Dismantling Democracy to Fight NIMBYism

» 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.

26 replies on “Dismantling Democracy to Fight NIMBYism”

I haven’t read the book but will do, as I’m an econometrician myself. However, I always proceed with caution with encompassing, far-reaching single-cause-multiple-effects arguments (let’s just remember the abortion rights reduce crimes and push the stock market straw man of the early 1990s).

For now, I make two points. First, one must consider economic effects will be prevalent no matter how (politically, authoritatively, randomly) a decision was taken. Rent control laws have all sorts of unintended consequences, well documented. Social housing have their own. The whole real estate market reacts, sometimes contradictory, to constraints and limitations (not that any of them shouldn’t exist). Democratic decisions will have economic effects as well.

Second, accessibility is more important than density up to a point, in my view. Fast transportation links, be them highways, trains, monorails, subways, increase the area within reach of a certain person given certain costs of mobility. That is what brought a huge uplift from the pre-motorization (pre-train, pre-streecar, pre-automobile) era of urbanization in which a horse ride was required to access distant places (and couple with that poor communications).

That is why I love concepts like La Defénse or similar projects (major business/employment centers with great transportation accessibility, public and private, on the outskirts of a major city). They create new convergence centers and reduce excessive centrality effects that are so detrimental.

“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?”

Well, yes. That’s what private property is all about. The owner gets to decide what to do with the land, not the renter.

I needed to take a double take—is Yonah seriously bringing up an argument for rent control here? Between this and the quasi-defense of Manhattan-esque housing policy (because there’s still room in Queens?) makes me feel like I’ve stepped into bizarro Transport Politic.

Seconded and thirded. I have always known that Yonah has been anti-economics…his post on PPPs implied as much with the language he used: “Urban economists are convinced that…but others (who?) believe what I believe!”

But this is bordering on recklessness. Democratically assigned modifications to property rights? I don’t even think he understands what he is advocating here.

Democratically assigned modifications to property rights? I don’t even think he understands what he is advocating here.

Sounds like that revolutionary concept known to most property owners as “zoning.”

Nope…zoning isn’t democratic at all in most cases, and the ability to rezone property typically only happens during a transfer, not after the property is bought. Zoning certainly has its share of unprogressive outcomes (welcome to the USA), but that isn’t what I was talking about.

I’m referring to the ability of voters to choose what other people can do with their property… holding up development with petitions, lawsuits, and pickets…especially after they have already purchased it.

This is the first time I have ever seen praise of NIMBYism as a progressive outcome. Would he be advocating stronger NIMBY rights in the case of CAHSR too?

It’s not anti-economics; it’s anti-neo-liberalism. There are ideologies out there that think economics is just one more social science, rather than privileging it over political science, sociology, and other relevant fields.

And in urban areas, some control over property rights is inevitable. Consider what Avent is proposing, or at least the logical consequence of a city without even a distinction between manufacturing and residential districts: a set of rules defining externality taxes and subsidies for every activity. There’s a reason a lot of doctrinaire libertarians, e.g. Reason, are wasting a lot of ink denying externalities exist: an externality regime requires a set of technocrats defining externalities and another set enforcing them, making the process more hierarchical than individualist.

As soon as you raise questions such as “Who sets carbon taxes?”, the discussion moves beyond economics, and needs to consider input from other disciplines. And carbon taxes are easy; try computing externalities coming from sprawl that do not come from the pollution of energy consumption. The same kvetchers who torture every developer with demands for parking, parkland, and affordable housing have no trouble arguing special needs to get exemptions from what Avent is proposing.

I’m not sure if I’d say the development of new zones is “right-headed.” The project you mention that I’m most familiar with—South Works Chicago—has some high-density housing, but it’s mostly on top of parking podiums; most of the retail is also quite suburban in character and is set behind large parking lots. Furthermore, even though it’s near the Metra Electric line (which could easily see frequent service), the stations are far enough away that the developer wants to offer special shuttles to ferry people over (insert standard complaint about fare integration in Chicago here, see here for more). And it’s fairly remote compared to other, denser neighborhoods where people are at risk of being priced out, so you’re probably going to see more passenger-mile traveled from South Works than from people of equivalent Chicago neighborhoods of greater density.

A better example of what to do would be the WIlson Yards redevelopment, which featured a Target and Aldi combined with low-income and senior housing. The neighborhood it’s in—Uptown—is currently undergoing gentrification, so this project serves as a way of keeping people in a dense neighborhood with ready access to high-capacity transit (the Red Line) and actually has a serviceable sidewalk presence compared to most urban big-box developments. If you’re looking to increase a city’s housing supply, it’s far more fruitful to exploit vacant and underutilized land in desirable or transitioning neighborhoods than it is to establish new quarters distant from existing activity centers.

