Saturday, July 10, 2004

Why Isn't There More New Urbanism?

Why isn't there more New Urbanism? Instead, most new developments seem to follow the old model: Suburban housing tracts, and strip malls. Why?

Three factors lead me to be curious about this:

1) Rich neighborhoods. Some of the most expensive neighborhoods in the country are dense urban areas where you might find street parking, a coffeeshop on the corner, etc. Think Georgetown, Manhattan, Cambridge, etc. Sure, a lot of people like to live in isolated suburban developments where every house is on 1/3 acre and you have to drive 15 minutes to an hour to do anything. But a lot of people obviously like living in dense urban areas, and at a high price too. Why isn't there more new development that resembles those areas?

2) Tourist towns. I've been to several small, touristy towns, like Eureka Springs, Arkansas, or Helen, Georgia, or Gatlinburg, Tennessee. They are all dense and urban. Small shops with storefronts abutting the street, limited parking, lots of people walking around. Or historic towns, like Williamsburg, Virginia, that have historic houses that are all close together, and that are mixed in with blacksmith shops or churches.

People will actually pay money and drive far out of their way just to walk around a charming little town. By contrast, no Wal-Mart or strip mall has ever been a tourist destination. Why is almost all new development of the strip-mall variety, when it only seems logical that a great many people would like to live in or near a place that resembles where they would go for a vacation?

3) Malls. Malls are just an indoor variant of the historic downtowns. You go inside a mall, and what do you see? Lots of storefront shopping, lots of people milling around, no parking lots in front of the stores, and so forth. Key differences: No one lives in or around most malls, so you don't have the "eyes on the street" that Jane Jacobs wrote about; plus, everyone has to drive there. And while malls are somewhat like dense, urban areas viewed from the inside, they are monstrous, big-box developments viewed from the outside.

But my point is still valid: People like the experience of shopping at a mall, walking around, etc. Since a lot of outdoor development is going to occur anyway, why doesn't more of it resemble the dense, urban, parking-in-the-back, pedestrian-friendly experience?

Conclusion: My perception is that there is a market failure here. Lots of people would, by all indications, like to see more dense, urban areas. Why doesn't more of it happen? The ill effects of zoning laws? Lack of imagination on the part of builders? A collective action problem (i.e., it's hard to come up with a dense urban area when you're only building one free-standing structure and everything surrounding is big-box)? What?

49 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know exactly why - it's not allowed. Go check the zoning in most municipalities. It just doesn't allow for the creation of any new cute downtowns of the type the new urbanists claim they want. Yes, everyone is in favor of the new urbanism, but only in the neighboring jurisdiction, not in their own.

I am in the new home development business and have seen it happen time and again. A developer goes to a municipality with a creative, new urbanist plan that requires variances or rezoning. The NIMBY's, who want no development whatsoever, tie it up in knots. The developer's only choice then is to do a by right plan based on the existing zoning which is typically single family homes on half acre lots well set back from street, the antithesis of new urbanism.

It is not a failure of markets. Builders are happy to build whatever customers want to buy. It's a failure of government.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Edwin said...

Another item to consider is the differing jurisdictions. Typically the type of development described happens at the borders of a jurisdiction. Suppose City A says no to a big-box development. City B, located 2 miles down the road, says yes.

This introduces all sorts of odd incentives to the process. What about infrastructure costs? City A may be at a point where any new development means significant costs. City B may love to have more development before it has to build out its infrastructure.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Dylan said...

Not surprisingly, Houston, with no zoning, has quite a bit of funky high class apartment/restaurant/retail fusion stuff going up in Midtown.

12:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, I think there are some developments that are a little like that. Out in Pasadena, near LA, there's a newish sort of mall-like structure called Paseo Colorado. it has all the usual accoutrements of a mall, but it's a more open structure (rather than a box), and I'm given to understand that there are apartments on the upper levels of many of the buildings.

This isn't quite the "charming little town" model at work, and Pasadena's downtown is old and somewhat more urban than suburban, but nevertheless, not all of these developments have been of the mall/strip mall variety.

-Tae

12:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Because they're expensive, Stuart. What do all the places you've named have in common-- high property values. They're all very, very expensive places to live, with lots of wealthy people living there. New Urbanism's ideas make things more expensive and less efficient. Nice places to live, sure, IF you have the money.

The reason we don't have more New Urbanism is because we're more focused on what's best for working and middle class types, and what they want, not what highly educated, wealthy Americans want.

Ever heard the phrase, "Nice place to visit, but I wouludn't want to live there?" That certainly applies to Colonial Williamsburg. Would I want to give up modern conveniences? No.

4:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Colonial Williamsburg also has re-enactments of slave auctions, and people go to see those. They have people in uncomfortable colonial dress, and a lack of modern conveniences like electricity, cars, and modern plumbing. People find looking at all these things quaint and attractive, and its those things that also make places like Williamsburg tourist attractions.

Doesn't mean that people don't want electricity, running water, zippers, and a lack of slavery.

4:41 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

Anonymous said: Because they're expensive, Stuart. What do all the places you've named have in common-- high property values. They're all very, very expensive places to live, with lots of wealthy people living there. New Urbanism's ideas make things more expensive and less efficient. Nice places to live, sure, IF you have the money.Three things here:

1) Those places are "very, very expensive" -- well, that's my very point. If places like that are expensive, it's only because people are willing to pay the price. And if people are willing to pay the price, then why don't more builders try to satisfy that demand?

2) It is fallacious to suppose that poor and middle class people can only afford a given type of development (suburban tract housing). If more builders built dense, urban areas, those areas would become more affordable over time.

3) Who says that dense neighborhoods are less "efficient," whatever that means? The opposite is more likely to be true. How, exactly, is it efficient to have to drive 15-30 minutes every time you need a gallon of milk? Dense, urban neighborhoods are a more efficient use of space, and they are more efficient in allowing people to buy household items or congregate together near their homes.

6:31 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Because large stores are more efficient, Stuart. 15 to 20 minutes to drive to shop once for a month is more efficient than walking... and having to go four times a month or more for groceries because you only bring back what you can carry. (Especially since people spend a lot more than 15 minutes in the store once they're there.) Or having to visit a large number of boutique stores to get everything you want. Or having a local small grocery store with poor selection and higher prices. Larger stores can combine a wide variety of selection on offer with the lower prices that come from economies of scale.

Of course, we already have plenty of small grocery stores, the same size as typical small markets back in the day. They're called convenience stores, and they come attached to gas stations.

People want square footage in their housing, too. And with larger houses comes being farther apart, which of course lowers density.

Even in dense urban environments like New York, NOBODY I know who lives there does all their shopping a short walk away. Instead, they FREQUENTLY take public transportation or drive in order to get to the specialty shop that has what they want. With a really large number of people, you can afford to support every type of specialty shop. With a small number of people, you can't. You end up with general interest shops (with poor selection except of the lowest common denominator, with poorer the fewer people they strive to cover), and maybe a handful of specialized shops, if you're lucky.

By bringing LOTS of people together to shop, you can offer more variety. Large cities do this, but they don't operate the way that New Urbanists think. Does Chinatown only sell to people who live in Chinatown? No.

Also consider weather. In San Diego, which has beautiful weather, the suburban malls are all outdoor storefronts. People don't like being outside all the time in certain parts of the country.

8:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In part it's the "nice place to visit" phenomenon; I enjoy an occasional visit to the mall, but live there? Not on your life!

But I think it might be a coordination problem, too; To get the advantages of an urban area, you need a LOT of people in the same area. Until you've got that, your new urban center is just a suburb with annoyingly small lots. Whereas the advantages of a suburb are there from the start.

Finally, get rid of rent control, and your urban centers might just be a little more affordable...

9:08 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

Huh. It says that I deleted a comment, but I never did any such thing. I don't even think it's possible.

Anyway, anonymous said this: 15 to 20 minutes to drive to shop once for a month is more efficient than walking... and having to go four times a month or more for groceries because you only bring back what you can carry. Who goes the grocery store once a month? Someone who eats only canned goods, I suppose, could make do with that kind of schedule. But anyone who drinks milk, eats fruits and vegetables, eats bread or sandwich meat, etc., will have to go the grocery store once or twice a week, at a minimum, because all of that stuff spoils rather quickly.

Anyway, not to get dragged into side debates. Point is, high density neighborhoods tend to be high dollar neighborhoods, which indicates that there is higher demand than for other neighborhoods. Sure, lots of people want that suburban house on a large tract of land. So what? No one said that those people don't exist, just that it's odd that their desires are satisfied by the market while people who desire high-density urban neighborhoods can't find much that is affordable. To repeat, why don't builders meet more of that demand? I think the answer is probably as stated by a commenter above: Restrictive zoning laws.

10:35 PM  
Blogger Joseph said...

I suspect developers are trying to avoid building neighborhoods that they think might attract demonstrators. A privatized strip mall can expel anybody demonstrating in favor of the cause of the day or otherwise being annoying.

There's another factor: Many people regard affordable urban neighborhoods are breeding grounds for crime.

12:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, Stuart, the fact that high density neighborhoods tend to be expensive does not prove that it could be done cheaply. Adapt the argument to any other kind of luxury good to see the absurdity of such a blanket statement. (Yachts are mainly owned by rich people; clearly there's high demand for them, so why aren't they cheaper? Your argument here is as big as a laugher as the people want to live where they go on vacation one-- no, of course they don't necessarily. Plenty of people camp for vacation, but you don't see them abandoning civilization.) My hypothesis is that those neighborhoods are expensive because only the rich can afford to live in such places comfortably, with large apartments and plenty of boutique stores.

And, yes, plenty of vegetables will stay good for a month. I know PLENTY of people who do their grocery shopping once a month, putting some meat in the freezer, and getting some canned vegetables. It saves them money, of course. "Who does such a thing?"-- people that want to save themselves both money and time, especially when they have little of one or the other.

Ask yourself why people prefer to shop at big box retailers rather than historic downtowns and small town downtowns. It's because the big boxes offer better selection and lower prices than in a small town downtown. You need a critical mass of people in order to offer the sort of wide selection of stores that makes city shopping attractive. Those stores can get patrons from all over the city, enabling their diversity and specialization. Trying to recreate this in a small neighborhood, with only people from that neighborhood going to the store, just doesn't work.

As to why the existing large cities don't have more middle class housing and such, sure, yeah, that's zoning and rent control and other restrictions.

10:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And, no, it's not true that "high density neighborhoods tend to be high dollar neighborhoods," either. Ever heard of city slums? Have you seen the very high density apartment buildings that exist in some cities? Those aren't high dollar.

10:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You mention Georgetown, Manhattan, Cambridge. What do these places have in common-- they're in the middle of very large cities, not isolated. People in Cambridge shop in the rest of Boston as well for things. Manhattan itself is enormous. (And not all extremely high dollar.) Georgetown is in the middle of DC.

Take a town the size of Cambridge and put it in the middle of nowhere and it wouldn't quite work how you think. Take Chapel Hill, NC-- which is the kind of high dollar college town you're thinking of, but whose residents do plenty of driving to shop at big box stores and malls located in Durham.

11:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live in Philadelphia, one of the few walking cities left. I love Center City which is very close to what you described-small stores, lots of restaurants all withing walking distance, there's antique row (located, surprse, surprise, in the GAYborhood)jewler's row, etc. Housing is also very expensive - I can't swing it (Center City, at least - they are mid to high six figures)

I think once you get past a certain market- upper middle class - lawyers, doctors, business owners, most people can't afford it. How many people really buy antiques? Another area - Manyunk, has great restaurants and botiques- but I notice that the botiques have an unbelievable turnover. A brand new 'walking town" was created from scratch in Vorhees NJ, just outside Philly. It was a total disaster- I was just at the only successful store in the developement- a bar called The Pub. Its neigbors aren't doing well- they are empty, with very optimistic FOR RENT signs. Vorhees is an upscale community (most Philadelphia Flyers live there, for tax reasons) the demographer probably had a ream of stats saying the area would take off.

There is a big difference between taking lunch and a leasurely stroll in one of these trendy areas and being an actual consumer. I would window shop with my girlfriend in antique row- but my couch was bought at a big box store. Right now I am wearing a T-shirt from Target that I bought for 8 bucks, not the $30 dollar version that those revolving botiques sell.

On a recreational basis I totaly agree with "New Urbanism", I just don't want to take out a loan to build another Vorhees.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Stuart Buck said...

No, Stuart, the fact that high density neighborhoods tend to be expensive does not prove that it could be done cheaply. Adapt the argument to any other kind of luxury good to see the absurdity of such a blanket statement.Why would a house on a small plot of land near a corner store necessarily be any more expensive than a house the same size on 1/3 acre, let alone be the equivalent of a luxury good like a yacht? That makes no sense at all, if you just look at the costs of construction. The only way it makes any sense is by looking at how many people demand and bid up the price of the former, and my whole question is why more builders don't enter that market (thus competing the price down).

Plus, expensive products usually see cheaper knock-offs. You can buy a $150 designer shirt at Neiman's, or you can buy a $15 imitation at Wal-Mart. Why aren't there more cheap versions of Georgetown out there?

Plus, as another commenter points out, there is some high-density housing that is available cheaply after all -- in neighborhoods that are known as "bad." But that brings in the race factor, which (unfortunately) often bears hugely on where people will consider living.

12:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As several other people have pointed out, density does not necessarily equal high property values. The problem you have is that dense areas, i.e., cities are generally lousy places for families with kids unless you have a ton of money. The overriding factor is poor public schools.

In the two cities with which I'm most familiar (DC and Chicago), young singles and DINKs will live in the city. Once the child comes, they head off to the burbs. The only other alternative is to spend $$$ for private schools.

9:52 PM  
Blogger PolicyGuy said...

