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To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

Sam Smith on Liberals and Urban Planning

Modern planning was in part spurred by the desire of the elites to recover their cities from the immigrant politicians and riff raff who had seized urban America in the late 19th and early 20th century. Much of what was described as "reform," was in fact just a transfer of power - including the power to corrupt - back to the elites.

Certainly the new zoning laws, which coincided with the rise in urban transit, helped. Zoning laws were created early last century before we understood the ecological costs of a highway-dependent society and at a time when women were expected to stay at home. These conditions have changed but our zoning laws have not kept pace. For example, today in homogeneous single-family, double-income neighborhoods whole blocks may be deserted during the day. We spend our Saturdays driving to distant malls in part because we have zoned shops and services out of our own communities, another monument to failed planning.

Among the effects of zoning - again, with the aid of the streetcar - was to dismantle the ethnically and socially connected - albeit not integrated - city. Where class and ethnicity might have once been divided by blocks, now the more successful could move safely several miles away. For example, Washington's Georgetown, where I lived as a child, reflected its pre-zoning origins despite segregation and restrictive covenants. My mother and father, he a middle level New Deal official, lived on a street that included a row of black shanties, one occupied by our mail man and half without indoor plumbing. My public school was segregated but my streetscape wasn't. Imagine a mid level Bush or Clinton administration official living on the same street as their postal carrier regardless of ethnicity and you can sense the change that has occurred.

Zoning wasn't the only thing happening. One of the New Deal's reforms was the creation of the Home Owners Loan Corporation, which provided federal guarantees for home mortgages. According to the historian Kenneth T. Jackson, between 1933 and 1936 alone, the HOLC supplied funds for one tenth of all owner-occupied, non-farm residences in the country. The FHA, and later the VA, took over the task. By the end of 1958, the FHA had enabled nearly five million families to own homes and helped more than 22 million to improve their properties.

At the same time, however, the legislation discouraged the construction of multi-family units and provided only small short-term loans for repair of existing homes. This meant, Jackson noted, that "families of modest circumstances could more easily finance the purchase of a new home than the modernization of an old one." Jackson continued:

"The greatest fears of the Federal Housing Administration were reserved for 'unharmonious racial or nationality groups.' The alleged danger was that an entire area could lose its investment value if rigid white-black segregation was not maintained. To protect itself against such eventualities, the Underwriting Manual openly recommended 'enforced zoning, subdivision regulations, and suitable restrictive covenants. In addition, the FHA's Division of Economics and Statistics compiled detailed reports and maps charting the present and most likely future residential locations of black families." In a March 1939, map of Brooklyn, for example, the presence of a single non-white family on any block was sufficient to result in that entire block being marked black. Similarly, very extensive maps of the District of Columbia depicted the spread of the black population and the percentage of dwelling units occupied by persons other than white."

Jackson noted that "black neighborhoods were invariably rated 'D.'" These were neighborhoods described with such phrases as "the only hope is for demolition of these buildings and transition of the are into a business district" or "this particular spot is a blight on the surrounding area."

"Residential security maps" were drawn up for every block of a city. These maps were available to lenders and realtors but were kept secret from the general public. Some of these maps, including those for DC, Jackson found to be missing from government archives.

The suburban bias of the FHA was extraordinary. For example, 91% of the homes insured by the agency in metropolitan St. Louis between 1935 and 1939 were in the suburbs. This practice would continue into the 60s and even the 70s. Jackson found that in 1976 the federal government had supplied three dollars in loans for suburban St. Louis for every one dollar to the city itself. Between 1934 and 1960, $559 million was loaned for suburban construction in the St. Louis suburbs but only $94 million for the city itself, a suburban per capita loan in 1961 of $794 vs. an urban one of only $126.

Behind such attempts was what Richard Sennett has called a search for "the purified community." Describing the psychology of urban planners in The Uses of Disorder, Sennett says, "Their impulse has been to give way to that tendency, developed in adolescence, of men to control unknown threats by eliminating the possibility for experiencing surprise."

This tradition continues to today and is already driving the plans for New Orleans.

