Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Edward Glaeser - Free-Market Economist Posing as Urbanist

Edward Glaeser, Harvard professor and author of The Triumph of the City, has become a favorite of some smart-growth advocates because of his strong support for high-rises - but they don't know that Glaeser supports sprawl for the same reason, because he believes that unleashing the market to increase the supply of housing will keep down the cost of housing.

In a recent article in City Journal, Glaeser wrote:
"To understand the power of unfettered supply to promote affordability, compare Republican Texas with Democratic Massachusetts. Bay State leaders constantly proclaim their passion for providing affordable housing for the poor. Yet Massachusetts remains one of the least affordable states in the nation for housing because its suffocating regulations restrict building, shoving up prices. By contrast, Texans, who rarely talk about affordable housing, enjoy lots of it (see “The Texas Growth Machine”). Texas’s housing affordability isn’t the result of any top-down government program; it reflects the might of the free market and the Texan aversion to regulation."
He made his support of sprawl even clearer in a scholarly paper he co-authored, named "Sprawl and Urban Growth," which says in its abstract:
"Sprawl has been associated with significant improvements in quality of living, and the environmental impacts of sprawl have been offset by technological change. Finally, we suggest that the primary social problem associated with sprawl is the fact that some people are left behind because they do not earn enough to afford the cars that this form of living requires."
Do we really want to deregulate urban growth, Texas style, as Glaeser suggests? We might be able to make housing more affordable by building cities like Houston and Dallas instead of cities like Boston, but it would be at the expense of paving over open land, of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and of living in ugly, boring cities.

And there is also a considerable expense to the city's residents, who pay less for housing but pay much more for transportation.  It is ironic that Glaeser advocates sprawl to make housing more affordable, but he adds (without seeing the obvious contradiction) that "some people are left behind because they do not earn enough to afford the cars that this form of living requires."

Glaeser's thinks about urbanism like a free-market economist who knows one thing: you can reduce the price of a commodity by increasing its supply.  He knows little and cares less about urban design or about quality of life.

He proved how little he knows about urban design when he misrepresented one of the most important texts about urban planning, Jane Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities, in an article in the New York Times, where he wrote:
"Her [Jacobs'] preferred density level seems to have been about 150 housing units per net acre, which means six-story buildings if units average 1,600 square feet. Six stories also seems to be the maximum height that people are willing to walk up regularly, which may explain why it is the norm in many older pre-elevator areas. Now I don’t have anything against Greenwich Village or six-story buildings, but the perspective of the economist pushes strongly against any attempt to postulate or, far worse, regulate a single perfect density."
This is a blatant misrepresentation of Jane Jacobs, who said very clearly that she prefers the neighborhoods with the maximum density that is possible without eliminating diversity of building types. She preferred neighborhoods with buildings that are a mix of different building ages and types, including high-rise elevator buildings. She liked Greenwich Village because it had a mix of new high-rise buildings with its older buildings, not because it had no buildings over 6 stories.

She objected to high densities only when they were so high that they required standardization. In other words, she did not object to high-rises, but she did object to neighborhoods that were made up exclusively of high-rises.

Here are some quotations from Jane Jacobs that make this point (with page numbers referring to the 1963 Vintage edition paperback of The Death and Life of Great American Cities):
"How high 'should' city dwelling densities go? ... Obviously, if the object is vital city life, the dwelling densities should go as high as they need to go to stimulate the maximum potential diversity of of a district. ... densities can get too high if they reach a point at which, for any reason, they begin to repress diversity instead of to stimulate it. ... The reason building dwelling densities can begin repressing diversity is this: At some point, to accommodate so many dwellings on the land, standardization of the buildings must set in." p. 212 [Note that she puts "should" in quotation marks.]
"At any particular place and time...some particular way of packing dwellings onto the land is apt to be the most efficient way. At some places and times, for example, narrow three-story row houses were apparently the answer for maximum efficiency at getting city dwellings onto the land. Where these crowded out all other dwelling types, they created a pall of monotony." p. 213
"Elevator apartments are today the most efficient way of packing dwellings on a given amount of building land. And within this type are certain most efficient subtypes, such as those of maximum height economic height for low-speed elevators, usually considered today as twelve stories, and those of maximum height for pouring reinforced concrete (... twenty-two stories). p.213
"Elevator apartments do not produce standardization by virtue of being elevator apartments, any more than three-story houses produce standardization by virtue of being three-story houses. But elevator buildings produce standardization when they are almost the only way a neighborhood is housed - just as three-story houses produce standardization when they are almost the only way a neigbhorhood is housed." p. 214
"Popular high-density city areas have considerable variation among their buildings.... Greenwich Village is such a place. it manages to house people at densities ranging from 125 to above 200 dwelling units per acre, without standardization of buildings. These averages are obtained from mixtures of everything from single-family houses .... on up to elevator buildings of many different ages and sizes." p. 214.
"just how high can a neighborhood's densities go without sacrificing the neighborhood to standardization?" p. 216
"I doubt that it is possible, without drastic standardization, to go higher than the North End's density of 275 dwelling units per net acre. For most districts - lacking the North End's particular and long heritage of different building types - the ultimate danger mark imposing standardization must be considerably lower; I should guess, roughly, that it is apt to hover at about 200 dwelling units to the acre." p. 217 [Note that this maximum is not the density of 150 units per acre that Glaeser says she prefers because it is common in older neighborhoods without elevator buildings; it is the density of neighborhoods that have a mix of high-rise elevator buildings added to the older buildings, and it is almost twice as high as the density that Glaeser says she prefers.]
I myself admire most of what Jacobs wrote about cities, but I disagree with her on this point. I think you get the best urban design with height limits of about six stories for fabric buildings, like traditional European cities.

But whether you agree or disagree with a writer, you should begin by getting the facts right about the writer you are discussing, and Glaeser clearly does not get the facts right. The quotations above shows that Glaeser is totally wrong to say that Jacobs is against high-rises and prefers neighborhoods made up of one building type, six-story buildings.

This ignorance of one of the foundational texts of contemporary city planning proves that Glaeser is not an urbanist.

Imagine that someone wrote an opinion piece about economics which said that Adam Smith was wrong to believe that government should set prices.  Anyone who knows anything about economics knows that Adam Smith believed that the market should set prices.  If someone made the obvious blunder of saying Smith believed the government should set prices, no one would ever take seriously anything that he wrote about economics.

Likewise, after Glaeser made the obvious blunder of saying Jane Jacobs believes in a six-story height limit, no one should ever take seriously anything that he writes about urban design.


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