Land Use, Density, and Local Control

I’ve been looking for good articles on local governance, in part related to the Tufts Summer Institute, and in part related to my goal of transforming my ethics course so that it takes up the paired questions of the Good Life and the Good Citizen. One resource for this is Sharon Meagher’s textbook Philosophy and the City. Though the selections are a bit short, the table of contents supplies an excellent set of recommendations. In particular, she suggests pairing Andrew Light’s “Elegy for a Garden,” with a chapter from Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, “Housing and Town Planning.”

At first this looks like a classic matchup between libertarian and communitarian, “market”-governance and “community”-governance, but it’s not quite that. In fact, both Light and Hayek are worried about the same thing: the pernicious interventions of planning and zoning boards into the lives and livelihoods of the least-advantaged. While it’s true that Hayek prefers market solutions and Light wishes that community gardeners were the authorized land-holders of common pool resources, their actual disagreement goes beyond procedures to a substantive disagreement at the heart of urban environments: density. Ken Archer at Greater Greater Washington describes the disagreement like this:

[C]ities aren’t just denser suburbs. Rather, cities are organisms that function fundamentally differently, expanding the range of real freedoms available to their citizens. Prominent amongst these are the freedom to interact with people of diverse backgrounds, the freedom to participate in culturally rich and deep communities, and the freedom to meet everyday needs in the safety and convenience of your community.

Density in and of itself doesn’t necessarily generate these benefits, as the early 20th century experience in U.S. cities demonstrates.

He concludes with a quote from Jane Jacobs:

Jacobs writes that “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

One mode of co-creation is the community garden, it’s true. As Elinor Ostrom has demonstrated, legitimate community control of unused spaces will tend to empower citizens to enrich and beautify their communities. But this creates a difficulty: empowered, beautiful communities are also desirable communities, places that foreigners in weak and ugly communities would like to join. Yet community control of unused spaces will tend to foreclose outsider’s access to them

Hayek’s argument is that this is an unfair preference for the smaller loyalty to our neighbors over the larger duties we have to our fellow human beings. The market would allow strangers to purchase access to these gated spaces. Yet in general these transactions occur between city government and developer, not between current and future residents. So again, the real problem is that urban gardeners are not recognized as the legitimate authorities over the land they cultivate, but only as a few of the many citizens who stand to benefit from the local government’s windfall.

There’s a simple solution to this in the common-law: adverse possession. The garden that Light elegizes, Esperanza, had been in continuous cultivation for more than two decades. But centuries of statutory tinkering with the common law have rendered adverse possession laws useless for their intended purpose. Another possibility is a Community Development Corporation that would purchase the unused land before it was beautified, but there we often run into local governance interference through eminent domain. Luxury condos generate more tax revenue than herbs and flowers, after all.

Notice that in both of these cases, it is not the market that fails to protect a community’s interest in its common pool resources, but local governments. In that sense, our progressive intuitions will tend to distract us: a democratic collective (the town government) is overriding a non-democratic collective (the community.) Yet if we champion isonomy, subsidiarity, and civic engagement, we will tend to prefer the smaller engaged collective to the larger expertly-managed collective.

Second Opinions