My own introduction to the impact of urban planning came in the late 1950s as a radio reporter. I was sent to interview a woman who was refusing to move out of her house in DC's Southwest urban renewal area. Hundreds of acres had been leveled around her and still she clung on like a survivor of the Dresden carpet bombing. The project, the largest in the nation, had begun in April 1954 and five years later some 550 acres had been cleared. Only 300 families remained to be relocated. More than 20,000 people and 800 businesses had been kicked out to make way for the plan. Some 80% of the latter never went back into operation.

The design was hailed by planners and liberals; a 1955 report for the District was titled No Slums in Ten Years.... One of the leaders in the fight against SW urban renewal was Rev. Walter Fauntroy, later active in the civil rights movement. And in a 1959 report of the National Conference of Catholic Charities, the Rt. Rev. Msg. John O'Grady said, "It is sad. It is not urban renewal; it is a means of making a few people rich. Instead of improving housing conditions, it is shifting people around from one slum to another."

The Supreme Court disagreed. In 1954 it had upheld the underlying law and in a decision written by none other than William O. Douglas, declared:

"It is within the power of the legislature to determine that the community should be beautiful as well as healthy, spacious as well as clean, well-balanced as well as carefully patrolled . . . The experts concluded that if the community were to be healthy, if it were not to revert again to a blighted or slum area, as though possessed by a congenital disease, the area must be planned as a whole."

Years later, a woman who had lived in Southwest recalled that when her mentally ill mother had a spell, there were always neighbors or relatives to take her in and shield her from what was happening. It wasn't until they were forced out of the community of Southwest and had to live alone that she learned how sick her mother was.

Today, the new Southwest is rarely cited as a model of urban living. It reflects the planning biases of the 50s - cold, boxy construction and a lack of convenient shops, thanks in part to the deal struck at the time with the now struggling commercial mall. Many people seem to prefer less planned communities, places whose character developed from those who live and work there rather than being imposed from without....

...In nearly every... instance it was either explicitly or implicitly assumed that the plan would attract a better class of people and business to the place being planned. The people presently there were at best an afterthought.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's interesting how the so called "sprawling" and "unplanned" suburbs and outlying areas lambasted by urban-planning-loving liberals actually have their origins in quite a bit of planning. Joel Kotkin and Randall O'toole are probably correct in thinking that most young families don't prefer the high density city life, but to think that suburban Las Vegas was an outgrowth of a free market is apparently incorrect.


February 05, 2006 11:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting background. My wife and I were just discussing this issue today.

February 05, 2006 2:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've lived in St. Louis city. The whole city is pretty much houses built during the early part of the 20th century. Hardly anything new, because people are moving out. The county has been expanding rapidly, though, and the city itself is basically dying. This urban planning has led to awful highway planning, and some of the roads are a horror. It's a mess.

February 06, 2006 3:22 AM  
Blogger Larry Gambone said...

Here in Montreal some 45,000 people were displaced, entire historic neighborhoods obliterated during the 1960's, thanks to crackpot notions of urban renewal and the building of expressways etc. I have a name for it - "people herding". Note that it is all done under the aegis of eminent domain - and that those same right-wingers who think pensions or unions are communist, have nothing to say about this original and very extreme attack on private property. Hypocritical slime...

February 06, 2006 7:29 AM  
Blogger Trevor said...

Nice post

It's interesting also how modern zoning law has low density sprawl built into it. All you have to do to build sprawl is follow the codes. Our zoning codes are very anti free market and actually create huge unmanageable highways and suburban waste lands. If the free market were truly free in this area I think we could create vibrant and lively cities again.

You may find the work of New Urbanists such as Andres Duany and the georgist James Kunstler interesting. They actually encourage a free market approach to construction via dumping are modern zoning codes.

Also, I think Joel Kotkin is actually very wrong in his assessment. His approach is one of historical tendencies (while romanticizing historic "sprawl" which wasn't really sprawl at all) instead of modern movements. Sure most people continue to buy in sprawl developments. But give them an option of buying in a real town setting and you'll see the tides shift. I work for a New Urban developer in St. Louis and we have the fasting selling development in the entire region. Joel Kotkin doesn't know what he's talking about. All he can do is state the status quo. Of course the status quo is the most popular TODAY. That what it means to be the status quo!

