By Dom Nozzi
It has been said that the great cities were built before planners and land development laws. This is absolutely true, and the shock value of it helps us see that we need to get out of our own way, so to speak.
I’ve been harping on this point for several years in my books, writings, and speeches.
In 2006, I came upon a quote from the “Smart Growth Network,” where the leader indicated that the “free market” will not be able to deliver us quality of life. My response to this is to reference an outstanding book I read a few months before. The book is by Jonathan Levine, who was the Director, at that time, of the University of Michigan Department of Urban & Regional Planning. The book, called Zoned Out, points out that pretty much every community in America has land development laws that set up enormous obstacles to “smart growth” in every single one of its ordinances.
Almost to the complete exclusion of other community quality of life objectives, our land development laws overwhelmingly care about creating conditions for happy car travel: strict separation of land uses, minimizing residential densities, and providing ample free parking for cars.
Each of these anachronistic commandments, of course, strongly promotes car-dependent sprawl and, ironically, worsens our quality of life. Such rules may have been important when they were first established 100 years ago, since cities were crowded with tenement housing, and many businesses were hazardous to health and needed to be kept away from residences.
Today, those problems don’t exist in any meaningful way in America. So why do we not fundamentally reform our land development laws?
Indeed, because Baby Boomers and especially millennials are much more interested than older generations in “city” living (higher density, 24-hour, mixed-use, vibrant, walkable), there is a growing demand for the development community to provide such development.
But as Levine importantly points out, when developers want to build these types of development — what is now called Smart Growth — they are forced to fight tooth and nail against development laws, elected officials and town planners who fight them until they revise their development plans to give us dumb growth.
This is despite the fact that a large percentage of elected officials and town planners pay lip service to smart growth.
We have met the enemy, and he or she is us.
Therefore, despite the quote from the Smart Growth Network, that the free market cannot deliver quality of life, I’d argue the reverse.
Today, the free market (if we can get rid of the huge market distortions for roads, parking, and gasoline caused by enormous subsidies) can indeed more effectively provide quality of life.
We just need to get govenment (ie, the land development laws) out of the way.
It is an awful realization for me that after almost 30 years of working in a profession that I expected to be focused on improving communities, it turns out that I am part of a huge force that is subverting our quality of life.