I disagree that this would be undemocratic. In my view, the appropriate time for voters to weigh in on the issues is at the ballot box. That is when it is appropriate for people to choose between having an administration that favors more development and one that favors less development. Neighbors would still be free to complain, but something like a zoning budget would clarify the costs for the decision-makers.

Well, I’d refine Jon’s statement a bit. The time to make decisions about the overall character and shape of a neighborhood is in a planning process. The planning process should determine how dense an area is expected to be, what benefits the developer should provide, what there needs to be in the way of open space etc. But each individual permitting decision shouldn’t be fought out as a discretionary decision, starting with the levels of development in the zoning and racheting down, as is so often the way today. Not having read it, Avent’s solution sounds unreasonable, but I understand his frustration.

Of my concern is the issue of planning being transformed from a predominantly ex-ante activity (with a referendum on plans approved by a commission, with up-or-down votes on council or other form) to one based on ad-hoc assessments of run-of-the-mill development/construction.

Sure, a big convention center, a new university campus or a really big shopping mall need specific assessments. However, we’ve seen a trend in which increase power is given to assess development proposals that are mundane and irrelevant in the context of the city they are inserted in after all private transactions are concluded and construction proposals lodged.

This is grossly unfair, in my opinion, because it leaves developers at the mercy of voters on a very casuistic and polarized basis. The most abhorrent example of that: Wal-Mart being denied license to build a store even if it conforms to every other NYC planning directive and is no bigger, wider and doesn’t generate any more traffic than a similar supermarket with other brand.

Similar strategies have been used to oppose, or place an unfair burden, on expansion of student housing (otherwise perfectly in line with planning guidance) in Boston and Austin. Interestingly enough, it is not fears of late-night party that pushes most opposition (at least in Austin), but a strange coalition of non-living homeowners in one area (who want to profit from high rents paid by students roommating in private flats) and minority communities where development is proposed (feeling the influx of cheap part-time student labor will displace their own youth from certain jobs).

First, let’s not forget that NIMBY-ism is not inherently evil, and density can be done in a very poor manner. NIMBYs led the highway revolt of the 1970s, and I think we all can agree that that was a good thing. I also think that people involved and active in their communities is generally a good thing, since while it may be often be frustrating to planners, it signals a community that cares about its future and often brings people together, creating new social bonds.

In terms of density, though, there is a clear cost to staying low-density, which effectively prevents other people from living in those areas, pushing them farther away from the city center. One could attempt to quantify the societal cost (congestion, land, pollution, etc.) of keeping inner area land low-density and apply that cost to local tax rates in the low-density area. This would create a financial incentive for areas to increase their density, but would allow some areas to simply pay for the full externality cost of choosing to stay low-density. Low-income areas would almost certainly choose development, but rich areas might choose to simply pay the high tax, which could then pay for beter transit to more outlying areas. Obviously, the logistics of implementing such a scheme would be quite difficult and may involve a political fight, but this seems far more democratic and equitable than anything I’ve heard thus far.

For me, the worst aspects of NIMBY-ism isn’t the “N”, but the “IBY”. NIMBYs fighting a new (railway/highway/commercial development/McDonalds/subdivision/residential high-rise) are not generally opposing these amenities outright, they just don’t want to share the burden in their vicinity.

In that sense, I have more respect for those that oppose any Mosque or any brothel on religious ground, next door or across the country, even if I don’t support their views.

Upon further reflection, another way of approaching this could be with a sort of density cap-and-trade system, except with a minimum density target and trading in order to meet that target. Low-density areas, like polluters, would need to purchase credits from high density areas to make up the difference between their density and the target density. Conversely, areas could gain a financial asset by increasing their density in order to sell credits to lower density areas.

Again, this is simply another idea of how to create a scheme where people understand and pay for the externalities of their actions which, as Ryan Avent correctly points out, are currently born by society as a whole.

Okay, I haven’t read the book (and probably won’t, since its marginal cost to me is the cost of a Kindle plus $1.99), so all I’m going on is your description. It sounds pretty bad and boosterist, even the part you agree with about new business districts.

I have never been to Canary Wharf, but my experience with La Defense is that it’s urban renewal hell. It may be transit-oriented urban renewal hell, but it’s hostile to pedestrian activity and to any sort of spontaneity, and its only advantage over Downtown Paris is that it has fewer building restrictions. And that’s the best possible result. In Tel Aviv, the new CBD the city is building along Namir Road and Ayalon not only is sterile, but has surprisingly low density, and despite the current plans to build a subway to serve it, the character of the area is auto-oriented.

