Urban planners have fought for decades against suburban sprawl, preferring high-density cities that promote walking to nearby amenities and reducing environmental degradation.
Most traditional zoning laws prevent high-density development, even promoting sprawl because they assume Americans prefer it, said Jonathan Levine, associate professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan said during a lecture Thursday to members of the Planning, Public Policy and Management Department.
He has proposed a new weapon for planners to fight what has been a losing battle against sprawl. Instead of thinking about density versus sprawl, he hopes to reframe the debate so the ideas can coexist.
Levine sees traditional economics as the biggest problem facing density advocates. He said people assume sprawl results from demand in the free market, but he said zoning restrictions actually prevent demand for density from being satisfied.
“I think we ought to be able to say to the governments, ‘There is a demand for the alternatives, but the government has placed too many obstacles,'” Levine said about zoning laws that prevent planners from realizing their visions.
Levine believes planning has evolved in this way because of a glitch in the political system. He said economists argue that governments should only meddle in the free market when it is out of balance. At the state and national levels, government intervention is acknowledged, Levine said, but at the local level, the thinking changes.
“It’s a really weird trick,” Levine said. “We treat local regulations as something akin to the free market.”
He said because municipal governments are so close to the public, people assume a genuine level of democracy exists; however, the same political foibles cause the same problems at all levels of government. In this case, politicians buy into the American dream, assuming that everyone wants a big house on a five-acre lot, he said.
This may be true for a majority of the market, but Levine said not everyone wants or can afford a home in suburbia.
Levine recounted an instance in which he countered a developer’s logic about the demand for suburban development. The developer told Levine that 70 percent of Americans prefer suburban living.
“And I said, wait a second,” Levine recalled. “Did you just say 30 percent of people want an alternative? What if 30 percent of people preferred a certain type of dried soup? That would be a significant incentive for a company to make that soup.”
Planners have traditionally fought against this bias toward sprawl by proving the benefits of density and urbanism with empirical science. But Levine said statistics like the one above prove demand for a different type of housing, so politicians should “get out of the way.”
Marc Schlossberg, an assistant professor in the PPPM Department and former student of Levine, planned the visit. Levine recently published a book, “Zoned Out,” and Schlossberg wanted to bring him to Oregon to present these ideas.
Schlossberg said Levine’s biggest contribution was his ideas about reframing the debate to more appropriately fit the market.
“There are people who want to live in walkable neighborhoods and the zoning doesn’t allow it,” Schlossberg said.
He envisioned a new American dream emerging from Levine’s work.
“What could be more American than allowing people the freedom to live how they want?” Schlossberg asked.