeser Have Against Planning?

You may already have read economist Ed Glaeser’s long Atlantic cover story about why skyscrapers are great. It’s pretty much a reprint of a chapter in his just-published book, Triumph of the City, which has already been regurgitated in high places. The book itself is a good, quick read that supports things I’ve said about the need to eliminate building height restrictions and the value of density. It also makes arguments on behalf of the city I hadn’t seen before, like the fact that large numbers of poor people are in some ways a sign of vitality and opportunity rather than decay.

But like all polemics, it sometimes goes a little far in its advocacy for building as much and as tall as possible. In particular, Glaeser blames historic preservation bodies and stringent zoning regulations for impeding growth, and thinks that their authority should be curtailed:

My own preference is that in a city like New York, the landmarks commission should have a fixed number of buildings, perhaps five thousand, that it may protect. The commission can change its chosen architectural gems, but it needs to do that slowly. It shouldn’t be able to change its rules overnight to stop construction in some previously unprotected area. If the commission wants to preserve a whole district, then let it spread its five-thousand building mandate across the area. Perhaps five thousand buildings are too few, but without some sort of limit, the scope of any regulatory agency will try to constantly increase, either because of bureaucratic empire building or in response to community pressure.

In D.C., it’s true that neighborhood groups will sometimes try to use historic preservation rules to prevent development, and I’m sure various historic preservation review boards have protected buildings that really aren’t all that special. But ultimately, there shouldn’t be some arbitrary cap on the number of buildings that may be preserved—if something’s worth preserving, it’s worth preserving, no matter how many buildings have been previously designated. Moreover, Glaeser never mentions the tremendous value of historic buildings in stimulating reinvestment in lower income communities. Take the Anacostia historic district: Paired with grants to help rehabilitate beautiful but decaying old Victorian houses, the resulting image of care and prosperity makes for a much more attractive neighborhood, which in turn makes it economically feasible to build large residential projects nearby.

On the zoning issue, Glaeser decries onerous regulations that cost developers time and money. Instead of telling people what they can and can’t build, he suggests, companies should just pay off neighbors to compensate for the imposition.

Cities should replace the current lengthy and uncertain permitting process with a simple system of fees. If tall heights create costs by blocking light or views, then form a reasonable estimate of those costs and charge the builder appropriately. If certain activities are noxious to neighbors, then we should estimate the social costs and charge builders for them, just as we should charge drivers for the costs of their congestion. Those taxes could then be given to the people who are suffering, such as the neighbors who lose light from a new construction project.

Most zoning regulations are put in place for a reason: Setbacks are there to create wide sidewalks, floor area ratio requirements are there to prevent buildings from becoming too overbearing. If we think they should be relaxed—and many should—let’s do it.  But should developers be able to build whatever they want by giving a one-time payout to the neighbors? That sacrifices comprehensive, intentional planning for a one-time infusion of cash, and later generations may not thank us. Furthermore, there are times when a huge building project could fundamentally changed the assets of neighboring business, as with the now-dead N Street Follies hotel, which would have overshadowed the Tabard Inn’s back patio. Businesses should have rights in these situations, and not just the right to get paid.

As a paragon of free market housing construction, Glaeser holds up Houston, where unfettered development has allowed about a million people to move there since 2000 on the cheap. But while I’m sure there are supply and demand dynamics at work here, could it be possible that housing in scorching Houston will just never be that expensive because it’s just not that nice a place to live? Or because essentially nonexistent zoning has allowed for the development of a haphazard, un-pedestrian-friendly cityscape? A growing body of research now supports the thesis that more people want walkable, mixed use communities with great public transit (and housing in those neighborhoods commands a premium). Cities can regulate in such a way that allows building on a large scale while shaping neighborhoods to keep them attractive in the longer term.

But for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Glaeser disdains city planners, saying they should have less control over land use decisions. And, in a strangely contradictory paragraph (which also weirded out Stephen Smith) he says local communities should have more control, but not too much control:

Individual neighborhoods should have some clearly delineated power to protect their special character. People in some blocks might really want to exclude bars; people in others might want to encourage them. Rather than regulate neighborhoods entirely from the top down, it would make more sense to allow individual neighborhoods to craft their own, limited set of rules about building styles and uses that are adopted only with the approval of a very large set of residents. But communities should not have the power to completely prevent construction, by restricting heights or imposing excessive regulations, lest local communities become NIMBYist enclaves. Ordinary citizens, rather than the planners in City Hall, should have more say over what happens next to them, but community control must unfortunately be limited, because local communities often fail to consider the adverse citywide consequences for banning building.

So neighborhoods should be able to keep out local businesses, and control other peoples’ remodels, as long as they can’t prevent density? I don’t understand how this is even a necessary tradeoff. Plus, it would seem like the bodies best equipped to understand the citywide consequences of various building projects would be city planners. Washington D.C.’s city planners, for one, deeply understand the need for the city to attract more residents, for buildings to have less parking, for public transit to be excellent. Others are not so enlightened. It’s not the centrality of planning that’s the problem, though—bad planning is just bad planning.

