Friday, November 18, 2005

Choosing to Oppose Suburban Sprawl

PC argues that "sprawl is good; regulation is not" -- yet another example of libertarian short-sightedness. He points out that sprawl can help bring down housing prices, and concludes that it must be 'good', without considering all the negative consequences. Outward development has environmental costs, increases traffic congestion and commuting times along arterial roads, leads to increased water demand, requires expensive new infrastructure, and makes alternative modes of transport (walking, cycling, public transport) infeasible for most.

The Greater Christchurch region is far from unregulated at present. But further regulations, as recommended by careful urban planning, could have significant benefits nonetheless. Compared to "business as usual" for the next 35 years, the council's Option A (which concentrates new development in the central city, building 'up' rather than 'out') will save 2110 hectares of land, $130 million in public infrastructure costs for new housing, $100 million in anti-congestion costs, $400 million per year motoring costs, and 212 L water per second. Although commuting times and vehicle emissions are set to worsen in either case, the increases can be alleviated by 10 and 15 percentage points, respectively. Further advantages include better community facilities within easy access of most citizens, and much improved transport options -- with walking, cycling, and public transport all becoming much more viable and attractive options.

It's far from clear that the benefits of cheaper housing can offset all these other factors. What is clear is that it's terribly irresponsible to just ignore all these complications and advocate for further sprawl solely on the basis of its benefits and without considering the costs.

PC adds: "Sprawl is good. It's about choice, and letting people afford to have one."

The Greater Christchurch Urban Development Strategy team solicited feedback from local residents about the options for our region. They made their choice. Only 3% opted for "business as usual". An overwhelming number of people explicitly asked for improved transport options (e.g. more cycleways), greater environmental responsibility, urban redevelopment, and stricter regulation to prevent sprawl.

(Full disclosure: I'm currently working with the Christchurch City Council to analyse the UDS feedback and assess the consultation process.)


  1. I guess the question is "where is hte market failure"? people keep choosing to buy homes outside town in preference to ones closer into the city...
    One could argue the problem is TOO MUCH regulation in a sense
    e.g minimum house size regluations... I find that rather annoying myself - I WANT to live in a box and I could save you lost if you let me.

  2. Always a good question :)

    In this case there are massive externalities involved, as with all environmental matters, but even worse when the council pays for the necessary infrastructure. Not to mention the collective action problems involved in transport, congestion, etc. The Libertarian Utopia might avoid some of these problems by privatizing roads, water, etc., but there's no chance of that happening in today's political climate. In light of reality, then: sprawl seems to be, all things considered, a bad thing.

  3. If "only 3%" supported sprawl and 97% want regulations to avoid it, why do you actually need regulations? Leave the 3% to their sprawl, after all, they are only 3%. The 97% will voluntarily choose to avoid it.

    If almost everyone agrees sprawl is bad, why is it an issue? Probably beacause most of the 97% doesn't want to actually make their own decisions in conformity with your plans. Instead they wish to make decisions for other people in conformity with your plans.

  4. lets say I drive towork and it takes me 1hr that is lets say $25 of my time plus costs after tax (both ways) if I am minimum wage sort of fellow - Now are we really saying our road taxes would be $25 a head per day?
    I suggest there is already a big incentive NOT to live far outside the city BUT people do it anyway...

    I guess the first question is supply vs demand - why are there not more properties close to the city - or more precisely - why dont property developers every time they buys a property not add another story on top and add a room on the side and subdivide it into 4 and sell it as 4 houses?
    coucil regulations? RMA?

    What tools are you looking at to fix the problem?

  5. Richard, ~your~ choice and the choice of your planners is pricing houses beyond the reach of first-home buyers, as the figures at the links I provided show. About that there's simply no question.

    The 'externalities' you cite are just not at all germane to the actual question, and only serve to obscure it: put simply, the fact is that of cities that are otherwise similar, those that restrict growth are of the order of twice as expensive in which to buy. As I note in a recent comment at the original article, "it takes more than twice an average household's income to buy a house in a Smart Growth-affected city than it does in one that's rejected that fashionable nonsense." (AS I say, the figures are contained in links at my article to which you link.)

