David Sucher, who runs the very interesting urban planning blog City Comforts, is asking again for “a principled, thoughtful conservative/libertarian critique of how to create the built environment,” and I figure as a sort of villain in the piece.
What makes me uneasy is that in actuality there really isn’t any principled, thoughtful Conservative/Libertarian (C/L) critique of how to create the built environment. In fact it was this discussion on God of the Machine which helped me give focus to City Comforts Blog. The discussion there ended on this note, with the comment directed to me:
“If the ‘problem’ is that you don’t care for the way cities and towns look now (under rigid zoning, I hasten to add), couldn’t it be easily rectified by simply appointing you land czar? Would that be any more unjust than allowing zoning boards to impose costs on people who get no say in the matter?”
I thought further conversation unproductive.
But that, unfortunately, is the typical C/L response: either denial or sneering and ending in “It’s my party…” There simply does not exist any intelligent or useful C/L commentary on land use governance. (Please, someone, prove me wrong!)
David’s acknowledgement that I helped give his blog focus (negatively perhaps, but I take it where I find it) is certainly more gracious than my remark. Actually we agree on most of the aesthetic questions — the bankruptcy of most modern architecture, the importance of promoting street life, parking as the tail that wags the dog. His constant criticism of “starchitecture” is well-taken. As Michael Blowhard reminds us in his discussion of Frank Lloyd Wright, nobody wants to live or work in Art. Art’s roof leaks. Art’s chairs tip. Art doesn’t have enough parking.
The dispute is over means, not ends. Private developers often erect hideous buildings, but for disaster on a grand scale nobody can touch the government. Think Pruitt-Igoe, or the housing project of your choice. Think the late World Trade Towers, unlamented by anyone who ever had to work there. David professes to admire Jane Jacobs; the great lesson of The Death and Life of Great American Cities is the vast superiority of bottom-up to top-down architecture. Cities, like markets, are more than the sum of their parts, and seem to show these ancillary benefits only when individual property owners are given latitude to operate. David is a real estate developer by trade, and his experience with architecture is far wider than mine, but I know New York City pretty well, and most of the development in its most livable and attractive sections, like the West Village, antedates central planning. New York tourists, once they’re done with the landmarks, head straight for the Village, or Chinatown, another planner’s nightmare. Attractive city neighborhoods can apparently spring up without any “planning” or “policy” whatsoever.
Is the culprit bad planning rather than planning itself? Certainly 20th-century urban planning, with its emphasis on segregating uses and choking off street life, has been very bad. Yet it is difficult to see how any planner, no matter how wise, could produce the endearingly crooked streets and chaotic mix of businesses and residences that characterize the West Village, or the North End of Boston, to take Jane Jacobs’ example.
David’s demand for a libertarian theory of “land use governance,” a polite term for zoning, is not entirely reasonable. It’s like asking a libertarian how he would run the Department of Agriculture or Education, to which the obvious reply is, he wouldn’t. He’d disband it. “Land-use governance” means the nosy neighbors convene and decide what I can build on my own property and to whom I can sell it. They impose costs on me at no cost to themselves. Zoning advocates like David ought to acknowledge the manifest injustice of such a policy.
A libertarian land use “policy,” if that is the term, might develop along coop/condo lines. Coop owners, like me, own shares in a building or group of building rather than individual units within it. I forfeit a certain amount of control over my premises in return for a lower price for the same amount of real estate. I do so voluntarily, and the rules are clear and laid out in advance. A coop agreement, unlike the zoning laws, is a deal. My coop consists of three buildings, and there’s no reason there couldn’t be larger coops of entire streets, or neighborhoods. Condominium agreements could burgeon in the same way.
This leaves the problem of burden-shifting. What happens if the guy next door decides to sell out to hog-processing plant? The short answer is, too bad. You’ve chosen to live somewhere he’s allowed to do that, and it’s his decision, not yours. The slightly longer answer is, if the hog-processing plant is damaging your property, by, say, belching toxic smoke into it, you do the American thing and sue. To the extent that the plant owner damages you — by tortiously interfering with your property, not by lowering the tone of the neighborhood — he pays. For this to work properly would require a major revision of liability law, which is a post for another day.