But this is a relatively minor problem with Avent’s vision as you’re portraying it. A deeper problem is not economic, but political: Avent is implicitly assuming absolute power. The idea that he has to actually go and sell communities on upzoning seems completely absent; the pay-your-own-way rule is something that would fit a vindictive autocrat like Robert Moses (or Mike Bloomberg, who fortunately doesn’t have that power).

Once politics gets into this, any attempt to try to solve inequalities with narrow rules just looks bad. The rich will stop at nothing to not share what they have with the rest, and the middle class will stop at nothing to exclude poorer classes. Given a bad enough power structure, any set of rules is corruptible; the Soviet constitution guaranteed the same freedoms as the US constitution.

Rule changes are useful when and mainly when the rules in question are wonky and out of public oversight (for example, FRA reform). Normally it’s social change that leads to legal changes rather than the reverse. There are a lot of exceptions if you look at court decisions (Roe v. Wade, Brown v. Board of Education), but those tend to be excruciatingly slow, and the issues in question are more ideological than personal. Tellingly, while a large majority of white Americans no longer support school segregation in principle, an even larger majority won’t send their children to majority-minority schools, and proposals for unifying black and white districts are subject to intense white NIMBYism.

since its marginal cost to me is the cost of a Kindle plus $1.99

You don’t need a Kindle to read Kindle books.

As noted, you don’t need a kindle to read kindle books – there are free apps for smartphones as well as for reading on your PC or Mac.

Seems like your complaints about La Defense are all design issues, not ones of density or access. It drives me nuts when people in DC complain about additional density, citing Crystal City or Rosslyn and their auto-oriented 1960s designs as ‘proof’ that density makes for hostile places. This design element is an important, yet independent discussion and the two shouldn’t be confused.

Avent also suggests something along the lines of the ‘zoning budget’ – an alteration of the political process that requires it to take the unorganized but real needs of future residents into account when balancing against the organized, NIMBY efforts of existing residents. See the paper referenced by Matt Yglesias here:

Well, yes, my complaint is about the design, not about the density. I hope my paeans over the years to Manhattan make it clear that my attitude to urban density is that the more the merrier. But the implication Avent seems to be making is not just about density; it’s that it’s desirable to build greenfield high-density districts to get around NIMBY issues. In fact, those districts turn out to be sterile as all planned cities are, and the no-NIMBY requirement ensures there won’t be any residents or small businesses muddying the waters with their mixed uses.

There’s planned communities and then there’s planned communities. Sometimes they come right – Forest Hills Gardens – and sometimes they come out okayish – Sunnyside or Radburn – and sometimes they suck.

You should distinguish communities that were planned 100 years ago but have since grown without much planning from recent planned communities or communities that are still planned with HOAs. Joel Garreau talks about how today Levittown no longer looks any different from the much older suburbs nearby, since the homeowners kept improving their mass-produced houses.

Likewise, today’s anti-Jacobsian single-use CBD is 2050’s affordable class C office space.

I don’t think that’s Avent’s implication at all – rather, his implication is that cities in demand (such as Paris) need to grow, and growing via an adjacent development like La Defense is better than not growing at all in a constrained core.

Likewise, I don’t think this is really about planned communities, but about allowing density. It could be as simple as the local government saying that they’re gonna build a few transit lines here, zone it for dense development, and sell off the lots to developers – and leave it at that.

It’s also clear in Avent’s book that this kind of solution is a workaround when building in the constrained core isn’t an option (for whatever reason), even though such development would be preferable.

So, yes, I do think these issues (development vs. urban design) are completely separate in this case.

The assumption for that particular concept is that outward expansion of the present dense urban design is not politically possible due to NIMBY concerns. Most downtowns will eventually reach an edge where they adjoin established residential neighborhoods where such NIMBY forces would be more acute.

That said, Ryan also discusses methods to add density via infill development as you suggest – the idea of satellite centers such as La Defense is certainly not the only suggestion in the book.

NIMBY urbanites are to liberals, what exurbanites are to conservatives. That is, huge hypocrites.

We’ve all previously discussed the exposed hypocrisy of sprawl. Exurbanites supposedly believe in less government, yet their very lifestyle requires the highest per capita subsidies and extensive regulation.

But there is hypocrisy happening in the more liberal cities as well. Urbanites supposedly believe in diversity and economic opportunity, yet they often act as NIMBY’s fighting infill development that would broaden housing choices in locations with lower household costs.

What these two groups have in common is manipulation of existing government controls and programs for themselves. Liberal or conservative, many Americans have found a way to abuse democracy for one’s self-interest.

One problem I see on comments here is to ignore that pricing externalizations, depending on what they are, is much easier said than done.

To assume beforehand that more density is a good outcome is to take with that presumption a lot of assumptions that ignore people evaluate housing, commuting and other convenience aspects of life in different ways.

