On Political Books

March/April 2011 Metropolis on a Hill

Why urban America, once written off, has come back.

By Matthew Yglesias

But while Glaeser’s overall thesis is compelling, his affection for tweaking liberals sometimes leads to questionable emphasis. Yes, historic preservation and environmental impact review can limit density. But they can also make cities more appealing and livable, and hence more attractive to employers and highly educated workers, which leads to economic growth that benefits everyone. Moreover, preservation and environmental review in America’s central cities are hardly the main barriers to a denser country. Consider the D.C. area. To accommodate 600,000 additional people, the city of Washington, D.C., which is relatively small and already fairly compact, would need more than 4,300 more people per square mile, nearly a 50 percent increase in population density. By contrast, increasing the population density of adjoining Montgomery County, Maryland, up to the level of nearby Fairfax County, Virginia, would achieve the same thing. Suburban jurisdictions are big, and small differences in policy there can have a huge impact.

Glaeser’s emphasis on preservation and environmental reviews also distracts attention from other measures that, in the vast majority of jurisdictions, are far more important in keeping densities low: minimum lot occupancy rules, bans on multifamily structures, mandated parking minimums, and so on all conspire to prevent efficient use of space. The argument that curtailing density is bad for the economy and the environment and tends to turn our most desirable locations into exclusive preserves of the rich may be persuasive; what is less clear is whether it’s in any particular jurisdiction’s interest to change.

Glaeser bemoans the fact that central Paris has become unaffordable to the nonwealthy, but it’s a situation that suits the wealthy just fine. Similarly, incumbent property owners in Manhattan—especially those who bought low in the late 1970s or early ’80s—benefit mightily from curbs on new construction. Glaeser seems at times to assume that failure to understand the issues properly is leading to bad policy, but the real issue seems to me more likely to be bad incentives and bad institutions. A mayor might well come away from this book more convinced than ever that regulatory measures that limit density and make his town unaffordable to the poor are good ideas. Suburbs, in particular, do well by offloading the challenge of poverty to adjacent areas. A central challenge is for federal policymakers to do a better job of using the leverage at their disposal—primarily money—to drive change. Washington is awash in proposals for one or another form of a national infrastructure bank, and the federal transportation bill is overdue for reauthorization. Either would be a good opportunity to tie federal money to local policy shifts that facilitate both density and affordability.

If you are interested in purchasing this book, we have included a link for your convenience.

Matthew Yglesias is a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.


  • David Freund on May 24, 2011 9:23 AM:

    Glaeser appears to be very creative with the history of cities! Just one example: "over the past forty years, we've experienced a little-remarked revolution in property rights in America," [shifting a paradigm where] "people could essentially do what they wanted with their own property to a system where neighbors have enormous power to restrict growth and change."

    That is not true. Throughout the 20th century, most property owners--especially white and middle class--had considerable power to shape local development patterns. They secured this power through a combination of 1) violence, local political influence, and real estate "steering"; 2) the creation of home-rule municipalities (usually suburban) that afforded the power to zone; and 3) heavy reliance upon a federally-subsidized mortgage market that discriminated (against minorities, renters, single women) systematically.

    Those same strategies, coupled with private/public collaboration (municpal and federal) that decimated urban neighborhoods, set the stage for the post-1970s urban "comeback." And that comeback has been driven, again, as much by preferentially public policies (tax incentives, selective urban policing, "right to work" environments) as it has been by the entrepreneurial energies unleashed by cities' very real advantages.

    Counter to the dominant narrative, cities do not change--and have never changed--simply because market forces prefer a crowd.