Kaid Benfield Archive


A true conservative takes aim at pretenders who defend sprawl

Kaid Benfield

Posted March 12, 2010 at 5:40PM

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Several years ago, I was asked to do a panel presentation in Minneapolis with, among others, Sam Staley of the Reason Foundation.  I pretty much hate these point/counterpoint forums where the organizers try to paint me as a raving liberal who wants to debate people for conference-goers’ entertainment.  So I called Sam, who is a nice guy, and suggested that we blow their minds by seeing what we could agree on, including the folly of land use regulations designed to perpetuate sprawl.  We still had our areas of disagreement, but we also had a much more constructive session than mere entertainment.

Today I am pleased to see another principled conservative, Austin Bramwell, who used to be a stalwart at the National Review, take the same approach.  Writing in The American Conservative, Bramwell tells it like it is:

“For the 101st time: sprawl — an umbrella term for the pattern of development seen virtually everywhere in the United States — is not caused by the free market. Helena Township, MI (by: Helena Township)It is, rather, mandated by a vast and seemingly intractable network of government regulations, from zoning laws and building codes to street design regulations.  If [nominally libertarian newsman John] Stossel wants to expand Americans’ lifestyle choices, he should attack the very thing he was defending, namely, suburban sprawl.

“It’s odd that self-described libertarians such as Stossel are so slow to grasp that government planning makes sprawl ubiquitous. You would think that libertarians would instinctively grasp the deeply statist nature of suburban development.  First of all, with a depressingly few exceptions, virtually every town in America looks the same. That is, it has the same landscape of arterial roads, strip malls, and residential subdivisions, accessibly only by car. Surely, given America’s celebrated diversity, you would also see a diversity of places. As it turns out, all but a few people live the same suburban lifestyle.  Government, as libertarian assumptions would predict, is the culprit.”

Bramwell goes on to point out that, if walkable neighborhoods in downtowns are so repudiated by Americans, as Stossel apparently suggested, why are they so in demand that their prices are sky-high?  Excellent point.

In The Atlantic Wire, Heather Horn goes on to quote from two more writers  who are taking on Stossel:

  •  Agreed: 'Walkable Urbanism Is Illegal in Most of the Country' Matthew Yglesias takes as his text the zoning regulations of a Phoenix suburb:

“If you want to build a multi-family structure in those places, you can't. If you find yourself in an R2 zone you can, but it can only be a two family structure. Also your building can't be taller than 40 feet, "There shall be a front yard having a depth of not less than 20 feet," the year yard needs to be 25 feet, and the side yard needs to be at least 5 feet. Home Zone Ends (by: that_james, creative commons license)On average, buildings can only occupy at most 50 percent of the lot. And there have to be two parking spaces per dwelling unit. And you can go on and so forth throughout the whole thing. The point, however, is that walkable urbanism is illegal in most of the county.”

  • This Isn't Really a Libertarian Objection "John Stossel, like a lot of self-described libertarians, isn't so much 'libertarian' as he is an anti-liberal," theorizes blogger Jamelle at United States of Jamerica. Across the blogosphere at Unqualified Offerings, Jim Henley agrees, though phrases it differently: "anti-anti-sprawl libertarianism will exist so long as there are libertarians who hate hippies more than they hate central planning--which is to say, it will exist for a long time."

Jonathan Levine, who is chair of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan (and who gave me some helpful advice long ago when I was just starting to address these issues), has long made the same points in a more understated and academic way.  I bet he’s applauding, and so am I.  I hope Sam is, too.