A few weeks ago, Randall O’Toole (a leading anti-anti-sprawl commentator) and Matthew Yglesias (a Washington-based pundit who primarily writes about politics, but occasionally veers off into planning issues) had an interesting discussion about the extent to which sprawl is a result of land use regulation.(1)
A few weeks ago, Randall O'Toole (a leading anti-anti-sprawl commentator) and Matthew
Yglesias (a Washington-based pundit who primarily writes about politics, but occasionally veers off into planning issues) had an
interesting discussion about the extent to which sprawl is a result of
O'Toole argued that zoning does not play a major
creating sprawl because historically, zoning "was used almost
areas that were already developed. Those original zones merely
development that was already there. Single-family neighborhoods were
single-family homes; apartments for multi-family; industrial for
so forth." By contrast, zoning in undeveloped
areas is more flexible; O'Toole writes that if a developer asks a city
county to rezone for more dense development, the government usually
In other words: if you want to
the middle of nowhere, you can build what you like- even if you want to build something other than conventional sprawl.
But O'Toole's point is
with the possibility that if you want to build anywhere near any
neighborhood, you risk running into a brick wall of zoning regulation designed to limit density and cater to "not in my backyard" (NIMBY) hostility to new development.
This difference between developed and undeveloped areas restricts compact development more than it restricts sprawl. Here's why: if you want to build a walkable
you're probably going to want to build in a desirable intown or
neighborhood, close to public transit.
After all, people who value walking to the nearest store are probably
likely to value proximity to transit than people who are just as happy
everywhere. So the dominant zoning system means that a landowner can build compact development- but not always where such development is most desirable, i.e. in areas near public transit (which tend to be older, established, heavily-zoned neighborhoods).
The restrictiveness of zoning laws
areas affects the location of development as well as its form: it increases the likelihood that
developers will prefer to build in the least developed
areas in order to avoid NIMBY objections and zoning restrictions that cater to NIMBYism.
O'Toole cites the Maricopa County, Arizona zoning code
as an example of developer-friendly zoning. The Maricopa code contains a provision for Planned Area of Development (PAD) districts,(2) which can be more compact than other
neighborhoods. But a developer still has to apply to get a parcel
PAD (3). Where do you think a PAD
application is more likely to be approved- in an inner suburb cheek by jowl with existing neighborhoods, or at the edge of
county dozens of miles away? Common sense suggests the latter.
My suspicion is not just a hunch.
In 2001, the Urban Land Institute surveyed
developers, asking them whether they would build more compactly
government regulation was less restrictive.
About 80% of developers responded that they would build more
in inner suburbs if government regulation was more permissive, as
opposed to less than 40% in rural areas.(4) In
other words, developers themselves believe that government regulation limits development in cities and inner suburbs.
In sum, even jurisdictions that are quite permissive towards "greenfield" development may be less permissive towards infill. This bias enourages developers to build in semirural suburbs, and is especially likely to reduce compact development.
(1) O'Toole's points are made at http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/2010/03/18/a-libertarian-view-of-urban-sprawl/
; For Yglesias' post go to
(4) Jonathan Levine, Zoned Out 131(2006). Cities and outer suburbs ranked between those extremes.
Indiana Once Again Considering Ban on Dedicated Transit Lanes
The proposed legislation would impact the construction of planned IndyGo Blue Line, the third phase of the city’s bus rapid transit system.
LA Freeway Ramp ‘Quietly Canceled’
A 2018 lawsuit forced Metro and Caltrans to do full environmental reviews of the project, leading to its cancellation.
LA’s ‘Spongy’ Infrastructure Captured Almost 9 Billion Gallons of Water
The city is turning away from stormwater management practices that shuttle water to the ocean, building infrastructure that collects and directs it underground instead.
Micromobility Operators Call for Better Links to Transit
For shared mobility to succeed, systems must tap into the connectivity and funding potential offered by closer collaboration with public transit.
Retaining Transit Workers Is About More Than Wages
An analysis of California transit employees found a high rate of burnout among operators who face unpredictable work schedules, high housing costs, and occasional violence.
California's Stormwater Potential
A new study reveals that if California could collect and treat more stormwater in cities, it could provide enough water to supply a quarter of the state’s urban population.
Tufts University Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning
City of Grand Forks, North Dakota
City of Birmingham, Alabama
City of Laramie, Wyoming
Colorado Department of Local Affairs
This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.