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Libertarians At the Gates Of New Urbanism

Considering a market-oriented approach to new urbanism

Samuel Staley
April 28, 2003

The following debate, which took place on The Practice of New Urbanism listserv, explores the potential of using market-oriented approaches, rather than more public policy, to further the spread of New Urbanism, and reaches several conclusions about the relationship between Libertarian and New Urbanist ideals.

A major issue of contention between many supporters and critics of New Urbanism and smart growth is the role of public policy in dictating urban form. Many planners and architects promote the creation of land use and development policies that embrace New Urbanist and smart growth principles. Yet, much has been said of late regarding the significant obstacle prescriptive land use regulations and development standards present to the creation of New Urbanist communities. The following debate, which took place recently on The Practice of New Urbanism listserv, explores the potential of using market-oriented approaches, rather than more public policy, to further the spread of New Urbanism, and reaches several conclusions about the relationship between Libertarian and New Urbanist ideals.

Andres Duany, Principal
Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company

If we had any strategic agility, something like the statement below would be the CNU response to the Libertarians, and not the statistical gutter into which they have pulled us and where discussion is currently a tawdry slugfest. If we cannot agree that the following should be New Urbanist policy, then it will remain exclusively that of Transect-based planning.

We are constitutionally a society with rights, ours to interpret individually so long as they do not impinge on the rights of others. To American urbanists, everyone's desired lifestyle should therefore have intrinsic standing. We do not intend to to eliminate certain preferences; we wish only to allocate them so that they not undermine others. It is not a question of what, but of where. We claim not the higher morality of environmentalism -- we claim only that we are effective at maintaining a market-based diversity of lifestyles. We fight for the rights of those who choose to live in compact, diverse, walkable communities, in the proximity of open space. It is WE who are being denied the right to build such places by current codes, standards and economic protocols. Libertarians should, if they were true to themselves, support our agenda. Let's ask them to do so.

David Brain, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Sociology
New College of Florida

The only problem with this statement is that just as the quantitative arguments draw us into the statistical gutter, casting the argument entirely in terms of their principles of individual freedom pulls us into a theoretical hole along side them. From the gutter into the sewer. We might take the sting out of their attack in the short run, but in the long run we will have lost the war.

Yes, we fight for the rights of those who choose to live in compact, diverse, walkable communities. However, what is implied both in this representation of a kind of community and in the general idea of empowering ourselves to organize in such a way that it is possible to maintain a diversity of lifestyles in a landscape on which they are allocated (and not just littered), is something that is fundamentally at odds with the principles behind a libertarian position.

The challenge of urbanism is not just that we have to manage the externalities that result from people living close to each other. That's what Euclidean zoning and reactionary planning try to do, and actually do as well as one could under such assumptions. The real challenge is that good human settlements don't result from a simple aggregation of individual choices, but from an ordering of individual choices around some sort of commonly understood ends (and these can vary). If the point is not just to avoid the bad stuff but actually arrange things so that the accumulation of individual choices results in goods that are not just the sum of the parts (e.g., a vital public realm), then we have to engage in something that the libertarians tend to think is either fundamentally undesirable or even impossible: the kind of systematic collaboration that only comes out of democratic self-governance by disciplined and responsible citizens. The other way to accomplish this, of course, is through Hobbes' Leviathan (autocratic leadership in some form), but I'd like to assume that the condition we aspire to includes democratic governance as well as formal and procedural equality (which dictators can enforce as well as anyone).

In concrete and practical terms, the New Urbanist emphasis on the public realm captures the theoretical problem with the libertarian position. In the theoretical universe imagined by the libertarians, there is no escape from a dilemmas associated with the so-called "tragedy of the commons," nothing beyond a dichotomous choice between privatization and autocratic government. If you accept their position to start, we have a choice between some form of fascism (an imposed corporate order) or a world of gated suburban communities (exclusive, segregated, and fundamentally constraining choice in the same way that the auto industry constrains choice). What happens to the public realm (or urbanism) in such a universe?

The best defense against the libertarians is not letting them either define the terms of the debate or keep the fight on their terrain. If we do, we might as well all buy SUVs while we can.

