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April 13, 2006

Mossback's Catch-22

Another week, another anti-city screed from the Seattle Weekly's Knute Berger. There's lots to pick apart in this week's column by "Mossback," but I'll restrain myself.

According to Berger, increasing density won't address sprawl on the urban fringe because:

Big growth in downtown Seattle won't be a sponge for regional growth. In fact, it will likely drive additional growth in the region—just look at the San Francisco Bay Area, which has sprawled endlessly despite San Francisco's higher densities and incomes. A Seattle boom will generate more sprawl and more density, in part because we don't have the strict growth controls in place to truly limit it.

Berger's argument is a lovely compliment to sprawl industry flaks whose mantra is: we can't have growth controls because there's nowhere to build in the cities. But Berger doesn't want density because the growth controls aren't strong enough. No density without growth controls; no growth controls with density. This leaves us in a bit of a pickle.

The obvious solution that Berger overlooks is that increasing density can indeed help corral sprawl. Can density solve the problem all by itself? Of course not. Does that mean density is worthless for controlling sprawl? Again, of course not. Growth boundaries on the urban fringe are important too; and so is smart planning. (That is, density is a necessary condition of growth management, but it's not a sufficient one.)

Definitive proof that density reduces sprawl is hard to come by, but I can get close.

Check out this report, using Census data to track growth in 14 US cities during the 1990s. The cities that do best at controlling sprawl are also the ones boosting their density. Take Portland, Oregon. If Portland had grown like a typical city in the study--that is, if newcomers to Portland had spread out in the typical low-density fashion--the Rose City would have swallowed an additional 150 square miles of rural land. How did Portland spare so many farms and forests? A paired combination of density and growth boundaries. Seattle--with weaker growth controls during the period and anti-density Bergers in the mix--did worse than Portland, but not nearly so badly as places like Charlotte or Nashville.

Berger's argument is, in any case, weirdly perverse. He implies that density will actually speed growth into the Seattle region because--why?--people find density appealing? If people like density enough to move here, I suppose one strategy to prevent growth would be to outlaw density. Or we could try a massive urban uglification campaign, perhaps driving away current residents to boot. Even easier, we could just get rid of cops and fire departments and see how the region grows then. That'll show 'em. 

Truth is, I actually agree with Berger sometimes. I just wish he would stick to making claims he can support instead of getting carried away (see here and here, for instance). He's right to caution against damaging Seattle's historic and architectural legacy. And he's right to remind us, in a general way, to preserve the best of the old while we build for the future. But ranting about paying for parking (in urban neighborhoods, fer gosh sakes!) or "privatizing" sunlight by permitting skyscrapers (no, I'm not making that up) sounds less like civic smarts and more like incoherent ranting.

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Comments

With respect to "privatizing sunlight" I know at least Oregon has building rules that prohibit blocking other people's sun, at least in residential areas. I think they define the maximum angle from the horizon that you're allowed to block. Pretty neat because it ensures that everyone has the ability to have a passive solar designed house, or a sun room, or a green house, or solar panels, etc.

Anybody know what the other states in Cascadia do?

Posted by: anonymous | Apr 14, 2006 1:59:46 AM

I'll have to go digging to get a citation, but Mossback's 'growth drives growth' argument has basis in the economics literature.

Plus, Mossback is just picking up a common theme that is picking up steam lately. A number of pro-sprawl (sprawl = good) books have been released in the past year or so.

This is a backlash to New Urbanist/Smart Growth movements. Mossback's arguments actually have some merit, as good amenities and infrastructure are attractors - more jobs will come here because of the amenities. And not everyone who works those new jobs wants to live in density.

People who want the amenities that are found in dense areas want density, and people who don't like to be crowded will not live in dense areas.

Not everyone shares an urban-centric or urban environmentalist point of view.

