Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Big Squeeze

If you've ever lived in a multi-family building, you're already aware of the costs: reduced privacy; contention over shared facilities; limited to no choice of providers for various services; enforced proximity to persons you'd prefer to avoid; and so forth. That sort of "high-density living" does offer a few advantages -- proximity to certain conveniences; centralized maintenance; availability of others to assist with various chores -- to compensate for those things, but whether the pluses outweigh the minuses is very much a matter of individual taste.

That sort of apartment building, whether the units are for rent or for sale, is more common in cities than outside them -- and cities' density-driven characteristics can become very intense. In February 2005 at Eternity Road, I wrote:

Dense environments put great obstacles in the way of individual choice as regards water and septic systems. For practical purposes -- that is, if cost is a bounding factor -- all the residents in an apartment building must have a single water supplier and a single septic service. When apartment buildings are sufficiently close together, as for example in Manhattan, it becomes impossible for neighboring buildings to have different water and septic mains; there simply isn't room enough beneath the streets.

In consequence, when a city of sufficient density has formed, the drive to municipalize the water and waste systems becomes irresistible. More, the city is pressed to take charge of "public health" matters such as vaccinations and the tracking of epidemics. Municipalization inevitably means monopolies enforced by political power and funded by taxation; no amount of theorizing about fanciful alternatives can change that.

To the freedom-minded, this is a case against the city and in favor of the country, or at least the suburbs. But things are not so simple. For density doesn't bring only costs; it also brings benefits, some of which are widely held to be immensely desirable.

Most obviously, density reduces the probable distance between a resident and any particular service he might desire. The vendors of services gravitate to density; there's money to be made there. Less obviously, the proximity of a large market has a depressing effect on the prices of goods, as long as alternative sources for the goods exist. Much less obviously, in the absence of laws that militate to the contrary, cities are far safer environments than less dense areas, because of the greater likelihood that someone will be available to intervene in a crisis at any arbitrary moment.

So not all sensible persons will flee the cities at the approach of public health services, municipal water mains and waste management -- not even all of those, well to the right of your Curmudgeon, who hold that the only good bureaucrat is a dead one. (Fleeing the cities once laws against personal armament are passed, on the other hand, is a matter of survival. Predators, too, gravitate toward density, and disarming its citizenry makes a city into a predator's Disneyland.)

"Predators" should be read to include "government."

The more densely we're packed together, the easier we are to control. Those who seek power over others are aware of this. That's the root of the so-called "New Urbanism" so heavily promoted by "planners" desirous of herding us together. Their antipathy to single-family dwellings, to individual mobility, to the automobile and the population dispersion it makes possible are founded on a general hostility to individual freedom as expressed in the preferences for such things.

And that's all you really need to know to comprehend initiatives such as this one:

A plan to squeeze most residents of the San Francisco Bay Area into multifamily housing offers a test case of whether land-use bureaucracies nationwide, encouraged by the Obama administration, should be allowed to transform American lifestyles under the pretext of combating climate change.

Currently, 56 percent of households in the nine-county Bay Area live in single-family homes. That number would drop to 48 percent by 2030, under a high-density development blueprint called Plan Bay Area, recently enacted by the Association of Bay Area Governments and the region’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

Plan Bay Area has already drawn several legal challenges, and the debate could spread nationwide if, as may happen, it becomes a model for regulators in other parts of the country.

Owning a single-family home has long been part of the American dream, but Plan Bay Area embraces a dramatically different vision of the ideal community: crowded rows of high-rises and mass-transit platforms.

Population density in the region’s urban areas would increase by 30 percent during the next two decades under the plan. Nearly 80 percent of all new housing and 62 percent of new jobs would be located in just 5 percent of the region’s surface area.

Planners admit this will make single-family housing in the already high-priced Bay area even less affordable.

To be sure, the plan isn’t the first attempt to herd families into condominiums and apartments. Since at least the 1970s, urban planners around the country have argued that the single-family-home lifestyle results in people driving too much, which supposedly wastes energy and pollutes the air. Thus, 17 years ago, Portland, Ore., adopted a scheme to reduce the share of residents living in single-family homes from 65 percent to 41 percent. In some neighborhoods, if a house burns down, it can be replaced only with an apartment structure.

Even if it’s not without precedent, Plan Bay Area could still be revolutionary because of the rationale behind it. It could help spur a nationwide movement for high-density “transit-oriented” development — in the name of reducing global warming. The federal government has signed on. The Obama administration has told metropolitan areas to include land-use regulations in the transportation plans that federal law requires them to update every five years. Washington is also giving communities “livability grants” aimed at promoting high-density development.

As a result, cities that are far removed from San Francisco in a political sense — Des Moines, Iowa, and Lafayette, La., for example — are considering similar land-use restrictions.

Even if the "global warming / climate change" canard hadn't already been thoroughly debunked, the pseudo-environmentalist rationale behind this offensive scheme would be transparent. There is absolutely no evidence that dense environments are less polluting than sparse ones; indeed, both logic and history would suggest that whatever efficiencies arise from the commonalities are likely to be offset by "tragedy of the commons" effects. However, one effect of "densification" movements is incontrovertible: it makes its subjects easier to monitor and control.

America's cities, like cities around the world, formed as people noted the characteristics of specific locales and decided to settle there to exploit them. With coastal cities, it's usually harbors; with inland cities, it might be river access, or the nearness of some exploitable natural resource, or the confluence of trade routes. Whatever the case, the uncoerced decisions of individuals to move to those locales produced the concentrations of population we call cities; the cities did not form because of political action. When a government decrees that "there shall be a city here," the result is almost inevitably a ghost town.

The one exception to the "political city == ghost town" rule is the capital city, where the political elite have agreed to meet and scheme. However, these, too, fall into an unfortunate pattern:

No less than to parasites and criminals, cities are irresistibly attractive to the politically ambitious: men avid for authority, who seek to scale the walls that defend the citadels of State power. Capital cities, where legislatures deliberate and governors reside, are the worst of the lot. Nearly every capital city in the world is divided into two zones: that dominated by officialdom, and that dominated by those who seek favors from officialdom. In most American capitals, that translates into a zone of marble and alabaster where the political classes work, and a surrounding belt of squalor where the indigent and the miscreant reside. [From Eternity Road.]

Viewed through those lenses, to permit officialdom to herd us into cities we don't freely choose to live in is the plainest madness. But you may rest assured that the coercive densifiers will shower us with every sort of pro-density propaganda: about the "wastefulness" and "inconvenience" of single-family homes; about the "damage to the environment;" about the economy and simplicity that comes of being "car-free;" and about the supposed conviviality of urban living, like a single oversized happy family where it's always "a wonderful day in the neighborhood."

Should the propaganda fail, as I expect it will, we all know what to expect next.


Adrienne said...

Even here in lovely conservative North Idaho we have a group that is pushing to rewrite the county code along the lines of Agenda 21. It is being fought tooth and nail by those of us who see through this sham.

For now, I'll enjoy my lovely 5 acres and pray for a camel to nest in their privates.

Unknown said...

You might also wish to consider Myron Ohrfield's "regionalization" doctrine, highly influential with Owebama. This is discussed at length by Stanley Kurtz in http://www.amazon.com/Spreading-Wealth-Robbing-Suburbs-Cities/dp/1595230920/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1385484869&sr=8-1&keywords=stanley+kurtz+spreading+the+wealth


rickl said...

Or they can simply damage the economy to the point where young people can't afford cars or homes, so they will never know the joy of ownership, or respect for others' property.

Oh wait: That already seems to have happened. You think the new college graduates, up to their eyeballs in student loan debt and unable to find a decent job, will ever be able to afford a house?

Feature, not a bug, to the statists.