Larry Felton Johnson, Software engineer and Neighborhood Activist, East Atlanta
Georgia State University

Brain writes: "The best defense against the libertarians is not letting them either define the terms of the debate or keep the fight on their terrain. If we do, we might as well all buy SUVs while we can."

This is correct. The general lack of recognition among Libertarians that urbanism has been largely banned by existing regulations and codes, and their insistence on directing their attacks on urbanism rather than on those codes in pretty good evidence that Libertarianism is just another shallow ideological fad.

While it's good to point out the inconsistency in their argument, I'm not prepared to agree with them that unfettered capitalism is the highest form of economic order, much less that gated golf course communities are a good thing.

"In the long run we're all dead".

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., President, The Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions

If this is the position of New Urbanists, those favoring market-oriented approaches to urban development WILL join New Urbanists and support a large part of the agenda.

In my view, much of the conflict between the New Urbanists and the market-oriented folks is misplaced. As someone deeply committed to market-oriented approaches to urban development, but also very sympathetic to New Urbanist design, I think it might be worth looking a little more deeply at the substantive position of the libertarian-conservative-free market-private property, etc. advocates. As someone who is been the forefront of this movement, I would like to offer a few observations.

From the perspective of New Urbanism, I think it is a fundamental misunderstanding of both the position and motives of the market-oriented folks (which includes libertarians, conservatives, private property rights advocates, and others that simply want to be left alone) to assume that their opposition to Smart Growth is opposition to New Urbanism. While it is not well articulated, most of these folks--and certainly those that have emerged as "leaders" in this movement--are politically agnostic on urban design. If everyone wanted to live in New Urbanist style developments, that would be fine with them as along as the decision was fully informed and the product of full choice. Even if that means they would be sacrificing their own chosen lifestyle. That, of course, is consistent with the market oriented approach to public policy, and the position of most in the movement (like New Urbanists) is principled, not opportunistic.

The objective for many of those in the market-oriented camp (including myself) is to provide an environment and climate where people can live in the kinds of neighborhoods they prefer. In short, to use the jargon of the movement, if people want to live in New Urbanist neighborhoods, public policy should facilitate that, not discourage it. But, public policy should be neutral on urban design as much as possible. I think most of the public policy recommendations are consistent with this. (Indeed, I believe a freer market in land us regulation would lead to substantially more New Urbanist developments.)

The market-oriented folks, for the most part, do not view Smart Growth through the prism of urban design. They see is through the prism of politics. Smart Growth is a political movement. As such, most are objecting to the coercive components of Smart Growth, not New Urbanist design per se. Many of those on the market-oriented side of the debate aren't objecting to New Urbanism as a design philosophy, but object to New Urbanist design being imposed on those that don't like it or want it. Similarly, since Smart Growth is seen as a political movement, they are very in tune with the ways the political system is used to entrench special interests, whether they are developers, architects or NIMBYs.

So, why so much rancor about New Urbanism in the market-oriented movement? Because many of the design recommendations of New Urbanism have been incorporated into policy prescriptions that are seen as highly prescriptive and coercive. Policy recommendations that institute a general rule such as a minimum density standard truncate the market as much as a rule that applies a maximum density standard. Policy recommendations that work from a regional land use plan where design standards are set for blocks and neighborhoods are also seen as coercive or so rule-bound to effectively become a mandate.

Prescriptive policy recommendations work against a view of the urban development that is organic and evolutionary, the intuitive framework from which the libertarians/free market people operate. Perhaps more importantly, there is also a tendency to gravitate toward using the more extreme policy recommendations as evidence of the center of the movement. I would argue that this has occurred on both sides.

I believe a much more productive approach would be to recognize the extreme positions of both sides for what they are--outliers. Focusing on the outliers makes finding common ground difficult, if not impossible.

My own view is that there is a lot more common ground between the market-oriented folks and the New Urbanists than many believe. In fact, I believe market-oriented and pro-private property rights groups could become very important allies and change agents on the local level.

In my community, for example, the market is clearly demanding more mixed use, higher density, more connectivity, and more pedestrian friendly design. Property owners want to sell their property to developers who want to provide this. The current zoning laws prevent the market from working. Our community loses as a result.

