» Ryan Avent’s The Gated City provides insight into the workings of the urban economy, but its proposals to increase the supply of housing in the country’s biggest cities are unreasonable.
Ryan Avent’s new book, The Gated City, provides one of the most readable summaries of urban economics available; for that alone, the book is more than worth its low price. In highlighting the work of Edward Glaeser among others, this author shows how the density of metropolitan regions can play an essential role in increasing the productivity of workers and expand the economy in general. It is Avent’s quite plausible thesis that the great American suburbanization of the past fifty years contributed to the economic circumstances in which we now find ourselves — with an economy seemingly incapable of growth — because of an inability (or unwillingness) to cash in on the benefits of urban density, which encourages higher incomes and increased productivity.*
The book’s logic suggests that those who care about improving the American economy must take a stand in favor of densification both of suburbs and inner cities — and against the NIMBYs who would do anything to prevent new projects of virtually any kind from being built anywhere near them, and who are systematically increasing housing costs by limiting supply. The market, the author suggests, is being artificially limited by significant constraints imposed by local groups. “When places like Boston and San Francisco make it hard to build new homes and offices,” Avent writes, “they reduce opportunities and productivity across the country… Our inability to accommodate people in high wage cities… has made America poorer, less innovative, dirtier, and more dependent on scarce fossil fuels than it ought to be. that’s a terrible price to pay for the right to keep neighborhoods from changing with the times.”
These are compelling words, but Avent’s prognosis of a disease that afflicts American cities and perhaps the economy as a whole is followed by a series of potential cures that come across as dogmatic and sometimes even downright undemocratic.
To fight the problems associated with NIMBYism, Avent proposes a number of ideas: Allowing neighborhoods to “limit development… so long as it’s willing to either buy the land in question or pay the land’s owner to comply;” or providing cities a limited “zoning budget” or “historical preservation budget” that would force political leaders to pick only the most important battles to fight; or requiring developers to throw out offset fees for the “supposed costs of the redevelopment.”
These, however, are solutions that only an economist — whose vision of society is shaped by monetary costs and benefits — would appreciate. Note Avent’s dismissal of the efforts of the people he berates as NIMBYs, arguing that their efforts require low private costs, which he minimizes as “Just the time to circulate petitions and attend council meetings.” The only thing that would make NIMBYs understand their actions, he seems to suggest, would be forcing neighbors “to buy a property in order to limit development.” In these cynical statements, Avent not only implies that community organizers get their way easily (compared to their hard-working real estate foes) but falls back on a solution that allows no role for actual democracy, in which public contestation or conflict plays a role in the decision-making discourse at the political level.
Ironically, this effort in favor of more density is admirable, as is the author’s sense that much of the battles NIMBYs fight are grounded in the fact that “the haves are reluctant to share with the have-nots.” It is hard to fault Avent for developing clever approaches to a difficulty that has probably only gotten worse over the past few decades.
Avent’s argument in favor of the value of increasing densities is solid; he demonstrates that there are significant productivity and income gains that flow from metropolitan areas with people in more concentrated living conditions. And there are significant progressive values that are lost without that density: “When Americans ration access to economically dynamic places with high housing costs, it isn’t the rich that suffer most. It’s the middle- and low-income households who must accept long, costly commutes or move elsewhere.”
But are the people who live in gentrifying neighborhoods simply expected to accept that a market logic suggests that their neighborhood needs to change and that they can prevent a new project only by putting up millions of dollars they do not have to buy the land? Is the market the right decision-maker when it comes to the shape, structure, and economic composition of a city neighborhood? The Gated City asks us to assent.
It is this unsentimental approach that bedevils the urban planning profession in general, so frequently incapable of being able to relate to community members, despite claiming to represent their interests. Avent argues in favor of increasing density,** a reasonable campaign, but can only propose being able to do so through methods that subvert non-economic claims to the city.
Ultimately, though experts like Avent or myself or our readers may know that densification can bring significant benefits and that many of those gains can only come after a reduction in neighborhood opposition, attempting to work out these problems through market-based means is a non-starter. How can we as urbanists both promote more density and do so in a manner that does not disenfranchise the people who have the biggest stake in the matter? It is this dilemma that Avent’s book does not resolve, but it is the question that remains a fundamental difficulty for the urban planning profession in general.
All this said, Avent’s pinpointing of the opportunity possible through the development of new zones is right-headed. His examples of Canary Wharf in London and La Défense outside of Paris (two huge business districts outside of the traditional downtowns) are indeed excellent examples of places where very significant growth can be concentrated around a variety transportation options and yet far enough from existing zones of activity that NIMBYism as a concern will be limited. It is perhaps unsurprising that the largest efforts to bring middle-income housing to New York, Chicago, and San Francisco are being pursued on brownfields, not within existing neighborhoods.
* For transportation, the externality benefits of agglomeration are particularly relevant since they can be used to support the business case for a project. Famously, the high costs of the London Crossrail project were in part justified through the use of a cost-benefit analysis that showed significant personal income benefits from, in short, bringing people closer together to one another.
** Avent’s comparisons between cities that show that more dense ones generally perform better in terms of income are illustrated at a metropolitan-wide scale, not a local one. Low regional densities may be cause for increasing densities in individual neighborhoods, but Avent’s book does not show that local-scale density affects regional productivity or income. So the argument has its limitations.