no plan, no problem

As is often the case, after reading JR Lind’s fine article on Nashville’s growth-oriented policies, I find myself agreeing with his premise, but not the conclusion. The premise: that increasing city population is not a good thing in and of itself, and our leaders do us a disservice by making economic and population growth the end-all/be-all of civic progress. 100% agreed, and it’s a problem on more than just the local level (witness the nation worshiping at the altar of GDP).

That said, I don’t necessarily agree with his diagnosis of dilemma:

For city leaders facing population explosions, such is the dilemma:

They can allow growth to continue unfettered, straining budgets and patience while they struggle to preserve the character of the city and its neighborhoods. (Nashville’s 14 community plans go a long way to doing that, but, like the boiling frog, incremental changes add up to become wholesale ones.) Then their cities succumb to sprawl, creating political pressure to raise taxes to pay for the services required by a larger population or, conversely, to do more with the same or less.

Or, they can draw bright lines and institute draconian planning measures that can come off as cold and unwelcoming, but certainly and necessarily limit the availability of affordable housing. Further, as Portland has shown recently — and as Atlanta demonstrated three or four decades ago — stanching growth in the core can simply just push the sprawl outward.

There’s no easy solution and no failsafe plan to crack this code. If the inevitable wave is to be avoided — or, at least, survived — the answers need to be found sooner rather than later and the Nashville area’s leaders have to decide if the city’s reputation as an unequivocally welcoming place is one they would like to preserve, consequences be damned, or if a proverbial moat should be built, consequences be damned.

This indeed may be a mind-bending dilemma for our planners (though I doubt they are too troubled by it), however it’s a false one for us. We have a third option: do nothing. (That is to say, no coercive urban planning at all, lest I be misunderstood as an advocate for the status quo that is our tangled web of kleptocracies.) If there is indeed “no easy solution and no failsafe plan” (as indeed, there never is), the moral course action is to refrain from acting.

Zoning – that civic hammer for which everything is a nail – rarely, if ever, does more good than harm. In fact, more specifically, it’s often a contributing factor to many of the ills that seem inseparable from city growth – for example, urban sprawl. As Kevin Carson points out in his essay on energy and transportation (worth reading in its entirety for its relevance to this discussion and how we got here):

Unless one takes the fantastic position that zoning laws fortuitously replicate the exact same pattern of urban development that would have taken place in a free market – that laws prohibiting neighborhood commercial enterprises, prohibiting walk-up apartments over downtown stores, and mandating minimum lawn and parking lot sizes had absolutely no effect because there was not a single person who would have desired to do anything forbidden by these laws – then the logic is inescapable that their net effect was some non-zero increase in sprawl.

Sprawl, essentially, is a problem of efficiency in space usage which drives other patterns –foremost among them the culture of the automobile commute and the negative externalities (real or perceived) that come with it. The solution to this problem – the ever-widening (in lanes and budget) transportation infrastructure – is yet another bandaid which further consolidates centralized development and discourages any distributed growth that can scale comfortably with resources and infrastructure.

As long as living in Nashville is desirable compared to other alternatives, people will continue to come here, this much is certain. The consequences of this growth are unclear, but one thing is clear: the strained budgets and infrastructure are not a symptom of growth, they are the symptom of planning that has failed, via ineptitude or regulatory capture (corruption and profiteering). The problem is not that our planners face a dilemma, the problem is that we have planners at all. Show me a negative consequence of growth, and I’ll show you a regulatory actor that has distorted the incentives.

Our city’s property is in demand and people want to come here. Let them come! The “character of the city and its neighborhoods” will change either way. We have the choice now whether it comes via the free interaction of people maximizing resources or under the bootheel of zoning and eminent domain.

Until we’re not building baseball parks, subsidizing sports teams and building giant sheds, any discussion of how to confront the “strained budgets” of a city government as a consequence of growth is a mere joke.