I hope these observations and thoughts are useful as New Urbanists think about the future of their movement.

Patrick M. Condon, James Taylor Chair in Landscape and Liveable Environments
University of British Columbia

I like the statement very much except for the slap at environmentalists. If one starts taking on the various groups staking out moral claims the list would get very long indeed. Why single out "environmentalists"?

David Brain, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Sociology
New College of Florida

This is a very interesting discussion and I am hugely grateful to Mr. Staley for offering a clear, reasonable and intelligent statement of his "market oriented" position. We're lucky to have an articulate representative of this view on the list. I think Mr. Staley is absolutely correct that there is more in common between New Urbanism and "market-oriented approaches" than many people (especially the "Libertarians") tend to think. I wish I could accept his reconciliation of the New Urbanism with the "market-oriented" approach to public policy that he describes. It would be easier if the New Urbanism really could be policy-neutral.

New Urbanists can, do, and should use market-oriented approaches to urban development. The place where there is some very serious disagreement concerns precisely the role of public policy and the responsibilities as well as rights of property ownership. Mr. Staley makes the reasonable point that people ought to be free to live in New Urbanist communities if they choose, but he then argues that public policy ought to be as neutral as possible on matters of urban design. Maybe there's enough wiggle room in the qualification "as possible," but he seems to be suggesting that a freer market would be most likely to produce exactly the right amount of New Urbanist opportunities (and, I assume, at the right price?). It all depends what considerations are to be deemed legitimate as justifications for acting contrary to complete neutrality on matters of urban form and settlement pattern.

New Urbanists have generally recognized that public policy really can't be neutral on questions of land use relevant to urban design, if many of the objectives outlined in the Charter are going to be achieved. Neutrality on key points is precisely what encourages the current market tendencies toward monoculture, often as unintended consequence of specialized regulations with other problems in mind. Note that the current system of regulations reflects three concerns: health, safety, and stability of the real estate market. Are these concerns ever really likely to be tossed out and left to the free market, as a matter of practical politics? Any effort to undo regulation altogether will run up against constituencies that are politically impossible to beat, defended by experts and specialists with all kinds of science and quantitative evidence to back them up. Can anybody seriously envision sweeping them away? A lot of the problematic consequences are the result of the way these regulations have accumulated in a piecemeal fashion, pushed by this constituency or that and designed by specialists. If you really undertake a campaign to "neutralize" them, you might get retrenchment but the largest impact is likely to be that you simply make them (and the regulatory apparatus that administers them) even more oblivious to their out substantive consequences.

The reality is that public policy typically tends to be "neutral" on matters when neutrality gives somebody powerful a persistent advantage.

Under the current regulatory regime communities aren't free to make or re-make themselves in terms of New Urbanist principles (or any principles at all). On the other hand, they wouldn't have the capacities of self-governance necessary to do so if there were simply less regulation of land use by public policy. The fact that current regulations produce unfortunate outcomes does not logically support the claim that a market without regulation (as if such a thing ever existed) would correct those mistakes.

The fact that the current regulations operate on the basis of wrong-headed principles (or a lack of principles) doesn't mean that we'll get better results if we insure that there is no mechanism for giving authority to principles at all, ever. People voting with their checkbooks only get to choose between the options they are shown, and leave the making of their neighborhoods and cities to the convenience of the developers and a logic that is never likely to be simply the most efficient way to deliver a diversity of product at a diversity of price points. Keep in mind that subdivision regulations came about precisely because the so-called "community builders" (like New Urbanist hero J.C. Nichols) felt the need to raise the bar a bit (using public policy that was not neutral in some respects, but turned out to be neutral in others that have proven problematic) in order to make the quality of their developments feasible in the market.

The problem is that this is an ideological as well as a theoretical or empirical point. New Urbanists are generally only pragmatic about it, willing to use both the market and public policy to help create the conditions necessary to make good neighborhoods a normal fact of everyday life. If the public policy guys are often a little too eager to override (rather than take advantage of) the market, the market guys seem to me to have a rather too simple understanding of politics and public policy, as a matter of ideological conviction. As a result, I think there's no way around the fact that an alliance with certain kinds of "market oriented" approaches can only go so far. And it's pretty important to understand the limits of one's allies.