And conversely, not everyone shares the rural point of view, yet both points of view think the other side isn't for them.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Apr 14, 2006 11:40:41 AM

Mossback may not be particularly sophisticated on these issues but at least he reads (I assume) the right blogs —

http://citycomfortsblog.typepad.com/cities/2006/03/nonsense.html

— and picks up on interesting stuff. In this case I think he's correct that allowing/encouraging residential density downtown will not stop/deter suburban expansion.

A vibrant downtown is a good idea. But if you are creating one because you think it will somehow slow suburban expansion, I believe that you will be disappointed.

Posted by: David Sucher | Apr 14, 2006 12:51:09 PM

I agree Berger is not rational here-- in fact, I think he's participating in the up-is-down-night-is-day-type reasoning fashionable nowadays. Density does not promote sprawl, it is its opposite.

By increasing density, you create a focal point which may draw in additional people. Those people are coming from somewhere else which may or may not be dense. If you draw someone from exurbia who chooses to stay in exurbia around your new dense area, no net difference. But if you draw that person into the city center, you've increased density as a whole.

So, as long as Seattle is making itself denser than the rest of the country, it is making things in America slightly denser on the whole. Is this making sense yet? I know it is kind of tautological, but Berger is actually arguing the opposite. I don't see how it holds up to a few seconds of scrutiny, no matter what the trendy pro-sprawl eggheads say.

Posted by: Jason | Apr 14, 2006 1:09:08 PM

I'm glad you note that, "He's right to caution against damaging Seattle's historic and architectural legacy. And he's right to remind us, in a general way, to preserve the best of the old while we build for the future."

Everyone likes a little beauty and age in their architecture. And the NW definitely lacks urban flair in that respect. Vancouver is fantastic for density, etc. But it's kinda ugly--looks like a futuristic city from a circa 1950 sci-fi movie. Also it has an inordinate amount of Soviet-style apartment/barracks. Good thing it's got the Coast Mountains to offset the drab.

I say this as a former resident of Chicago, a beautiful city with beautiful turn-of-the-century brownstones and the coolest-looking public library anywhere (the Harold Washington Liberary--the epitome of Gotham). (And it's got great skyscrapers too.)

Anyway, there's a case to be made for taking a good idea too far. Maybe turn the empty churches into housing. (Not exactly the most PC thing to do, I know!) I knew some folks in Portland and Chicago that bought old churches for residential purposes...

Posted by: Kristin Kolb-Angelbeck | Apr 14, 2006 4:18:55 PM

Jason, folk live in an exurb, to generalize, for one or two of two reasons: 1) they don't like density, 2)they can't afford anything closer.

Your wish for them to live in a dense neighborhood won't make that neighborhood more appealing to someone who doesn't like it. The economics literature is clear that a growth area is a growth area for a reason. Not everyone who comes to that growth area wants to live downtown, despite your wish for them to live there.

Until it is too expensive for folks to live 50 miles from work, forcing them to live closer, a certain % of folk will not live in a denser neighborhood. It is irrational to think otherwise, and Mossback is not being irrational. He is being realistic.

That's how it is.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Apr 14, 2006 6:58:35 PM

Well, if that is how it is, we can charge them for all the externalities of their high-driving, low-food-production lifestyle and they'll put up with it. Gravy.

Posted by: clew | Apr 15, 2006 2:07:06 PM

Not everyone shares an urban-centric or urban environmentalist point of view.

And conversely, not everyone shares the rural point of view, yet both points of view think the other side isn't for them.


Your wish for them to live in a dense neighborhood won't make that neighborhood more appealing to someone who doesn't like it. The economics literature is clear that a growth area is a growth area for a reason. Not everyone who comes to that growth area wants to live downtown, despite your wish for them to live there.

Both of these are excellent observations. But there is another factor I haven't seen mentioned. The dense central areas are also the most expensive, and those that are allowed to build there get a big return on their investment. But growth boundaries ensure that those outside the boundary will get little return on their investment, and strictly limits their available opportunities.

Favoring density is also going to amount to a vast transfer of wealth. Many families have lived outside the boundary for generations, so suddenly drawing that boundary and charging them for the newly discovered externalities of their lifestyle isn't going to help. Instead you will polarize those people and things like measure 37 are the result.

