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“It must always be remembered how cost-effectiveness works in the public sector: the cost IS the benefit.” - author unknown
This is the conclusion of Can U.S. Cities Compensate for Curbing Sprawl by Growing Denser? (bold added)
What is the path forward?
The projected growth of the U.S. population will exert growth pressure on expensive and expansive cities alike. There is infinite nuance in how cities can respond to the challenge, but essentially they must situate themselves in the space defined by three alternatives.
The first alternative is to expand with gusto. Cities that follow this path will maintain housing at more affordable levels, thereby retaining their current social character. However, going down this path will further entrench the ills associated with sprawl. Today’s expansive cities are already on this path. The expensive cities could renew their expansion, too, but it is not equally feasible for all of them to do so because some of them – particularly on the west coast – already face natural geographic boundaries that limit their potential to expand.
The second alternative is to avoid expansion, and maintain the status quo with respect to densification. Going down this path will divert population growth towards more accommodating U.S. cities (the expansive ones), and it will minimize changes to the physical character of cities and their surrounding environment. However, it will render housing increasingly unaffordable for a growing share of the population, and has already set in motion a sorting process whereby, on net, the affluent migrate into such cities while the less affluent are crowded out. In other words, it will unequivocally change the social character of these cities, while keeping their physical facade intact. Today’s expensive cities – including Seattle and Portland, despite their limited success in densifying – are on this path.10
The third alternative is to enact fundamental changes to land use policy that prompt far more substantial densification than any U.S. city has undergone to date. For expensive cities to increase their housing production on par with expansive ones would require a reset of land use norms. It would require cities to stop relying on vacant lots as the primary means of densification, and embrace redevelopment instead. For example, it would warrant the undoing of single family zoning through the permission and incentivization of multifamily redevelopment in areas currently reserved for single family homes. Such a change would need to be coupled with a broader acceptance of multifamily housing as a legitimate place for raising children.11 It would also require a leap of faith that in the chicken-and-egg conundrum of density and transportation infrastructure, density can come first. This alternative will accommodate population growth, and will maintain housing affordability at a level that is more expensive than what the first alternative can achieve, but which is far more reasonable than what the second one offers.12 As a result, it will also go a long way towards maintaining the social character of the city. However, it will come at the cost of substantially altering the built environment. The facade will change.
The following diagram summarizes the tradeoffs that cities face. Of course, cities do not literally face a choice among the three alternatives. Rather, the overall impact of the land use policy enacted by all of the governing bodies in a city is equivalent to choosing a location within the triangle, representing a certain mix the of three alternatives.
Is the third alternative realistic? Many grand events and changes have come about in our lifetimes, and the introduction of substantial densification in U.S. cities could be another. The nascent YIMBY movement and the current media uproar in reaction to restrictive land use policy are both promising signs. Nevertheless, the third alternative appears unlikely at this time. The control of planning decisions in the U.S. tends to be highly dispersed, and decisions made at a more local level tend to reject development because negatively impacted stakeholders are usually concentrated nearby, whereas the beneficiaries are not. Moreover, the expensive cities’ current trajectory ultimately benefits the haves, who hold more sway than the have-nots.
If we rule out the third alternative as unrealistic, then cities confronting growth pressure face a tradeoff between accommodating growth through outward expansion, or accepting the social implications of failing to build enough new housing. Sprawl is not something to be welcomed. But people must understand that with neither outward expansion nor meaningful densification, U.S. cities cannot provide enough housing to prevent equally unwelcome changes to their social character. In the words of former Palo Alto planning and transportation commissioner Kate Vershov-Downing, “if things keep going as they are [the] streets will look just as they did decades ago, but [the] inhabitants, spirit, and sense of community will be unrecognizable.”
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