    That's the issue, and it doen't matter how many people respond to a survey with their opinion; the only survey that matters is the one conducted in the market everyday, and ~that~ survey shows that people ~do~ overwhelmingly want sprawl. If they didn't, you wouldn't have to get the government's gun and the planner's clipboard out to stop them.

    [NB: You should also note that libertarians are not "rightists" as your link suggests - not your only error there I might say.]

  6. i think the argument "sprawl is good/bad" diverts the argument away from anything meaningful such as the merits of zoning - how to pass on the costs of infrastructure and how to make houses afordable to new home buyers.Or whatever else it is that people really care about.

  7. PC, I'm not disputing that one advantage of sprawl is that it can make housing cheaper. What I'm pointing out is that there are other factors involved that you've completely ignored. Sticking your head in the sand won't make those problems go away.

    "If almost everyone agrees sprawl is bad, why is it an issue?"

    Never heard of the Prisoner's Dilemma? Follow the link provided in my earlier comment about collective action problems. The problem arises when any individual can benefit themselves at a greater sum cost to everyone else. It might well be individually rational for each individual to move to the suburbs, even though it is worse for each of them when they all do so.

    Consider the simpler analogies of water shortages, overfishing, etc. It's prudentially rational for each individual fisherman to catch as many fish as they can. But then there are no fish left next season so they all starve. They all would have been better off to impose collective regulations which prevent anyone from overfishing, even themselves. It's an "I won't do it if you won't" kind of a deal. That's what we have with sprawl: we need a collective agreement to all do what is for our common good. Rational people would willingly submit to such an agreement if it's in their best interests, and indeed that's precisely what we're seeing in the UDS feedback.

    This demonstrates the fallacy in PC's assertion that the market "shows that people ~do~ overwhelmingly want sprawl". I suppose he thinks the fishermen all want to starve next season, too?

  8. Richard, you need to understand the Tragedy of the Commons -- which is what you describe in your overfishing, over-drinking story. Both the problems of the Tragedy of the Commons and of 'externalities' not being sheeted home are and historically have been solved by the recognition of property rights.

  9. I recognize that, which is why in my first comment I wrote: "The Libertarian Utopia might avoid some of these problems by privatizing roads, water, etc., but there's no chance of that happening in today's political climate. In light of reality, then: sprawl seems to be, all things considered, a bad thing."

  10. "[T]here's no chance of that happening in today's political climate."

    I recognise that, which is why intelligent libertarians understand we need to change the political climate. :-)

  11. People need to refer to "up" housing as "Parisian-style housing" and they will find that it makes a marked difference in getting it approved.

  12. PC, so we can at least agree that sprawl is bad in the meantime?

  13. Ideology at its worst.

  14. Reminds me of long ago and not true anyway's post on tax cuts.

    Ie presumably it depends on what you hve to do to prevent sprawl - in the same way it is a bit misleading to talk about tax cuts in isolation it is similarly misleading to talk about sprawl in isolation.

  15. Richard, you wrote above, "The Libertarian Utopia might avoid some of these problems by privatizing roads, water, etc.," but you oppose that happening. We're saying that all legitimate 'externalities' should be internalised; you're saying they shouldn't. Where exactly are the ideological blinkers here?

    In the hampered market in which we live, sprawl represents choice. As I've said before, the desire that people harbour to restrict that choice by means of local government intervention is a desire to use the government's power to put their desires -- to restrict sprawl -- over those of others, who are seeking the choice to live that way.

    Where exactly are the ideological blinkers there?

    Restricting the supply of land and the supply of houses adds to the cost of housing, pushing housing beyond the reach of many low-income people, or forcing both partners out to work to pay for their housing. As I've pointed out before, houses in cities that try to contain sprawl (including Christchurch) are AT LEAST twice as expensive in which to live as those cities that don't.

    Where then are the idoleological blinkers here, when the ideological commitment to contain sprawl is 1) making housing more expensive, 2) restricting choice, and 3)subsidising development? As you say, "ideology at its worst."