February 08, 2006 12:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


As for zoning creating sprawl, I recall hearing that California has height restrictions for most locations. Now this obviously spreads development low and wide, so I see what you mean. As for the term "suburban wasteland", that is of course pretty subjective.

Can you tell me more about James Kunstler? I was under the impression that he was a huge proponent of the Portland model, subsidies to light rail, etc. If that isn't the case, then thank you for shaking me out of yet another vulgar libertarian view on the guy. A

And did you mean "They actually encourage a free market in construction via dumping AND modern zoning codes"? Can you elaborate?


February 08, 2006 6:10 PM  
Blogger Trevor said...

Sorry about the delayed responce.

I should have said "They actually encourage a free market in construction via dumping OUR modern zoning codes." Oops.

Can I elaborate? sure. Duany has stated many times on the Pro-Urb listserv that, ideally, we would have little to no zoning codes at all. The Smartcode he advocates is really just training wheels for an industry that has forgotten how to plan and build neighborhoods and places that "live". Sprawl is so ingrained in our system that it would continue to be built for quite some time even if the zoning code was abolished.

Kunstler (and I, on this issue) is only a proponent of subsidized rail UNTIL we STOP subsidizing roads so extravegantly. Ideally roads and parking would be financed through a toll, gas tax, or other mechanism that doesn't desort the free market. But until that day comes, would should lower highway subsidies and increase rail subsidies to "level the playing field" and give rail a chance to catch up. At which time both subsidies could be lowered evenly until the free market could take over.

March 02, 2006 10:04 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


It certainly makes sense to finance urban freeway systems and the interstates with tolls. But residential and commercial streets seem to have excludability problems. What do you think of the idea of making them common property of those with houses or businesses on them, and financing improvements with some kind of assurance contract?

As for public transit, my guess is that if highway users had to pay for them at cost, a private bus company would quickly become a paying proposition.

Light rail seems more complicated, but I'm guessing that if market research showed a likely high demand for it at projected cost, it would be possible for a private firm (or a syndicate representing the local public who owns the rights of way) to secure private capital to build such a system.

March 02, 2006 10:24 AM  
Blogger Trevor said...

Tolls would be great for interstates but impossible for cities.

When you say "common property of those with houses or business on them" are you saying that localized groups would manage the local roads? How would they extract fees for the use of these roads from the passerbyers?

It seems like, in order to retain a free market, the individual user of public/common area or services but pay for these in proportion to his use. As such, a gas tax (really it's not a tax, it a use fee) would be the simplest. BUT the gas tax should be local/municipal tax. Interstates should be toll roads. That way the tax money stays connected to the roads in which the cars using the gas were driven (for the most part).

But I'm curious as to how treating roads as the common property of homes and business would work. How would this "assurance contract" work?

Light rail, when compared to highway road costs and upkeep is actually cheaper and more efficient. So in a free market (I think) it would win out. Sure light rail "seems" expensive but all one has to do is look at the "real" cost of highway construction. The entire light rail line in St. Louis could be financed at the cost of one highway interchange. (That includes property acquisition)

Ideally such a system would be financed by local initiative. If a LVT were being used, acquiring land and getting required urban densities would not be the problem it is today.

March 03, 2006 12:10 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Non-excludability is the reason for doing it that way instead of by toll. My guess is that the local groups of business owners would pass the cost onto their customers along with the rest of their overhead. An assurance contract means that individuals enter into a contract specifying that when x% of property owners in an area have signed on, then everybody who has signed will pony up their share of the money for a project. It would be kind of like an improvement district, but without the coercion.

March 03, 2006 5:24 PM  
Blogger Trevor said...

Well, I like that idea a 1000x more than our present system, but wouldn't that just raise the price of goods while cheapening the cost of driving? (and thereby distorting the market)

Non-excludability is important, I agree. For that reason alone, community owned common property may be the best.

March 04, 2006 2:58 PM  

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