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TinotopiaLog → Sprawl & Farmland ( 7 Aug 2002)
Wednesday 07 August 2002

Sprawl & Farmland

The Heritage Foundation debunks the argument that we must stop urban sprawl because it’s somehow using up farmland. This is good; only someone who’s never spent much time in the Midwest could have come up with such an idea. There’s enough land out there to feed us all even if everyone in the country lived on a 1-acre plot.

The Heritage Foundation goes on to say:

As all levels of government enact and promulgate laws and regulations on land use, homebuilding, and community design standards, individuals’ freedom to live how and where they choose is becoming increasingly limited. Such growing limits are a deliberate consequence of the “smart growth” movement, which attempts to force or encourage households to choose alternative lifestyles and living arrangements.


To achieve these objectives, many advocates of smart growth solutions prefer communities of apartment buildings, townhouses, or detached houses on small lots, and they take flawed images of American cities and towns of bygone eras as their role models.

Aside from their conservative Christian claptrap about “alternative lifestyles” — what the hell is the matter with these people? — they’re right on.

Beyond that statement, though, I don’t think that my opinions have much in common with the Heritage Foundation’s. They believe that everyone wants to live in single-family detached houses in the middle of an acre of land. This, of course, explains why real-estate in Manhattan goes begging for buyers at low prices, and why nobody lives there. The Heritage Foundation says that “most Americans continue to exhibit a decided preference for single-family, detached, suburban-style housing on lots large enough to ensure some measure of privacy and easy access to green grass and nature’s blessings.” That’s true, but only because of government interference.

It’s generally impossible to build dense housing that’s actually useful — that is, housing that gives the resident something, like proximity to work, restaurants, theaters, or anything but other identical houses, in return for his sacrifice of living space — in the United States. You’ve got your choice of a single-family house from which you’ve got to drive everywhere, or a ‘townhome’ or condo ditto. Of course, when faced with that choice people will pick the larger house. They’ve got to have a large kitchen, home theater, etc. after all, because going to an actual theater or a restaurant means 30 minutes in the car.

The reality is that while some people do want a single-family house on an acre of land, not everyone does. Unfortunately, the zoning laws and and tax and building codes make a single-family house on an acre of land the only choice that’s economically rational or, generally, legally buildable.

What’s generally rational, in the absence of government meddling, is easy to spot. If you look at cities around the world — including those built in American before World War II — you find that they’re all about the same. This is hardly surprising, since all cities serve the same function: human habitat. If you compare those designs to American cities built after World War II — most of the suburbs, for a start — you find a radically different plan. This plan isn’t a habitat for humans, it’s a habitat for cars, and cars can’t exist at anything like the density people need for convenience.

Usually there’s no choice, though, but to build a habitat for cars. The zoning laws require that residential, commercial, and industrial uses all be strictly separated — preferably by six-lane roads — and that adequate parking be present everywhere. You can’t walk anywhere in that kind of environment. The problem is, once an area like that is built to ‘capacity’, you can’t drive anywhere either; you just sit in traffic. If people — builders, renters, owners, residents — were given a choice, we’d soon return to a denser model — chosen everywhere in the world, including the United States, where zoning laws permit it — where cars are an important means of transportation, rather than the only transportation possible, by design.

The Heritage Foundation is right — the government should get out of the way of what people want built. But it should truly get out of the way, rather than just forcing to be built what the Heritage Foundation thinks is right.

Posted by tino at 11:36 7.08.02
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