Instead of punishing them into remaining farmers, we are going to have to find a way that they can participate in the wealth building that is happening in the denser areas. After all, retaining the open space is dependent on the density and those that preserve the open space ought to have some of the financial benefit.

You cannot claim the benefits of increased density unless you calculate the costs to those that are not allowed to participate. Profits are the best way to keep farms in farming, and unfortunately, building is one way farms keep going. It is irrational to think that we can convince people of the benefits of compact growth by forcing or starving them into it.


Posted by: Ray Hyde | Apr 16, 2006 10:17:07 AM

Ray,

Gregoire signed into legislation some bills that offer farmers some relief along the lines you mention. The boundaries *per se* aren't the issue, the wealth transfer is the issue.

And the issue isn't "punishing them into remaining farmers", either.

Rather, it is "allowing them to remain farmers". It is punishing enough that the only option for them to make money is to pave it over with cr*ppy-looking subdivisions named after the creatures replaced by three-car garages. No need to perpetuate that reducing-available-farmland paradigm.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Apr 17, 2006 8:31:01 AM

I'm late responding to comments here...

I fancy myself open to conviction by good arguments. So Dan, if you can provide citations to the economic literature, I'd be grateful. David, if you can shore up with data the rhetorical argument you make in your blog post, I'd be similarly grateful.

It seems to me that the current state of the debate is that some of us think density reduces sprawl, ceteris paribus, and others think it actually increases it. In my post, I linked to a 15-city study by NEW that uses census data to show that growth in density usually corresponds to a reduction in sprawl. It's not the final word on the subject, of course, but until I see compelling counter evidence I'm inclined to stick with my original (common sense) position: increasing residential densities reduces the spatial extent of low densities.

Posted by: Eric de Place | Apr 18, 2006 2:52:50 PM

As I interpret the "density increases sprawl" argument, it's a migrational issue. It isn't hard to buy that if densification creates jobs and makes Seattle more vibrant, people will be attracted from outside the region and contribute to sprawl locally. But this does not mean folks like Knute Berger need to get their panties in a bunch over densification. Here's why:

First, let's not forget that there are many factors other than densification that may promote sprawl. Berger's claim that sprawl in the Bay Area was caused by densification in San Francisco seems more than a tad simpleminded.

OK then, as has already been noted in this thread, if this migrational process brings sprawl to the Seattle area, it will reduce sprawl somewhere else. Thus, at the national level, densification does not create sprawl. If someone out there disagrees, please, please explain.

So from the nationwide perspective, it might appear that there is nothing lost and nothing gained. Except that there is something gained, since we'll have more people living in denser housing and therefore less sprawl. When suburban empty nesters move to a new downtown condo, their vacated single-family home translates to one less new single-family home built in a greenfield. Is there anything fuzzy about this math?

Right, but what about the regional sprawl that could come with a densified Seattle? Well, it's key to recognize that this migrational process requires the existence of cities in other regions that are not densifying, and consequently have fewer jobs and are less vibrant. So mark this: if every city densifies, problem solved, everyone wins! Unfortunately, all the hand wringing over densification is not going to help get other cities on the bandwagon.

Lastly, I would ask the hand-wringers, if we don't densify, what's the alternative developement pattern that will lead to a more sustainable region?

Posted by: dan bertolet | Apr 19, 2006 1:13:53 AM

Thank you for the clarity Mr B.

The issue is not binary and simplistic, hence our multiple posts here searching for everyone's meaning. The issue isn't about making density. It's about changing preferences. Until you change preferences, you can offer all the density you want but that won't make people move there.

The main reasons why folk don't live nearer the CBD in denser areas are price and choice. This is found throughout the social science literature. Families drive 'til they qualify and that means they live many miles from the CBD.

