New York Inspired Thoughts on City Planning

I really can't stand to be in New York City for very long.  The crowds, the hassles and the lines all conspire to drive me crazy.  Every second I feel like I am packed around by more people, and I find it horribly claustrophobic.

If your immediate reaction to this statement is to feel like I am attacking you or your lifestyle, you are wrong.  My purpose is not to say that those who love it here in NYC are making an incorrect choice, for they are not.  If they derive energy from the people and the density and all the amenities that density can justify, great.  It is in fact an interesting (and depressing) feature of modern discourse that my saying that I don't personally choose a certain lifestyle is found as threatening to people who do.  Why should it?  My only answer is that this zero-sum statist society of activists has created the expectation that the next step of anyone who expresses a negative preference for something will be to run to the government to get it banned.

The reason I bring my preference up at all is that the vast majority of city planners get a huge hard-on for New York.  Their goal is to turn the world into Manhattan.  They wish to maximize densities and minimize personal automobile use and, well, backyards.  In other words, a bunch of folks who have the ear of the government wish to use the coercive power of the government to turn the world into something I can't live in.  Again, I have no problem with New Yorkers having New York, but why does Scottsdale have to be New York too?

By the way, on a quasi-related topic, the Anti-Planner has an interesting observation:  Supposed gains in sustainability in high-density urban areas have more to do with making everyone poor than with the density  (emphasis added):

Many planning advocates take it for granted that sprawl and auto driving are inherently unsustainable. McShane shows
just how this attitude can go when he describes Halle Neustadt, which
some Swedish urban planners once described as "the most sustainable
city in the world."

McShane here refers to some field work
done by the Antiplanner. To make a long story short, what made Halle
Neustadt "sustainable" was poverty
, and as soon its residents gained
some wealth, many of them moved out and most of the rest bought
automobiles, turning the cities many greenspaces into parking lots.

Owen then turns to climate change, which he describes as the last gasp
of smart growth. Smart growth, he notes, "has always been a policy in
search of a justification, a solution in search of a problem." Now, in
climate change, smart-growth advocates hope they have found such a

One difficulty, McShane notes, is that there is no guarantee that
smart growth is really more greenhouse-friendly than ordinary sprawl.
Depending on load factors, Diesel trains can emit more greenhouse gases
per passenger mile than autos, and concrete-and-steel high-rise condos
can emit more CO2 than wood homes.

McShane refers in particular to an Australian study
that found that "place doesn't matter," that is, low densities were not
particularly greenhouse unfriendly. Instead, income was much more
important, meaning that the high-rollers living in million-dollar
downtown condos were generating far more greenhouse gases than
moderate-income suburbanites

Which implies that the "solution" to sustainability (whatever that is) and CO2 emissions is to promote poverty.  That may seem like a tongue-in-cheek exaggeration, but in fact the latest IPCC warning on climate relies heavily on the work of Nicholas Stern, who says the solution to global warming is to make western income levels look more like those in India (emphasis added):

Mr Stern, the former chief economist of the World Bank, sends out a
very clear message: "We need to cut down the total amount of carbon
emissions by half by 2050." At current levels, the per capita global
emissions stand at 7 tonnes, or a total of 40-45 gigatonnes. At this
rate, global temperatures could rise by 2.5-3 degrees by then. But to
reduce the per capita emissions by half in 2050, most countries would
have to be carbon neutral. For instance, the US currently has, at 20-25
tonnes, per capita emissions levels that are three times the global

The European Union's emission levels stand at 10-15
tonnes per capita. China is at about 3-4 tonnes per capita and India,
at 1 tonne per capita, is the only large-sized economy that is below
the desired carbon emission levels of 2050. "India should keep it that way and insist that the rich countries pay their share of the burden in reducing emissions," says Mr Stern.

Translation: India should stay poor and the West should become that way.


  1. Allen:

    I can't wait fro some of these folks to take on the "upcoming cancer epidemic". They'll have us using doctor-assisted suicide by the age of 40 to ensure that cancer is not longer the killer it was.

  2. Dave:

    I'm a lifelong New Yorker and do not understand the desire of people to live in either suburbia or rural sprawl.

    That said I have no desire to inflict upon you, or any other confused person, city life.