I do think that some of the differences might be resolved if those taking the market-oriented position had a better understanding of the issues of New Urbanist urban design, just as people feel differently about design codes if they understand the differences between form-based codes and legislating architectural taste. It seems to me that nearly everything New Urbanists do in their plans and codes has to do with undergirding a market that provides the maximum freedom of choice. Urban design that is oriented to producing urbanism is a whole lot less prescriptive and a whole lot more market-oriented than I think many people realize.

At the same time, I wonder how far most New Urbanists would be willing to go in distancing themselves and the movement from broader policy issues associated with Smart Growth.

Steven Bodzin, Communications Director
Congress for the New Urbanism

I am very happy to see Mr. Staley on this list. I too believe that there is great potential for common ground among all of us. However, there are contradictions between the policies that Mr. Staley advocates and those that will permit widespread New Urbanism:

Staley writes: The market-oriented folks, for the most part, do not view Smart Growth through the prism of urban design. They see is through the prism of politics. Smart Growth is a political movement. As such, most are objecting to the coercive components of Smart Growth, not New Urbanist design per se. Many of those on the market-oriented side of the debate aren't objecting to New Urbanism as a design philosophy, but object to New Urbanist design being imposed on those that don't like it or want it. Similarly, since Smart Growth is seen as a political movement, they are very in tune with the ways the political system is used to entrench special interests, whether they are developers, architects or NIMBYs.

These theories break down in the real world when someone is trying to build a real community. How do you get a great downtown plaza, for example, without dictating the forms of the buildings that frame the plaza? How do you get a great street without specifying some aspects of design? At the very least, it seems that you need to regulate some aspects of building form and mass, window and door openings, and landscaping if you want a street that feels half as good as the routine city streets of Montreal, Capitol Hill Washington, or the South End of Boston.

The difference of opinion between the Libertarian attitude and the New Urbanist attitude seems to be largely one of scale. Libertarians believe that all design decisions should be made at the scale of the individual building lot. The market will then determine which lot is better or worse. Competition will drive developers to maximize value, eventually leading to better neighborhoods. New Urbanists maintain that the commons are worthy of concern -- even primacy. Thus, we want the market to operate at the neighborhood and district level. We believe that consumers need to have a choice of whether to live in a car-dominated landscape of strip malls and subdivisions, or a walkable landscape of mixed-use downtowns and diverse neighborhoods. If people have that choice, competition will work. But the landscape we are talking about can only come to pass through some design controls and changes in land use governance. There are places that, in my opinion, go overboard on design controls. That said, these places still tend to attract buyers, so at the landscape level, they are still succeeding in the marketplace.

Larry Felton Johnson, Software engineer and Neighborhood Activist, East Atlanta
Georgia State University

It's probably true that it's pointless and counterproductive to single out one particular political trend for derision when New Urbanism includes a wide political spectrum among its adherents and practitioners.

But I find it hard to reconcile Libertarianism with building a decent public realm. As a puristic and dogmatic movement, it's the flip side of the various command economies. Heads you get North Korea, tails you get your urban public park system replaced with Six Flags, and your public libraries replaced with Borders.

There may be some merit to working with Libertarians to dismantle Euclidean zoning, assuming they stop pushing the notion that the conventional American suburb is the fulfillment of the American Dream.

But I also doubt that scrapping zoning and other forms of regulation would necessarily result in a burst of good urbanism. Here in Atlanta it would much likelier produce an acceleration of the existing terrible development patterns.

I'd certainly be willing to be corrected by any Libertarian who can tell me what role public parks, public libraries, sidewalks and other street detailing, and town squares would play a world run on Libertarian principles.

I'd also like to know the likelihood of a town design like that of Savannah emerging in such a world...