Zoning is not the entire answer, but it's certainly part of it. I once lived in DuPage County, Illinois--one of those top-50 wealthy counties, I believe. Driving to the downtown area of one city charmed me so much that I choose to move to that city when I relocated from out of state.

After a few years, a developer came up with a plan to build a 4-story condo building near the station of the regional commuter line (Metra)--just the kind of thing that New Urbanists would like.

Eventually the development went up, but only in a scaled back version. The chief obstacle: significant opposition from people who lived just north of the downtown area. They feared not only a partial loss of their view; they also complained that traffic would become intolerable, parking in the downtown would be insufficient, and so forth. In some cases, zoning is applied Malthusianism.

2:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Efficiency is an interesting concept. It means getting the most of what you want by giving up the least of what you want. I live in an old suburb south of Boston where you can walk to most everything. But most people choose to drive. After all, the car is sitting right there. It won't take as long. And it won't involve any physical exertion! For them a 15 minute car ride to get a gallon of milk is considerably more efficient than a 10 minute walk.

My son can't seem to understand why I want to walk to do errands. "If I don't," I tell him, "I'll get fat and ugly." He picks up the straight line.

4:15 PM  
Blogger Randal O'Toole said...

Tourists may love mixed-use areas, but the demand for New Urbanism as a residence is actually quite limited. Mixed-use areas have higher crime, more noise, and more congestion than single-use residential areas. While young, single people may enjoy the hustle and bustle, others do not, at least not in day-to-day life.

It is true that zoning restrictions slow New Urbanism in some areas. But it is also true that cities such as Portland that promote New Urbanism saturated the demand for it long ago. All but one mixed-use development built in Portland in the last decade has been subsidized through tax breaks, infrastructure subsidies, or direct grants. Minneapolis subsidizes most of its high-density developments. You can find similar subsidies in most other New Urban areas, whether Denver's LoDo or San Francisco.

This suggests that the lack of New Urbanism isn't a market failure. In fact, the existence of New Urbanism in many places is a result of government intrusions on the market. Yes, Houston may have some mixed-use developments, but the vast majority of its residents, as with the rest of Americans, and in fact most people in the world, prefer to live in single-use developments.

4:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Plus, as another commenter points out, there is some high-density housing that is available cheaply after all -- in neighborhoods that are known as "bad." But that brings in the race factor,"

Sure it doesn't bring in the crime factor?

6:04 AM  
Blogger ATW said...

Stuart - you have answered your question to some extent - the new developments that are constructed "strip malls" etc are the best that we will get and are in fact a modern interpretation of what urbanism should be. Attempts to create an old-fashioned urban replica will be fake and just something like creating a movie set or artificially ageing an artwork. I prefer the current trend of Urban Renewal(particularly prevalent in Cape Town where I live)where existing urban areas are upgraded and renewed instead of being replaced. The market does react - eventually. I agree that city zoning regulators generally do not have the inspired long term vision that that they ought to have. But perhaps it is this intransigence that has led to making it easier for someone to convert an ailing & unused inner city office block into a hip residential apartments and this is a welcome and unexpected outcome. A concept of repair rather than replace somehow seems better to me. Certainly this is evident in the property boom in my CBD (just ask google) and I imagine that there are countless inner cities worldwide that are just waiting for an inspired facelift. We don't need new urbanism when we have enough old urban areas to fix up - only once we've exhausted these options does it make sense that we set out to create new urban areas.

7:19 AM  
Blogger Phaedrus said...

I disagree with the person who posted that new urbanism communities are expensive and inefficient. I currently live one mile from where I work. I ride my bike to work every day. I shop downtown. I spend less time on my bike than most people do in their car. And I get lots of exercise. That is much more efficient than driving your car twenty miles to work and driving to the store. The current roadway infrastructure is about to collapse from inefficiency. The close proximity and interaction of homes, stores, restaurants, and work places in absolutely necessary for the establishment of a healthy, efficient, and sustainable economic as well as urban and cultural fabric. Anything less must be propped up with subsidies just to make it equitable.

Whoever said it is expensive to live in an urban community, well yeah because everyone who lives in the suburbs are driving into town to utilize the civic opportunities such as theaters and museums, and those people don’t pay income taxes to the city, they are paying them to the bed room communities where they live. So yes, sales taxes have to be slightly inflated to pay for the suburbanites who come in and mooch of the urbanites’ civic institutions. If suburbanites love “down town” so much why don’t they move there?

Besides, do you know how much money I will be saving this summer as gas prices go way up? And do you know how much money each person who lives and works in separate towns is going to literally burn mile after mile during their long commutes? I think if people are stupid enough to waste their money on gas, and waste their time in a car, instead of saving money and time for worthwhile ventures, good for them.

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