Statist Sprawl?

I’d like to agree with Austin Bramwell that suburban sprawl is the fault of government, but for the most part, it’s just not true. Moreover, when government does subsidize urban decay and unsightly subdivisions, it does so in ways that Austin doesn’t consider. I imagine my friend reaches his false conclusions mainly due to the fact that he lives in the national anomaly that is New York City.

Austin’s argument goes like this:

For the 101st time: sprawl -- an umbrella term for the pattern of development seen virtually everywhere in the United States -- is not caused by the free market. It is, rather, mandated by a vast and seemingly intractable network of government regulations, from zoning laws and building codes to street design regulations.

If [John] Stossel wants to expand Americans’ lifestyle choices, he should attack the very thing he was defending, namely, suburban sprawl. It’s odd that self-described libertarians such as Stossel are so slow to grasp that government planning makes sprawl ubiquitous.

Austin assumes that most Americans want to live in an urban environment (or at least get out of the ‘burbs), but can’t due to pesky commercial codes. Government, in effect, creates an unnatural shortage and thus makes urban living too expensive.

If Austin’s right, then Houston, Texas, should be a hotbed of new urbanism -- for its people are totally unencumbered by “restrictive commercial codes”; Houston, indeed, actually has no zoning ordinances whatsoever. But as we know, Houston is sprawling, more so than most cities.

And outside Manhattan, there’s actually plenty of residential living space available in downtowns. Go try and rent a apartment in the heart of Houston, you’ll easily find

tons of chic apartments

that rent for under $1000 a month. When I was a graduate student at Duke, it took me no time at all to find a condominium in a converted tobacco warehouse that was livable and pleasant. And with its 10-foot high ceilings, wood floors, and large windows overlooking the old Durham Bulls baseball stadium, it was made of the “industrial,” “authentic” Stuff White People Like.

How was a 27-year with a modest net worth able to make a down payment on such a pad? Well, the place wasn’t very expensive. Very few people actually want to live in downtown Durham, mainly because they don’t want get caught in a gang fight or have their children experience the


of Durham’s public school system. Virtually all of the nice people living in my apartment building were under 30, retired or empty nesters, gay, or childless yuppies and professor types.

This situation in Durham repeats itself around the country. There is a national surplus of urban housing, especially now in places like Chicago, Pittsburg, and Durham as America is (sadly) de-industrialized and former manufacturing concerns are converted into Yuppie paradises.

“White flight” from the cities coincides with urban rioting, the ‘70s crime wave, the deterioration of public schools, and explosion in the cost of private education,


with the implementation of new zoning codes.

Sprawl is created by government, in the sense that it's government schools and government welfare recipients that people are running away from. But this isn’t what Austin is arguing. My guess is that the kind of tinkering with population density that people like Matthew Yglesias


would have an effect that‘d be, at most, trivial.

Suburban sprawl is also impossible without the automobile and cheap gas -- neither of which are exactly welfare line items. A vast array of roads is also indispensable, though I doubt Austin would want to argue that the federal highway system should be dismantled. Moreover, even if we were able to actualize Walter Block’s

dream of private roads

across the country, I’m not sure that we’d have less suburbs or that they wouldn’t look any less “homogenized” than they do now.

A factor that drives up demand for suburban homes that is


more significant than zoning is the availability of easy credit over the past quarter century. FDR got the ball rolling with government backed mortgages; Bill Clinton and George W. Bush turned it into a science. And after a bubble in housing, Virginia Tech researchers


that there’s a surplus of 22 million “large-lot homes” (also known as McMansions) around the country. The strip malls, which Austin also laments, followed right along, with a bubble in commercial real-estate that rivaled that of subprime. In my view, a lot of the financing behind all this is about to explode, and I expect great tracts of “ghost malls” blighting the countryside, but this won’t necessarily mean that more people move to the big city. Indeed, I expect a growth in gated communities, for a variety of factors.

Though I generally advocate “laissez-faire,” I’d be remiss not to mention that a certain kind of statism has greatly increased the allure of the great cities. The beautiful Brownstones of New York might be the product of the free market, but wonders likes Central Park (and similarly stunning Prospect Park in Brooklyn) are definitely not -- they were public works begun back in the time when the administrations and mayors were more interested in making the city beautiful than increasing the entitlements gravy train. Munich, which lacks the kind of underclass one finds in New York, was able to spend lavishly on an up-to-date, non-urine-smelling public transportation, beautiful English Gardens, opera al fresco and more.

This being said, I’d defend the ‘burbs against a lot of what Austin has to say. I sympathize with families who want to have a house with a yard for a dog and want to live near a school where their kids won’t get shot. Society is an organism: much as plants will bend to reach light, society will adjust and mutate in order to survive and flourish. The key to this is what Steve Sailer calls “

affordable family formation

.” And certainly one reason European Americans have been able to raise children in contemporary America has been their ability to escape its big cities.

A lot of sprawl is cooky-cutter and ugly, and maybe even a little stifling, but this has little to do with commercial zoning and "statism" and a lot to do with the saddening lack of imagination, taste, and charm in our contemporary culture.

And let’s not forget what real government housing looks like...