  16. If you read what I wrote above, I actually didn't take any position on the desirability or otherwise of radical libertarian reforms. I just pointed out that they weren't a realistic possibility for the near future. Thus, if we face reality, there are two major things to consider: (1) the benefits of sprawl; and (2) the costs (which aren't about to go away).

    You, on the other hand, have refused to even acknowledge that there are any costs associated with sprawl. I consider both sides, you consider just one. It seems pretty clear where the ideological blinkers are :p

    As for choice, I've already explained that the vast majority of Greater Christchurch residents prefer to restrict sprawl and instead have a cleaner environment, better public transport, etc.

    (I don't know where your third point came from. Can you explain how restricting sprawl is 'subsidising development'?)

    Finally, I must emphasize that my decision (and, I expect, that of my fellow residents) is based on straightforward utilitarian concerns. I (we) simply think that the benefits outlined in my post outweigh the possible cost of more expensive housing. Informed cost/benefit analysis is the very opposite of ideology.

    (For the record, I actually support water charges, road and carbon taxes, as means to internalizing the appropriate costs. I'm wary of full-scale privatization because granting individuals arbitrary power over crucial infrastructure could be detrimental to the substantive freedom of others. Again, my position is grounded on reasons, not ideology. But it's a whole 'nother debate, which I won't get into here.)

  17. This was a question on another forum:

    "I'm involved with Habitat For Humanity which is a charity which helps families to build low-cost affordable houses.

    House construction in Australia and even parts of the USA is cheaper than here. I don't get it. Why?

    People I've asked talk vaguely about different construction methods and regulations but I can't see the Aussies or Americans accepting houses falling to pieces around them. In fact a builder friend can't believe the low cost in Australia either.

    Anybody know?"

    Don't pretend you support the "common man" Richard. You do not.

  18. *clutches heart and collapses theatrically*

    (Or did I? Better ask Ruth, she clearly knows me better than I do...)

  19. Time for me to side with Richard. Allow me to recommend my own web site, Critiques Of Libertarianism, as a resource when arguing with libertarians (and many other conservatives: the overlap in arguments is very broad.)

    The relevant article is:


    PC seems to have a very limited view of the Tragedy Of The Commons. There are two solutions. The first is private property rights. But why wouldn't such an obvious answer have already been taken, if there wasn't some major market failure? The second is the solution that has almost always been taken, and generally works pretty well: a REGULATED COMMONS. Garret Hardin himself wished he had titled his work "The Tragedy Of The Unregulated Commons", to protect us from misinterpretations like those of PC.

    Here's the scoop on regulated commons:
    Efficiency, Sustainability, and Access Under Alternative Property-Rights Regimes
    Elinor Ostrom provides a broad introduction to and overview of the factors that make some managed commons successful and more practical than private property. Essential reading.

    Now I know it's unfair to introduce highly-regarded academic work into an ideological argument, but that's just the kind of guy I want to be. :-)

  20. An article that starts with "by the way we are disagreeing with the literature" is immediately a little suspect for use as proof of something (although it might be good reading)
    The impression that I am left with however is that zoning is an inferior method of achieving what other methods could achieve (rather like the no interest on student loans scheme...) It may help certain types of property to cluster (which is a god thing generally) but politicians pre-defining the areas is unlikely to be the best way to do that.

    The Auckland city council for example has/had a problem with English schools. They are spread out all around town and thereby reduce the ability to provide student specific services and to protect local shop owners from having large amounts of students milling in front of their stores etc.
    The problem is zoning a little student area is far too arbitrary infexible etc. What you need is an education business group with city council representation etc maybe preferential rates if busineses move to different areas and possibly some interration with the main street programmes.

  21. geniusNZ: Perhaps you're unaware of the trends in the US, but there is a huge subsidization of neoliberal academic research by the right wing in the US, that pollutes academia with ideologically useful but academically iffy papers. Especially in economics, where you get absurdities like rational choice theory that are incapable of explaining the fact that people vote.

    This paper explains (too politely) why the viewpont of the existing literature opposing zoning is too limited to be valid. This is a common criticism of many economic ideas.

    Zoning may be a second-best solution for a problem, but it is adopted because there is no applicable first-best solution such as markets. For all your complaints, you don't seem to have an alternative that would be better. Your "education business group" idea is too vague, and of course ignores the interests of the students and their families who may value local schools.