Glaeser tends toward the assumption that complicated regulations are necessarily anti-urban. But just like good schools, low crime, and affordable housing, designing with the public realm in mind—which developers are warming to, but don’t necessarily always do on their own—makes cities a viable alternative to the suburbs for all those folks who’d otherwise be carbon bigfoots. And that, as I understand it, is the whole point of Glaeser’s book.


  1. #1

    Stephen Smith takes shots at 'planners' as well, as if they were some collective entity like the Borg.

    In reality, I think both Smith and Glaeser would learn that planners take their kinds of ideas to heart - and they have been for a long time.

    On historic preservation, I don't think Glaeser's proposed solution would ever be politically viable or even practical. Instead, I'd like to see the preservation community work to recognize the costs of their cause and work towards models that allow far more adaptive reuse of buildings - but also ones that allow for new growth so as to relieve the pressure on the redevelopment of other old buildings.

    Richard Layman always notes how the current mode of many preservation activists (and community activists in general) arose when cities were shrinking and being destroyed. Their thinking and actions were calibrated to deal with that particular challenge, and are not well suited to deal with a growing city and revitalization.

  2. #2

    Another group contributing to the problem is the architects. Look at when the preservation movement really got going. It wasn't when federal buildings replaced folk colonial, it wasn't when Victorian buildings replaced federal, and it wasn't when neo-classical buildings replaced Victorian, it was when modern buildings started replacing neo-classical (and earlier) buildings. I'm oversimplifying the story, but the arc is generally true. While you can look back in history an find groups opposing whatever the contemporary style is, no style was as widely abhorred than modernism and its bastard children the International style and Brutalism. Architects have lost the faith of the population, and nobody trusts that they have the ability (or more importantly the financial backing) to produce a building more worthy than the historical ones they would knock down. That's the real problem.

  3. #3

    Yet another Houston basher. Could it be that people move to Houston and stay in Houston because it IS a great place to live? Is it hot --- sure, the summers are hot. But Houston hardly has a corner on that market. And while the northeast is buried in ice and snow, I walk a few blocks to an outdoor cafe for a cup of coffee, enjoying it on their patio. That's right, I walk in a neighborhood that the APA had deemed one of the most walkable in the nation -- and right here in Houston.

    Houston has more theater seats in its downtown than any city outside of NYC. We have symphony, opera, ballet, theater. We have baseball, football, hockey, soccer, basketball. Our restaurants are fantastic. I'm not a nativ Houstonian or even a native Texan, but I think Houston is a gem.

  4. #4

    it's good to know that people who want to build ever-taller buildings and drive up rents also believe that the presence of lots of poor people is a sign that we're doing things right.

    i never suspected otherwise, but it's good to have it down in writing, in a place we can easily refer to it.

    good work.

  5. #5

    I have to read the book, but it's odd but maybe not a surprise because she didn't have a PhD and he does that Glaeser repudiates the value of historic preservation in terms of what Jacobs said was one of the four keys to a successful city: maintaining a large stock of old buildings.

    She didn't say this was important because of the value of historic preservation, but because these low cost, adaptable buildings support innovation and change. (Note that I had a visceral, negative reaction to this point in a blog entry a month or two ago, in response to an entry by Matt Yglesias.) By definition, new buildings, even taller ones with more space, are going to cost more to lease/s.f. compared to the extant, likely paid off building.

    Similarly, the thing about maintaining some defined number of historically designated buildings is ridiculous. What logical research-based reason justifies this other than it being an idea pulled out of one's a**?

    Frankly, only a couple center cities in the U.S., NYC and DC specifically, have extranormal demand for reproduction of space--of course the demand is much more widespread in NYC, particularly in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

    And while sure there are a couple places in most cities where various location values generate similar circumstances but in very very small areas, the real problem with center cities is an overabundance of land and building inventory that is underused. SO this concept is irrelevant to most of the large and small center cities in the U.S.

    Yes, in the absolutely most valued places, of which there are but a handful in the U.S., Canada, and the UK, there is extranormal demand.

    I just don't see the relevance of the argument to places like Philadelphia, Newark, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Baltimore, Wilmington, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Providence, various mill towns on the Eastern Seaboard, etc. -- especially when historic preservation-based revitalization strategies are one of the only sustainable economic development tools that these communities have at their disposal.

    And except for microeconomics, I'm not really graphically and mathematically inclined, so Glaeser ought to be kicking my ass in terms of this fine-grained understanding. Yet, it seems to elude him. But I've noticed this some of his other writings, even though his math skills obviously kick mine.

    It's an issue of being in an office, talking to policymakers at conferences and on the phone, and not having much practical experience in how things work on the ground, in real neighborhoods, in real communities, in a variety of markets and submarkets either strong or weak respectively, and the need to be able to vary your responses and tools as a result.

