Judge Glock's spiel on urban affairs and urban history
Thursday, May 13, 2010
Review: Laws of the Landscape
Laws of the Landscape: How Politics Shape Cities in Europe and America by Pietro S. Nivola (1999)
I was initially suspicious because this book comes out of the Brookings Metro series, which tends to be dominated by "smart growth" anti-sprawlers, and I thought this might be a typical tome about how Europe's far-sighted planning laws should be implemented in the US. Thankfully, the book is balanced and informative, and it manages to cover its broad topic succinctly and cogently.
The author begins by pointing out the many non-political reasons that the US is more "sprawling" than Europe. One simple explanation is population growth: from 1950 to 1996 the US added 115 million people, which amounted to a 74% increase. European countries like the UK only grew by 15 or so percent over the same period. New households everywhere tended to be accommodated in the purlieus, the US just had a heck of a lot more of them, hence more sprawl. The United States' consistently higher birthrate means we also have significantly more families with young children (about 22% of families versus 15% in European countries, and those American families with children tend to be larger). These families tend to prefer larger suburban homes, and again more sprawl.
Nivola also mentions an important though understudied phenomena that helps explain American suburban growth. Although both sides of the Atlantic received many external immigrants (still, in 2000 the US had more immigrants than all of Western Europe and Japan combined), the US had a lot more internal migration inside the country than Europe as a while. In the 1980s 380,000 US citizens a year moved to the South, and 130,000 moved to West. Migration across the EU, with its social and language barriers, just can't compare. And just like new families in old cities, these migrant families tended to have their new houses built in greenfields, thus further amplifying population growth sprawl.
Perhaps most importantly, Americans have long had more cars than Europeans, and thus more suburbs, for the simple reason that they were much richer. Even back in the 1920s, 30 years before the Interstate Highway Act or other purported "government-subsidized" auto programs, 56% American families already owned a car. Many European countries wouldn't reach that level of auto ownership until the 1960s or even 70s.
There are also simple environmental explanations for our scattered metropolises. For most of the twentieth century we had cheaper, home-grown energy than Europe, which had to import most of its oil and gas (Nivola doesn't mention it but in the 1950s the United States produced 60% of the world's oil, over 5 times Saudi Arabia's proportionate production today). We also had much more land, and less concerns about crowding and concentration. Given all these facts, it would be shocking indeed if America wasn't much less dense than Europe (for example, our cities are about 1/4 the density of Germany's).
Still, Nivola examines the usual political bugaboos, like the highway trust fund and gas taxes, that purportedly make the US even less dense, but he is mainly agnostic as to whether or not these are a "bad" things. He seems to view sprawl itself as something of an inherent social bad, but he also seems to recognize that most of it comes out of free market choices, and that many European anti-sprawl regulations may do more harm than good. For instance, the European farm subsidy per hectacre is over 10x that of the US's (the Japanese level is 183x the US's!), and no economist defends that, but that subsidy certainly has a tangential effect of depressing residential housing growth. Another unfortunate reason for European compactness is their seriously anti-competitive retail regulations, which punish larger stores with bigger workforces by requiring them to have limited operating hours and more labor regulations. The result is small, local stores, but with shorter hours and higher prices.
The author's solutions for some of America's sprawl problems are eminently reasonable and would probably garner the consent of almost every economist, focusing as they do mainly on the problems that bedevil the inner city and drive out residents, rather than the qualities that attract families into the suburbs. He demands the real reform of the unfunded federal mandates that burden large local governments (the 1995 Unfunded Mandate Reform Act did no such thing), a program to improve schools in the inner city by limiting the power of teachers' unions, a reform to the US litigation bonanza that burdens smaller businesses that are less able to defend themselves, and better policing to fight inner city crime. One of his proposals, equalizing the tax deduction of employer-provided parking and transit (he cites a maximum of $170 a month for parking and $65 for transit) has actually been gradually implemented over the years until the 2008 Stimulus bill finally equalized them at $230 a month. Charter schools and Quality-of-Life policing are also helping to further some of his other reform proposals as we speak.
So overall this is a solid discussion of a topic that tends to engender more passionate screeds than empirical reflections. For that we should be grateful.