It’s an inevitable effect of self-selection bias present in most bloggers’ audience. Some people are implying that extensive (suburban) parkland are a waste of space.

There is also an implication that people wouldn’t generally care for the degradation on perceived quality of life from having your own backyard to move to a multi-story building.

We can all discuss methods and ways to address the NIMBY-ism problem, but we can’t ignore different have different decision matrices in which factors one might put at top-scale (“livability” or “diversity”) to evaluate an urban are, other couldn’t care less about.

For one person, “loss of land” 20 miles away from home to development might be seen as a loss, for her/his neighbor, might be irrelevant. That is the problem in trying to price certain externalities that are not perceived as such.

Finally, in certain instance pundits, politicians and activists talk about “internalizing costs of externalities” without fully understanding its macro- and microeconomic implications. It has become, together with “sustainable development”, an umbrella to push behavior-influencing tax initiatives without calling them taxes.

In the US especially, we’ve done a horrible job of obsessing so much on the right of private property that we ignore the issue of who pays for access. This is where density becomes such a critical issue.

If you take a New Haven train north from Grand Central, most of what you see past New Rochelle is bland, old, rigidly-same suburbia. You reach Stamford, but Stamford is hardly poor, and like other established affluent places it’s not looking to tarnish its cachet. In theory, Stamford would be a great place for increased density. The same could be said of White Plains. Instead, every suburb along the New Haven Line, and across Westchester, and across much of Connecticut and most of the Northeast in general–the name of the game is that the town exercises rigid control, so that land is under-utilized and may well be worth more than the house on it, except that house is the only thing you could build.

There’s barely an unbuilt acre from Grand Central all the way to Stamford. The sprawl makes no real sense, unless you buy into the idea that everybody needs a detached single-family house, that life is best lived with a neurotic fixation on identity and worth being measured by zip code or school district, and that the willed inability of this suburbia to adjust to any different vision is somehow an acceptable cost to the rest of society.

I’m not arguing that people shouldn’t live where they please. I am saying that I pay more in taxes to maintain roads and water service to these suburbs, and their desire to keep out the riffraff is a limitation on economic activity. Ever notice how many “lifestyle centers” are built in places with little or no transit service, yet jobs there go begging for that very reason? The clear message is that the poor and even the lower-middle-class are not wanted. Good enough to work here, but not to live here. Often that gets tied up in making sure that the nice suburban school system is as white and affluent as possible (that’s the blunt truth of the outcomes across suburban Cleveland). There are also the distribution centers built next to the freeway. They’re built there, on the edge of town, because the suburb has lower tax rates, partly because it has businesses paying taxes, but partly because of the diligence of excluding people who might require different services. And all of this exclusion is predicated on universal motorization. Motorization requires lots of land, but it also imposes costs, like air pollution and the matter of treating all the runoff from all that pavement.

Many of the most NIMBY places (like the New Haven corridor) were built along train lines. They have the tracks, and increased density here and there (like near the stations) would generate more traffic on the train. With good design, people who won’t walk down their leafy streets now can be induced to do so if there’s something a little more urban just a few blocks away.

In the eastern suburbs of Stockholm, there are a lot of single-family houses on the way to Gustavsberg. It’s leafy and I suspect it’s generally pretty expensive. But there are clusters of density, and they allow for more open space than you’d find in a comparable American suburb. So you get more green space, and more of it is accessible to everybody, but there’s something else. There is ongoing discussion about extending the Blue Line of the subway from downtown to Nacka, and from there the question is how far east to go. There’s already substantial transit service along the trunk, but extending the subway (or building a branch of the Saltsjöbanan) is predicated on connecting these nodes of density. There is room to expand and further densify these nodes, but not at the expense of wiping out single-family homes or open space (public or private). Property rights are respected, but the state is clear in saying that use of that property carries a cost for other taxpayers too, so there must be some give and take.

Now, compare this to one of the higher moments of NIMBYism in the US. The city of Atherton’s lawsuit against California HSR Authority over not just the Peninsula Corridor, but inserting its municipal interests into the suitability of the Pacheco Pass alignment southeast of San Jose. Basically, the town owes a large part of its desirability to rail access, yet they would do everything in their power to place their interests over those of other users of that train line. HSR is the fastest way to get Caltrain electrified, which would be good for Atherton and the rest of San Mateo County, but the whole process degenerates into extortion and tantrums. All of this has just been over the use of the existing ROW–no discussion of new development near the station. This is the kind of behavior we can’t afford. We’re choking ourselves, rigidly squelching economic opportunities, and I know very few people who enjoy the traffic hell this country is turning into. But still we keep doing the same thing.

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