The amenities available in dense areas continue to push up equilibrium prices thus making prices higher. Amenities raise prices. This is found throughout the literature, and was a main focus of the questions Larry Frank took at the NEW-partnered Town Hall talk this past winter: walkable neighborhoods generally have more amenities and thus cost more. Discussed at length was how to bring affordable walkability to neighborhoods with lower SocioEconomic Status, as amenties push up equilibrium prices.

To Dan B's point: migration to desirable areas increases population in addition to natural increase. This is common in the literature. Taking the point I made above, it is unrealistic to expect all in-migrants to live in dense neighborhoods. Now, whether we can show that increasing density in one area reduces sprawl in another area is problematic, due to the fact that the demand for housing in the area that lost population may or may not densify. We know that population in, say, MA is stable but sprawl is increasing, as Glaeser shows (wealth creates sprawl as the wealthy wish to maintain property values and a space buffer from neighbors). Dense areas receive non-families who can afford it: the young, empty nesters.

Density is great. Go density. But, again, not everyone will live in a dense area until gas is 7.00/gal. Here in my little town I see every day the fact that some move into small houses on small lots on the old plats, and at the same time I see plans for houses on big lots. Sure, I offered over 100 ac of dense zoning, but not everyone who comes out here wants one of those small lots.

Just because I offer it doesn't mean everyone wants it.

I can wish I could have made more acreage available for denser zoning, but that doesn't mean anything to the home buyer who wants a big lot. They'll look somewhere else.

Again, the issue isn't making density. It's changing preferences. Until you change preferences, you can offer all the density you want but that won't make people move there. Just because Peet's offers vanilla lattes doesn't mean I'm going to drink one.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Apr 19, 2006 9:04:15 AM

Thank you for the clarity Mr B.

The issue is not binary and simplistic, hence our multiple posts here searching for everyone's meaning. The issue isn't about making density. It's about changing preferences. Until you change preferences, you can offer all the density you want but that won't make people move there.

The main reasons why folk don't live nearer the CBD in denser areas are price and choice. This is found throughout the social science literature. Families drive 'til they qualify and that means they live many miles from the CBD.

The amenities available in dense areas continue to push up equilibrium prices thus making prices higher. Amenities raise prices. This is found throughout the literature, and was a main focus of the questions Larry Frank took at the NEW-partnered Town Hall talk this past winter: walkable neighborhoods generally have more amenities and thus cost more. Discussed at length was how to bring affordable walkability to neighborhoods with lower SocioEconomic Status, as amenties push up equilibrium prices.

To Dan B's point: migration to desirable areas increases population in addition to natural increase. This is common in the literature. Taking the point I made above, it is unrealistic to expect all in-migrants to live in dense neighborhoods. Now, whether we can show that increasing density in one area reduces sprawl in another area is problematic, due to the fact that the demand for housing in the area that lost population may or may not densify. We know that population in, say, MA is stable but sprawl is increasing, as Glaeser shows (wealth creates sprawl as the wealthy wish to maintain property values and a space buffer from neighbors). Dense areas receive non-families who can afford it: the young, empty nesters.

Density is great. Go density. But, again, not everyone will live in a dense area until gas is 7.00/gal. Here in my little town I see every day the fact that some move into small houses on small lots on the old plats, and at the same time I see plans for houses on big lots. Sure, I offered over 100 ac of dense zoning, but not everyone who comes out here wants one of those small lots.

Just because I offer it doesn't mean everyone wants it.

I can wish I could have made more acreage available for denser zoning, but that doesn't mean anything to the home buyer who wants a big lot. They'll look somewhere else.

Again, the issue isn't making density. It's changing preferences. Until you change preferences, you can offer all the density you want but that won't make people move there. Just because Peet's offers vanilla lattes doesn't mean I'm going to drink one.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Apr 19, 2006 9:04:45 AM

oops. Mozilla problems.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Apr 19, 2006 9:05:17 AM

"Density is great. Go density."

I beg to differ.
It is interesting places which are great,
Density is a by-product,

Posted by: David Sucher | Apr 20, 2006 10:32:10 PM