What is the role of government in urbanism?

My friend Scott Greider left some well-written commentary on The Good City’s post about our recent reboot that focuses on market-driven urbanism. I encourage you to read his entire comment here, but below is the paragraph I’d like to interact with:

All things being equal, yes, the market tends to work best. But all things are NOT equal. It’s far easier, cheaper, and more profitable to develop/live/worship/do business in Sprawlville than it is in the City. So while I’m committed to “market-driven” approaches (indeed, I live/work/play/worship downtown), they just won’t work here apart from massive government involvement.

Well… I’d say I’m suspicious of “massive government involvement,” and I think it’s for good reason. It’s massive government involvement in two specific ways that actually helped create and support the American suburbs:

  • The federal government’s post-war spending on highways, which artificially lowered the cost of driving your own car.
  • The federal government’s post-war subsidizing of mortgages for single-family homes,which didn’t cover existing housing or apartments and which encouraged residence-only subdivisions along all those new highways.

Of course, the suburbs would have certainly existed to some extent without government involvement, but federal spending was a huge impetus for the incredible spread of suburbia. And the current spending on highways and other infrastructure continues the trend. This is why I’d say that, in general, limiting government spending and expanding private property rights is the true solution to bringing some balance to the growth of a city.

But that’s the ideal. What do we do now that the Interstate and the suburbs exist? Are there places the city should spend to restore some urban/suburban balance? Perhaps. Are there some zoning ordinances and regulations the city should relax? Likely. But it’s all in the particulars, which is what this blog will explore for what I hope is a long time to come. And I certainly hope Scott and others keep contributing to the conversation!

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  1. Thanks, Jon, for encouraging people to read my comment. I was concerned you’d be put off my the pessimistic tone.

    I must admit I threw out the word “massive” pretty casually. Of course I have no idea of the real numbers involved. I only know it’ll take more than $250k facade grants and new sidewalk planters to right these… massive… wrongs.

    And I would agree, LIMIT government spending… in the burbs. But at this point we can’t limit it in the City proper, because if Gov exited the scene now, inertia would favor the burbs. We can’t say, “Oh, we’ve seen the light, so we’ll just stop spending everywhere.” Corrective measures must be taken first, with the goal of eventually getting out AFTER the field has been re-leveled. I know that sounds like heresy to a libertarian household (and you’d have never heard it from me ten years ago!), but I don’t see any other way.

    Again, love the reboot!

  2. Scott:

    Thanks! I’m pretty excited to have a new start for this web site. And I suspect we’ll be a lot closer to each other on a project-by-project basis.

    For example: More spending in the city doesn’t mean spending $11 million to turn State Boulevard between Wells and Clinton into a five-lane highway, right? I’m sure we agree that such spending is not what we’re looking for!

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