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Do you hate city planners? Do you wish the New Urbanists would leave us all alone? Yes and yes? Then beware of reflexively defending the status quo, because the status quo is in no small part the handiwork of old city planners.
As Matty Van recently pointed out, a non-negligible portion of what the New Urbanists call our “over-reliance on cars” is due to former city planners and other central authorities having planned it that way.
It is government that has instituted zoning laws segregating commercial from residential areas. It is government that imposes absurd restrictions on small-scale, home-based industry. It was government that built many of our highways, despite the fact that private highways are totally a thing. It is government that mandates that people build a certain amount of parking on their property, whether they want to or not.
Houston is famous for its lack of zoning. It’s also Texas’s most walkable city. Coincidence? Maybe not.
I don’t mention Houston because I’m in love with walkable cities. When it comes to the tradeoffs between living in a walkable but crowded neighborhood and living a more quiet, suburban – but also more diffuse – life, I would probably choose the suburbs. I mention Houston because it’s evidence against an assumption that many liberals and conservatives apparently share: that the inevitable result of less city planning is less walkability.
Naturally, we conservatives want to defend the free market. But even we are prone to mistaking the aftermath of old regulations for the organic product of private enterprise. For their part, New Urbanists – or anyone else who wishes to make a serious case that over-reliance on cars should be regarded as a nuisance – would do well to remember what Coase said about the tendency of pretty much everyone to miscategorize old government-backed nuisances as products of the free market:
Legislative sanction makes that lawful which otherwise might be [actionable as] a nuisance. Examples of this are damages to adjacent land arising from smoke, vibration and noise in the operation of a railroad…; … unpleasant odors connected with sewers, oil refining and storage of naphtha….
Most economists seem to be unaware of all this. When they are prevented from sleeping at night by the roar of jet planes overhead (publicly authorized and perhaps publicly operated), are unable to think (or rest) during the day because of the noise and vibration from passing trains (publicly authorized and perhaps publicly operated), find it difficult to breathe because of the odour from the local sewage farm (publicly authorized and perhaps publicly operated), and are unable to escape because their driveways are blocked by a road obstruction (without any doubt, publicly devised), their nerves frayed and mental balance disturbed, they proceed to declaim about the disadvantages of private enterprise and the need for governmental regulation. “
– Section VII of The Problem of Social Cost, p 131 of “The Firm, the Market, and the Law”
I agree with the anti-New-Urbanists: let’s not try a new type of city planning. Instead, let’s get rid of the restrictions imposed by old city planning. Then people will be free again to build walkable neighborhoods if that’s what they want to do.
Let’s try un-planning for a change.