A Terrible Blogger is Born!

June 4, 2009

Zoning: this aint no roadside picnic*

Santelia01Kevin Carson has an excellent new Center For a Stateless Society commentary about the problem of urban sprawl, which is usually assumed to be an unwanted market byproduct in need of government planning, but is in fact an unwanted byproduct of government in need of a freed market. The new urban planning philosophy meant to limit sprawl is only made necessary because the old urban planning helped to create it.

suburbanization and the car culture were central to urban planning in the decades after World War II, and were in fact mandated by the planners.

Now a friend of mine involved in urban planning in Salt Lake City gives me the expected retort: “What about Houston?” Houston, Texas, would indeed seem to be the embarrassing example of anarchy in urban design and spontaneous disorder. I briefly lived outside of Houston and worked at its Natural Science Museum downtown. The striking thing about the area is that how confusing and irrational it is. But certainly zoning is not the only tool of government interference, as this article illustrates. Its municipal land-use laws were seemingly designed to create a hell for pedestrians and heaven for car-dealers (not car drivers; it sucks to drive around that city) by mandating large lots and blocks, wide streets, and huge parking spaces, with the result that “Houston’s municipal code creates auto dependency by artificially spreading out the population.” In other words: sprawl. (Oh, and by the way, Houston is infamous for being one of America’s fattest cities as well- more fodder for social planners.) Of course we should not forget the role of construction companies and other commercial interests lobbying for Roads Roads Roads! But once the new urbanism takes over in Houston, which it is bound to since their problems are so obvious even if their causes aren’t, planners will artificially contract the population, duking it out with the commercial interests in a political process that will be anything but rational.

But if Carson is right, we can fight sprawl by rolling back the state. The question is how to get both liberals and libertarians on board with it. Liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias suggests the type of argument to be used.

One thing we could do as a country that could help reduce carbon emissions in a relatively pain-free way would be to ease regulations around what you’re allowed to build where. This would reduce emissions because people living in high-density areas tend to drive less and have lower home energy usage. It would be relatively pain free because we wouldn’t be talking about taking people’s cars away or forcing anyone to live in densely built cities who doesn’t want to. Instead, we’d be talking about letting people build denser structures if they can find people who want to live inside them.

Yglesias is an ally on this issue at least, though there are some problems with his attitude about planning in general. It appears to be an area like so many others where liberals simply cannot let go of their stance of benevolent authoritarianism. But this is not the worst obstacle yet, which is suggested by the final paragraph of Kevin Carson’s article:

Fighting sprawl isn’t a matter of imposing new government mandates.  It’s a matter of scaling back existing restrictions on mixed use development, and prying the mouths of the real estate industry and the automobile-highway complex off the taxpayer teat. It’s not clear that can be done without abolishing government completely.

The most obvious problem with this is that Carson suggests that fighting sprawl commits one to anarchism, and I don’t see many not already favorably inclined to it giving us much heed in this regard. The second problem is more about general strategy. Those of us who are full-blown anarchists usually find our political allies with various kinds of decentralists and secessionists of the left and right. The idea is to reduce the political unit to the local level, the organic community or Polis. But this will do nothing about planning problems, since this takes place at the local level anyway (although urban planning philosophy is a national, if not international, phenomenon, which makes it suspect). Certainly it leaves room for all kinds of local tyrannies, even in with mostly libertarian movements. Take for example Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin’s secessionist mayoral campaign of 1969 (enthusiastically supported by Murray Rothbard, who failed to get his fellow conservatives on board), which proposed the decriminalization of drugs, including heroin, but would ban private cars in Manhattan and (less plausibly) mandate a shutdown of all electricity except for emergency services once a month. Paul Goodman had already suggested getting rid of cars in Dissent (a publication Mailer was a regular contributor to) in 1961, suggesting that

The problem and our solution to it are probably unique to Manhattan Island, though the experiment would provide valuable lessons elsewhere. Manhattan is a world center of business, buying, style, entertainment, publishing, politics, and light manufacture. It is daily visited in throngs by commuters to work, seekers of pleasure, shoppers, tourists, and visitors on business. We have, and need, a dense population; and the area is small and strictly limited. Manhattan does not sprawl. It can easily be a place as leisurely as Venice, a lovely pedestrian city. But the cars must then go.


Due to its physical geography, “Manhattan does not sprawl”. Furthermore, why anyone would want to drive there without being paid to I don’t know. Goodman and Mailer probably ignored some free market solutions to the problem of congestion. Nevertheless, Goodman displays an admirable awareness that planning solutions are fitted for the place where he lives, and not a scheme for a utopian world-city. I wonder if today’s deracinated urban planners can say the same. But Goodman goes even one step further. “Every street and avenue should be studied as an individual artistic problem.” He sought “variation and experimentation.” Unfortunately  he lamented in the same article that “there is no agency in our city to attend to the multi-purpose problems of community.” I think a community in need of an agency to attend to it is hardly a community at all. The formation of a bureaucracy is the end of natural, active community and the beginning of a passive, administered condition.

But I am getting far afield of my topic (which turns out to be not so much zoning after all) and a bit out of my depth. I am sure that others have dealt with these problems elsewhere. I think in the meantime we should do what we can to educate for freedom and fight the state on the national and local level.

* Forgive me, a geeky reference to a 1979 Tarkovsky film called Stalker, adapted from a Russian science-fiction novel called Roadside Picnic, about an expedition to an area called “the Zone” which has been declared off-limits by the government, and where normal rules of physics do not apply.



    • Thanks. And thanks for the links. This is my first foray into the subjects of city growth and planning which I’m finding quite fascinating.

      Comment by rmangum — June 4, 2009 @ 11:06 pm | Reply

  1. Thanks for the link.

    Comment by Kevin Carson — June 4, 2009 @ 8:49 pm | Reply

    • Your very welcome, Kevin, and keep up the good work at C4SS!

      Comment by rmangum — June 4, 2009 @ 11:04 pm | Reply

  2. […] Zoning: This Ain’t No Roadside Picnic by Ray Mangum […]

    Pingback by Attack the System » Blog Archive » Updated News Digest June 7, 2009 — June 7, 2009 @ 4:32 pm | Reply

  3. […] situation not a natural outgrowth of free-market conditions, but is another instance (along with urban sprawl) of liberals trying to remedy a problem their intellectual predecessors helped to […]

    Pingback by Modern Procrustes, or consumerism is too important to be left to the consumers « A Terrible Blogger is Born! — June 17, 2009 @ 3:49 pm | Reply

  4. […] he writes in connection to America’s car culture (I discussed his view of sprawl-by-design previously) that, “In car-culture dominated cities like Los Angeles and Houston, to say that the […]

    Pingback by Ominous Parallels « A Terrible Blogger is Born! — June 25, 2009 @ 10:40 pm | Reply

  5. The Son Of Heaven…

    …a good post over at . . ….

    Trackback by The Son Of Heaven — November 26, 2009 @ 4:01 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: