Libertarians Against Sprawl

A couple of days ago liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias described how zoning laws prohibit mixed-use neighborhoods.  Rather than having neighborhood groceries, bars, and small businesses within easy walking distances of residences, we have a monoculture pattern of development in which homogenous bedroom suburbs are separated by considerable distances from the places we work and shop, and the only way to get from one to the other is by negotiating a series of Checkpoint Charlies at one cloverleaf after another.  “I really and truly wish libertarians would spend more time working on this kind of issue,” Yglesias said.

Well, certainly there’s a highly vocal libertarian contingent (“You’ll take away my car when you pry my cold, dead foot off the gas pedal”) that defends sprawl as the result of free market forces, and equates opposition to sprawl and the car culture with statist paternalism.   John Stossel, for example, attacking the “myth” that “urban sprawl is ruining America,” strongly implied that the current pattern of suburban development reflected the average person’s preferences, and dismissed opposition to sprawl and suburban monocultures as a movement of elitist social engineers.  And he cited James Kunstler as an example of that breed.

Interestingly, though, a libertarian need go no further than Kunstler’s book “The Geography of Nowhere” to get a clear idea of the role of the state in promoting suburbanization and the car culture.  Kunstler devotes an entire chapter to the role of Robert Moses’s intergovernmental authorities in the first large-scale experiment with urban freeway systems on Long Island.

Since then, local governments have been almost universally dominated by an unholy alliance of real estate developers and other commercial interests whose agenda centers on building new freeways.  Where I live, the primary responsibility of the Arkansas Third District Congressman is to bring home highway pork.  U.S. Hwy 471, the “John Paul Hammerschmidt Expressway,” is named for our former Congressman (and its chief landmark, the Bobby Hopper tunnel, honors a former highway commissioner–and before that a Ford dealer–of that name).  In a typical election, all the candidates for city council give “building more roads” as their top priority–which means building new roads to “relieve congestion,” most of it generated by the housing additions and strip malls that sprang up along the last  new road they built to “relieve congestion.”

You’d have to be pretty obtuse to miss a central point of Kunstler’s book:  suburbanization and the car culture were central to urban planning in the decades after World War II, and were in fact mandated by the planners.

The typical urban design platte excluded all businesses from residential areas, and mandated large setbacks and enormous front lawns.  An amusing (if appalling) illustration of the latter is Georgetown.  The old prewar houses, with their front porches cozily situated fifteen feet or so from the tree-lined sidewalks, were grandfathered in to the post-WWII plattes.  But when a house burned down, a new house built on that lot had to follow the new mandates:  so one house on the block was a Brady Bunch-style split-level ranch, set far behind its neighbors, with a front lawn like a golf course.

We see the same pattern endlessly repeated.  Not only is the corner grocery or drug store prohibited in the suburbs, but affordable walkup apartments are also prohibited over downtown businesses.  (Incidentally, Amory Lovins and the other authors of “Natural Capitalism” cited a study’s estimate that reinstating the corner grocer woud by itself reduce gasoline consumption by 6%.)

An article in The Freeman several years back remarked on the way cities and regulated utilities subsidized outlying development at the expense of the older part of town.  Centrally located residents are charged above cost for electricity and water so that utilities can be extended below cost to new developments, and pay higher sales taxes to subsidize the building of roads to serve the new housing additions.

And libertarians are far from universally being cartoonish defenders of sprawl like Stossel.  For example Michael Lewyn, in “A Libertarian Smart Growth Agenda,” advocates an anti-sprawl coalition focused on eliminating government subsidies to the car culture and regulatory impediments to mixed use development.

Fighting sprawl isn’t a matter of imposing new government mandates.  It’s a matter of scaling back existing restrictions on mixed use development, and prying the mouths of the real estate industry and the automobile-highway complex off the taxpayer teat. It’s not clear that can be done without abolishing government completely.

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