  6. #6

    Plus, if DC didn't have a height limit, the extranormal demand for reproduction of space in the central business district and allied districts east and south of the primary CBD, would be significantly reduced, making Glaeser's argument potentially relevant to only one city in the U.S., NYC, and mostly just Manhattan, and certain parts of Brooklyn at that.

  7. #7

    The idea of charging fees for a negative impact - like blocking light - is so clearly unworkable. At the same time, I agree that:

    a) most regulation is anti-urban - particularly when you leave urban districts of big cities, planning is used as a tool to prevent urbanism. It is often easy for planners to give in to NIMBYism, citing communtiy value, than serve the broader community values of the city. Even when planning is pro-urban, such as Vancouver's, it still has an obsession with extracting as much as possible from developers, or preventing the vibrancy born of flexibility and the deicsions of individual businesses and community groups, in favor of sterile urban environments; and,

    b) American cities need to get their acts together and invest the money it takes to make their planning codes and processes workable, understandable, and streamlined. Too many big cities worked with 1950s codes well into the first decade of the 2000s.

  8. #8

    You missed Ed's point. Think Jacobs. Jacobs has local knowledge that makes it efficient for her to stop planners from blowing up her neighborhood. Yet someone like Jacobs shouldn't have so much NIMBYist power to prevent any tall building she dislikes. The solution is to make the definition of neighborhood large enough, but it's a delicate balance.

  9. #9

    The main reason historic preservation came about is because what they tore down after WWII is deemed superior (in general) to what they where replacing it with. Modernist planning and architecture turned out just like the originators hoped, brutal and anti-human.

    In the age that science was trumping all, including the Axis powers, it wasn't a stretch that this "scientific" style of building would cleanse us from all our urban ills, made to look much worse after 20 years of neglect. What was just another style in Europe got sold as the answer to all that was wrong with cities and developers saw a gold mine in both spreading sprawl and redeveloping cities.

    That's why developers got such a bad name. When they where through, you where bound to get more traffic and congestion or your environment would be made much more ugly and inhospitable. That's not to say some highways and modern buildings wheren't necesary and even beautiful, but the average production of both resulted in the climate where progress became a bad word.

    Now we get this clown who takes the same narrow pseudo- scientific approach to our real environmental problems and promotes density with the eradication of both scale and history as the only solution. Highrises aren't going to work if we get major power disruptions. They won't weather well in more powerful storms, to say nothing about how bleak they make the outdoors around them. We need a carefull balance between creating sustainable approaches that remembers any place worth caring about is sustainable by nature.

  10. #10

    Thank you Lydia for a very nice article, but I think that you are overlooking some very important criteria for the survival of all of humanity in the near future: our dependence on petroleum for 95% of the food that we transport into cities.

    Food depends for 95% of its production on petroleum for fuels, fertilizer and pesticides. Moreover, the last time that most Americans lived on farms was in the 1880s, the horse to human ratio was 1:5 in 1915 and is now 1:44, so what does that leave us to eat with neither fuel nor horses to produce food?

    My heart stopped for 10 minutes while I was having my forehead sutured following a car accident in Kenya in 1980, erasing my abilities to walk, speak, remember and all the other skills that we learn from infancy. That my wife and I were also moving from Switzerland to England just as the world dipped into the recession that occurred in the early 1980s also compounded, but did not confound, my recovery.

    I simply got a menial job, and staggered, walked and jogged home from that job for a total of over 330 miles within the next 15 months to recover 90+% of my former skills. Within 5 years I was running my own business, and within 9 was a professor at the Swiss campus of Pasadena's renowned Art Center College of Design. But, what stays with me still are the designs for a 100% sustainable global infrastructure that blossomed in my brain as I struggled to relearn to walk in 1981 - 2!

    Please view them on my website at http://www.greenmillennium.eu They propose a world with no fossil fuels, for the eternity that awaits us and, by not burning them, that chance that we can forestall global climate change.

    If the components of our genes have always existed, by simply combining and recombining to produce each new generation ever since life first began, and the last 2,000 years are only 20 times the 5 generations, grandparents to grandchildren, that we have met in our own families, what are you doing for the continuation of those components, that exist in our children and in the women who give us our children (the 2 most abused groups in the world), so that they may thrive in the Year 4000?

    Please see my website for some suggestions!

    Yours sincerely,

    Kim Gyr

  11. #11

    Testing for comments

  12. #12

    You missed the point on zoning completely.

    Glaeser advocates reducing zoning to produce social gains that exceed social losses so that it is better for future generations. But there will be temporary losers, e.g. tall buildings block some views, but create more total views (and something to look at). Compensate those whose views were blocked, parking was lost, etc., but move forward towards reasonably high densities.efficient Mass transit, walkability, and low rise "historic" buildings everywhere are simply not compatible.

    And this applies to many cities, including Boston, Philly, SF, Portland and even many small, e.g. College towns. We're totally zoned out!

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