Thursday, September 22, 2016

Adam Gopnik Is Wrong About Jane Jacobs - And About Our Cities

There is a lengthy article about Jane Jacobs in the current New Yorker, written by their regular contributor Adam Gopnik, which distorts what Jacobs said and which shows real ignorance about what we need to do to improve our cities.

Gopnik’s main point is that Jacobs relied on the market to produce diverse, intricate neighborhoods and she looked down on planners such as Ed Logue, who built large-scale urban developments such as New York’s Roosevelt Island. But, Gopnik says, now we can see that the market brings gentrification that destroys diversity, that Logue was egalitarian and idealistic, and that the only way to get the affordable housing we need is with big and ugly projects like Logue’s. Gopnik summarizes this point when he says:
“A cable-car visit to Roosevelt Island is sobering for those briefly inclined to abandon Jacobs for Logue. This is surely not anyone’s idea of successful urbanism. Who would not rather live in the West Village than on Roosevelt Island? If they could afford to. But almost no one can—and the reality is that good housing that will alleviate the San Francisco problem [of gentrification] will probably look more like Roosevelt Island than like the West Village, simply because more Roosevelt Islands can be built for many, and the West Village can be preserved for only a few.”
In reality, Jacobs did not have unlimited faith in the market. She knew that it could lead to what she called “the self-destruction of diversity,” which we now call gentrification. And, though Gopnik does not know it, we do have tools today that were not available when Jacobs wrote and that could let us create more affordable housing by building neighborhoods Jacobs would approve of, rather than settling for the ugliness of Roosevelt Island.
The New Urbanists have shown that we can use form-based codes rather than conventional zoning to create neighborhoods with the sort of “fine-grained diversity” that Jacobs admired. They are best known for suburbs, but they have also designed urban neighborhoods that are reminiscent of old neighborhoods in the style of Greenwich Village, such as Liberty Harbor in New Jersey (shown above).
Today, these New Urbanist neighborhoods are expensive, because zoning laws make it difficult to build them, but we could produce many more of them. In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States produced a huge amount of housing by building freeways to make the suburbs more accessible, by providing financial incentives such as FHA mortgages, and by adopting local zoning laws that made it easy to build suburban housing. Today, we need an effort that is just as massive but that does the inverse: build public transportation to make in-city locations more accessible, and provide financial incentives and adopt form-based codes that encourage developers to build walkable neighborhoods around the stations.
In the 1950s and 1960s, it was easy to find affordable housing. The new suburbs were aimed at the middle class, but the overall housing supply increased so dramatically that older housing became cheap - so cheap that entire neighborhoods, such as the South Bronx, were abandoned because the rents were not even high enough to support their maintenance costs and taxes. Likewise, we could harness the market today with government programs that get so much new housing built that prices of housing overall go down. And this new housing could be in neighborhoods that look more like Greenwich Village than like Roosevelt Island.
I think this new housing should be required to include affordable units, but there is a limit to how much affordable housing we can produce. A recent study in San Francisco found that the city could require new rentals to include 18% affordable housing but that a higher requirement would slow housing development.
Building units designated as affordable is a part of the solution to affordability, but a bigger part is encouraging developers to build so much market rate housing that the market price of existing housing goes down, as we did in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was cheap to live in New York's east Greenwich Village or in San Francisco's North Beach.
In addition, a big part of the solution to affordability is to spread prosperity more widely. In the 1950s and 1960s, incomes grew fairly equally all across the economic spectrum, which is why the middle class could afford those new suburban houses. But since the 1970s, most of the gains have gone to the very rich. We can use the income tax system to redistribute income: if we raise taxes on the very rich, lower taxes on the middle class, and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit for low and moderate incomes, we can spread the prosperity widely again.
Gopnik’s problem is that he is an “essayist” (as Wikipedia describes him) who writes about many different subjects – which means he is a jack of all trades but master of none. He apparently does not know that we are not stuck with neighborhoods like Roosevelt Island, because form-based codes can create new neighborhoods that are more like Greenwich Village. He does not talk about reducing economic inequality. He does not even seem to know that housing is not currently affordable because of overly stringent zoning laws that restrict the amount that can be built. As Paul Krugman has written:
"Upper-income Americans are moving into high-density areas, where they can benefit from city amenities; lower-income families are moving out of such areas, presumably because they can’t afford the real estate. … the shortage of urban dwellings is mainly artificial. Our big cities, even New York, could comfortably hold quite a few more families than they do. The reason they don’t is that rules and regulations block construction. ... Now, I’m not calling for an end to urban zoning. Cities are rife with spillovers, positive and negative. My tall building may cut off your sunlight; on the other hand, it may help sustain the density needed to support local stores, or for that matter a whole city’s economic base. There’s no reason to believe that completely unregulated building would get the balance right. But building policies in our major cities, especially on the coasts, are almost surely too restrictive."
Gopnik makes a simple contrast between the market and planning, but the world is more complex than that. It is often best for government to harness the market rather than to override it with planning.
The market is good at creating wealth but not necessarily good at distributing wealth. We can harness the market by using the tax system to redistribute income more fairly.
The market is good at building housing but not necessarily good at designing attractive cities. In the early nineteenth century, it built Greenwich Village, but today it is more likely to build Houston-style sprawl. We can harness the market by allowing development near transit, by using form-based codes to create attractive neighborhoods, by requiring developers to include affordable housing, and by providing low-interest financing or other incentives to get enough housing built to bring prices down.


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