    I am no environmentalist. But I do wonder about the extent to which our involvement in the Middle East is a function of Eisenhower's push to create a national highway system, from which suburbia was spawned.

    The obvious riposte to an argument such as this is that the national highway system has, indirectly, created billions in wealth for millions of people: Home Depot and Wal Mart, among others, could not exist without the advanced transportation networks that Eisenhower's project foisted upon America.

  3. Joseph Hertzlinger:

    There are two schools of land-use planning: "reduce sprawl" and "reduce congestion." In practice, those turn into "stop building in low-density areas" and "stop building in high-density areas," respectively.

    Sometimes the two sides compromise on stopping all construction. The resulting housing shortage is blamed on greedy landlords and is used as an excuse for more regulations.

  4. David B:

    I do think that there are advantages to encouraging density where it's easy to put things like rail lines - that at least gives folks who are there the option of not driving to the rest of a region.

    Some of the suburban neighborhoods in the DC area are rail or bus-friendly, but others are not - to get from downtown DC to Kemp Mill, in Silver Spring, for instance, it's rail to bus to walk 1 mile. That's not a serious option for most people, and certainly it wouldn't work for going shopping. So that neighborhood ends up being entirely car-based, and it's a bedroom community for DC. I know a bunch of folks who live there, and many are not happy about the lack of transit options, and there are universal complaints about the length and quality of the commutes - but what's the option?

    If the Montgomery county planning folks had been a little more on the ball, they could have set up more effective bus service, or could have nudged the neighborhood a little bit closer toward the rail lines, or build some mondo garages at the rail stations, etc etc etc.

  5. CRC:

    "But I do wonder about the extent to which our involvement in the Middle East is a function of Eisenhower's push to create a national highway system, from which suburbia was spawned."

    I think this is a wonderful example of the irony that any "let's use big government programs to solve a problem" folks should keep in mind, especially the global warming/climate change folks.

    The national highway system has, in fact, enabled the sprawl by reducing the cost (or at least the perceived cost) of transportation and automobile ownership (to the individual) compared to what it might have been had the government not built a "free" highway system. If automobiles are a chief source of CO2 and the number of cars and miles driven can be directly traced back to this big government project, then this is a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences.

    My own speculation is that if Ike hadn't launched this program, there likely would be far fewer roads and highways across the country. Longer distance travel would have been more cumbersome, time consuming an expensive. The incentive to own a car would have been diminished (not eliminated). People would likely have owned fewer cars (and driven them less). Having fewer cars might have reduced the amount of suburban sprawl. But these are all simply speculations. It's no doubt things would have developed differently, if only just more slowly. The sprawl may still have occurred for different reasons. The collective choices people make are complex and widely varied.

    But don't get me wrong, there may very well be grand benefits from this program. Even benefits that outweigh the costs. This would be very difficult to calculate in either direction at this point. My point is simply that sometimes when you fail to let the free-market solve problems and, instead, solve them by government fiat/force/edict, you may have much bigger (negative) consequences than ever considered. This could be an example.

  6. la petite chou chou:

    I loathe "urban sprawl." I think more cities should have affordable high rise apartments but I don't think any do. Portland sure doesn't. (Of course, the question is "affordable to whom?" The natural answer is "those who make the median income at least, sheesh. There's plenty of housing for those on either end of that.")

    NYC is fantastic. I love to live there but I can also see why some people wouldn't. It is sort of weird to be stuck on wanting all cities to look or work that way but I do think there are a lot of pro's that can be used to improve other places.

  7. M1EK:

    In reality, the statist intervention in favor of suburbia dominates that in favor of urbia by many orders of magnitude. Consider in Scottsdale how many lots have restrictions which enforce a maximum density and/or height, minimum setback, minimum parking, etc. Now consider how many lots have restrictions which say "you must build at least this high, with at least this number of units, with no more than N parking spaces per unit, and you can't be set back any more than X feet from the street".

    Self-identified libertarians who fall into this trap are the most odious sort. The fact of the matter is that in 99% of lots in this country, we enforce suburban development - the only force being applied is that which leads to YOUR preferred lifestyle, not that of the Manhattanites. (Even in Manhattan!)