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Monday, March 22, 2010

Ordering the City

    Nicole Garnett has written a truly insightful book, full of colorful examples, and careful analysis.  It is broad in scope and a discussion of the book could easily go down any number of substantive paths.  I want to pick just one of the many interesting points to explore: why she ultimately is less willing to embrace innovation in land use policy than in other forms of government responses to urban disorder.

    One of the book’s central themes is the complex relationship between disorder prevention through a “Broken Windows” approach to policing, and through local land use controls.  She points out that disorder really exists on a continuum – from actual crime (assault, theft, etc.), to disorderly conduct  (loitering, loud music, harassing behavior, etc.), to disorderly land uses (vacant buildings, poor housing conditions, etc.).  Government responses to disorder, then, can come from policing, from land use, or both. Garnett appears to be in favor of innovation in policing practices – at least in poor urban communities.  She is more cautious about innovation in land use, however, and ultimately endorses incrementalism, arguing against radical change in any direction.  

    The principal and obvious distinction between land use controls and other kinds of regulatory responses to disorder is the apparent stickiness of land use decisions.  There is undoubtedly something to this.  The physical destruction of whole neighborhoods through urban renewal is effectively irreversible.  Moreover, bulldozer notwithstanding, the built environment tends to be particularly resistant to change. Development that occurs based on existing land use controls becomes all but immune from subsequent regulatory change. The legacy of progressive era public housing is still very much with us.  The result is easy to predict: land use policies that turn out to have been misguided can cast a very long shadow into the future.  

    On closer inspection, however, the effect on the future may not be – or at least may not need to be – quite so long, and the difference between land use and other regulatory responses may not be quite so clear.  Physical changes to the built environment are often hard to make.  The fact that so many failed housing projects remained standing for decades is testament to the inertia of land use decisions.  However, as Garnett convincingly demonstrates, it is often the less tangible forms of community glue that has the most to do with a community’s vitality and success.  She uses the term “collective efficacy” to describe a community’s ability to retain “effective social controls.”  (p. 134).  But collective efficacy is very hard to create.  Indeed, while it is undeniably related to disorder, the causal connections are complex and contested, with strong positive and negative feedback loops.  But once destroyed, collective efficacy in a community is very hard to restore. Misguided innovation in policing practices, in educational policy, or in other spheres of municipal control are as likely to destroy collective efficacy as changes in land use policies.  The same is true of a misguided commitment to the status quo. The effects of policy decisions along these dimensions may not be any easier to reverse than land use decisions.  

    Changes in the built environment also need not have as much of a lock-in effect as the law often provides.  There are, of course, ways in which existing development patterns can be changed.  Eminent domain is the ultimate backstop, and provides governments with flexibility to impose new land use plans despite existing development patterns.  Other tools serve a similar role, however, at much less cost.  For example, amortization provisions for prior non-conforming uses can help to reduce the lock-in effect of outdated or misconceived land use policies.  It is therefore particularly interesting that one of Garnett's specific prescriptions is to increase the protection of non-conforming uses.  (p. 198-99).  In her view, this will protect property owners from fickle and wrong-headed changes to land use planning.  It would, indeed, have that effect, and it would also foster valuable and important reliance on government land use policies.  But it comes at a substantial cost.  It reduces the flexibility of governments to change course and to try different approaches to land use.  In that regard, Garnett's prescriptions are entirely consistent with her commitment to incrementalism.  Because it is hard for governments to change course, they should do so only carefully.  But a different kind of response is possible as well: make it easier for governments to change course so that they can be more innovative.  I have recently argued for ratcheting down protection for prior non-conforming uses, at least partly for this reason. 

    While Garnett's book paints a bleak picture of the history of government innovation in this regard, there are success stories as well, as Garnett also explores.  The question, ultimately, is one of opportunity costs.  Is innovation and the risk of getting land use policy wrong worse than the risks of not innovating?  It will depend on a lot of factors, including the costs of changing course.  But I suspect that there are at least some situations in which trying to innovate is better than the incrementalism that Garnett embraces, and the communities should be given the tools to try.  

    Garnett has done a valuable service by examining the wrong-headed (and the successful) approaches to urban disorder over the years, and by considering them across disciplines.  She is convincing when she argues for caution.  But there are times, too, when the risks of getting it wrong are even greater than the risks of not being bold.  At the very least, after Garnett's excellent book, we have a clearer sense of the stakes. 

Posted by Chris Serkin on March 22, 2010 at 09:16 AM in Books | Permalink


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