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., President,
The Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions

Thanks to this list for taking my post sincerely and (in my view) elevating the discussion a notch on public policy. As you might suspect, I have a lot of thoughts based on these posts, but I'm going to focus on a few as a matter of clarification and sharpening the debate a bit:

When I (personally and professionally) talk about prescriptive land use regulation, I'm speaking more of the kinds of zoning codes and development regulations that make it difficult to break from current patterns. So, yes, I am levying my strongest criticism at current zoning codes that perpetuate single use, low density land use patterns. (I am critical of urban growth boundaries, but mainly because I think they are a cumbersome instrument to achieve goals that can be achieved through deregulation, and UGBs have significant impacts on housing affordability. I stand by my analysis and research for RPPI on this.)

Note that the free market and market-oriented analysts are not critical of master planned private communities. In fact, many believe these large-scale master planned communities are attempts through the land market to capture valuable public spaces through a more integrated and comprehensive approach to land development. Many, including myself, believe that the strict design criteria and land use restrictions embedded in many of these communities are problematic and run the risk of stifling neighborhood evolution, but do not believe that public policy should be used to stop the creation of these communities. The presumption is that private communities are being planned voluntarily, they are faced with consumer accountability, and no one will be forced (at least initially) to adhere to rules they do not agree with. I recognize that this becomes problematic in terms of urban governance, but I'm just pointing this out.

I would caution about taking the market-oriented advocates' skepticism of the viability of New Urbanism in the market place as political opposition to New Urbanist design principles. Most of the market-oriented (and definitely the free market advocates) would favor a governance and development regulation system that allows diversity EVEN AT THE EXPENSE OF THEIR OWN LIFESTYLE. That is because, for many, principles of good government and governance, trump personal decisions about lifestyle. This is why people like Peter Gordon, Randal O'Toole, and Steve Hayward can prefer and live in urban environments while supporting a development regulation regime that perpetuates a decidedly different lifestyle (as long as it reflects consumer preferences). That is also why I can favor deregulation in my community, knowing full well that the result is higher density, more mixed use, etc., even though my personal/family choice has been for "typical" sprawl. It my not be consistent from a uniform urban design ideology, but it is very consistent with our principles of local governance.

I would like to also recognize and support those comments that caution the New Urbanist community on compromise. One of the greatest strengths of the New Urbanist community is its commitment to an ideology of urban design. This is what makes New Urbanism innovative, allowing it to push through incredible regulatory obstacles, and fundamentally challenge current development thinking. So, to compromise on urban design principles would weaken the movement. I don't think commitment to New Urbanism means that these principles then have to be mandated through public policy. (Of course, I recognize there is significant disagreement on this list on this point.) For those that believe that adhering to New Urban principles also means instituting a planning regime that in effect prescribes this pattern and prohibits alternatives in a regional context, there may be little opportunity for working with the market-oriented side. But, recognize the point of departure is governance (both market and political), not urban design.

Andres Duany, Principal
Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company

Philip Bess, Professor of Architecture
Andrews University

Philip Bess much improved my statement. Here it is:

Civilized human beings recognize that civilization both includes and balances rights and obligations; that individual well-being requires good communities; and that liberty is not license. New Urbanists think that persons should have as much freedom as justice allows; that traditional towns and neighborhoods have a proven track record of promoting and maintaining a diversity of living conditions that both support and are supported by free markets; and that the Urban Transect as a principle both promotes and accounts for a wide variety of free and just human environments.

We therefore profess traditional urbanism -- in all its manifestations through the Transect -- as the best way for human beings to live. And though for various reasons we are opposed to suburban sprawl, we do not intend or propose to eliminate sprawl by legal fiat. Rather, we fight for the legal right to build traditional towns and neighborhoods, in the hope and confidence that their evident virtues -- manifested in varieties of forms -- will eventually prevail as a cultural norm. We fight for the rights of those who desire to live in compact, diverse, walkable communities, in the proximity of open space.

It is WE who are being denied the right to build such places by current codes, standards and economic protocols. Libertarians should, if they are true to their principles of democratic self-governance, support our agenda.


Samuel Staley is director of urban and land use policy at Reason Foundation and co-editor of the book "Smarter Growth: Market-Based Strategies for Land-Use Planning in the 21st Century."


Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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