  22. Mike,

    I would be surprised if journals like this were right leaning and non interventionist.

    And... a quick overview of the journal of land use and environmental law seems to support this theory with the articles appearing to be to the left of centre in as far as one can apply such labels to such works.

    The journals he cites on the other hand may not be
    The University of Chicago Law Review at a glance the article titles appear some left some right maybe more right to my eyes. This may be a result of this one being a law journal as opposed to a public policy journal (and that I only saw the titles and not ht text) - but at least I am dubious about the implication that the right has bought academia - and that it is academia's old biases that are doing almost all the work.

    Anyway from another perspective try the literature on tax cuts and economic growth which despite being an even more important thing to big business has literature which comes up with the obvious answer "it depends on what you cut the spending" see

    And in this case it is the right that must apologize for not agreeing with the literature.

    "Padovani and Galli claim to have found a correlation between lower marginal tax rates and higher economic growth. In doing so, they note that they are at odds with almost all other empirical studies on the topic of taxes and growth"

    Maybe right leaning forces dominate on this particular issue, but I think you can hardly take it for granted that that is the reason for the literature leaning a certain way as much as people who lean the opposite direction would like to think.

    (Having said that, I think I can identify certain areas of academia where it is flat out wrong and for political reasons it doesn't address the fact - not that it means much but those happen to be left leaning areas).

    As to the zoning alternative Zonings problem is that it is not vague enough - you draw lines in the sand and declare what people can do within those lines. I probably would not instantaneously reject zoning (if I was elected universal despot) but it is such a blunt instrument it seems ridiculous to suggest there is no potential to improve it even if the final answer still includes some degree of zoning.

    Anyway, surely for a business district a business grouping would generally be a superior and more flexible decision making body than some historic politician (although that might not be true for residents) and even bettter one that pays for itself!

    Anyway the education institutions I refer to are English schools for foreign students generally in the inner city. If they located outside the city they would not cause the problems mentioned but that would of course make them less convenient to the students who to a large extent live in the city. Anyway in this case zoning stands in the way of having local English schools (i.e. you presumably can't just put one in a rich suburb).

    By the way I am an interventionist - I just think zoning sounds like a 2nd best sort of intervention.

    --> If you want to know where I stand politically
    For context.

  23. Courts are blunt instruments. Legislatures are blunt instruments. Police and armies are blunt instruments. Democratic elections are blunt instruments. Any political activity is blunt. Yet it is from blunt instruments such as hammers and anvils that nails, plows, and sharp swords are forged. Likewise, capitalism. liberal government, civil liberties, and happiness are forged from these.

    Blunt instruments can be wielded with great responsiveness and delicacy, as any blacksmith can demonstrate. So too with properly operating social instruments such as legislatures, courts, zoning boards, etc.

    Blunt instruments also are less terrifying because their actions are fewer, more understandable, predictable, and controlable. Would you rather face one person with a club or many with knives? I'd rather my civil government was kind of slow and broadly observable, rather than frighteningly quick and specific.

    There is a huge funding of academic work in the US by extreme right foundations. U of Chicago is a private university and receives much such funding, Georgetown U likewise. Examples of academic corruption include the "standard interpretation" of the US second ammendment ("right to bear arms").

  24. Mike,

    Yes that sort of bias regardng things like the interpretation of the constitution or the bible are particularly vulnerable - personally I see such things as a bit silly, if the constitution suports the right to bear arms it is just wrong.
    Still I have been confronted by the argument, "if you take my gun away from me you make me a killer" which really was a bit scary.

    As to blunt instruments I personally want my government to be powerful, quick, efficient and precise (to get the far right all excited - disarming the people helps here of course). This is probably the antithesis of what the average american wants but I think it will be what the future holds regardless. (cant find the link but you know the argument - governments grow bigger and more precise as technology develops)

    As to its merits I expect we have very different assumptions.

  25. Hey, let's not get all lovey-agreeable disgusting! :-)

    But "powerful, quick, efficient and precise": why would you think you can get all of those at once? We don't get that with anything, let alone government. You always have to trade off something.


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