Urban Jungle

Housing Reserves for Endangered Human Habitat

In recent years, it has become apparent that yet another emblematic keystone species is facing local extinction in parts of California. Breeding is now constrained in its most critical habitats around the San Francisco Bay, owing primarily to a lack of denning sites. Most of the young that it does successfully raise, moreover, are forced to undergo difficult migrations to distant locales on reaching maturity. Although overall numbers are maintained by the inward flow of healthy adults, the resulting population dynamics are not healthy for the species as a whole.

Owing to the significance of this particular creature, such problems ripple across broader biomes, ultimately impacting much of North America. Establishing a preservation plan that would enhance the species’ ability to find shelter in its most crucial habitats should therefore be something of a priority. But for this to happen, conservation strategies would have to be radically rethought, as this particular animal has generally been depicted in the environmental literature as little more than a pernicious pest. Yet it is actually the keystone species of all keystone species, one responsible for nothing less than the fate of the earth.

The species in question, of course, is Homo sapiens. Merely joking about an ecological preservation plan for humans would probably strike many environmentalists as absurdly perverse. Human numbers in California’s urban areas — as across the world as a whole — are seen as too large, leading to demands for further constraints on both development and fertility.

Yet it is also the case that most green thinkers now advocate, at least in theory, for urban intensification, urging the population to concentrate into walkable metropolitan cores. If this position is taken seriously, it is the anti-housing crusade that might be regarded as ecologically perverse, even if it is waged under a green banner.

Nor is it totally outrageous to suggest that human beings might be worthy of respect as biological organisms that need habitation sites for their offspring. For we are now faced with a historically unprecedented situation, one in which vast numbers are unable to remain in their natal communities, forced instead to abandon loved ones and familiar landscapes so that they can be replaced by a more elite population. The ultimate issue is one more of foundational human rights than the mere pragmatics of housing policy.

The idea of “wildlife reserves” for humans in the San Francisco Bay Area might seem ludicrous. But as metaphor and thought experiment, it is clarifying. The core idea is simply to designate limited areas in which housing would be fully legalized, removing almost all restrictions on its construction. By so doing, we would allow our own species to engage in behaviors necessary for the health of the local population, much like we give beavers full leeway to build dams and lodges within wildlife refuges.

Moreover, as for wildlife reserves, establishing housing reserves would almost certainly require state or federal action, as local jurisdictions jealously guard their own land-use prerogatives and have been captured largely by housing restrictionists. Overriding the wishes of those who would be most heavily impacted by such a proposal might seem undemocratic. But this is exactly what we do when we establish national monuments and other protected areas against the will of the local population. Local communities often oppose such land protection, as it removes their own power to manage the safeguarded areas. But reserves are nonetheless mandated, as democratic societies, operating through state and federal jurisdictions, deem them to be in the greater public interest. There is no reason why the same consideration ought not to extend to decisions about housing construction.

 

1.

The housing issues afflicting the San Francisco Bay Area are not unique. All over the world, what economists and urbanists call “agglomeration effects” are drawing people to cities. Unrivaled economic opportunity, social diversity, and cultural amenities draw in new residents, who in turn create ever more powerful agglomerations of jobs, people, and culture. But in few places as the Bay Area is the problem so pronounced. The region’s booming tech economy, temperate climate, natural beauty, and “anything goes” culture have made it a magnet for new residents, even as its deep environmental commitments and local land-use laws have made it virtually impossible to build enough new housing to keep up.

Consider Palo Alto, an immodest town of roughly 67,000 that lies at the core of Silicon Valley. Here, humble ranch houses designed in the 1950s as starter homes now routinely sell for more than $2 million. Meanwhile, a major new mixed-use development along the city’s major commercial thoroughfare provoked such NIMBY (“Not In My Backyard”) outrage that it was limited to a mere eight below-market units.

 Given the environmental, economic, and human-rights consequences of the housing shortage, a more radical response might be needed.


The panoply of ills that results from housing restrictionism of this sort is large indeed. The crushing costs impose what is in effect a massive tax on the most innovating and productive sectors of the economy, hindering the ability of top technological firms to recruit and retain talent. Economic and psychological pressure weighs down — especially on hourly workers, the young, and those pursuing careers in the arts and the nonprofit sector. Ugly social conflict festers between ambitious techies, struggling to pry their way into the housing market, and those who merely want to continue living where they were reared, as exemplified by the vomiting campaigns waged by Oakland activists on the swanky buses that ferry young professionals to their Silicon Valley workplaces.1

Housing restrictionism constrains upward mobility, solidifies class distinctions, and further disadvantages already marginalized communities. By the same token, it enhances the economic resources of the well-heeled: those who see the value of their real-estate holdings fatten by the day. Severe limits on housing thus stifle our economy and hamper our ability to protect the environment — comforting the comfortable while afflicting the afflicted.

To the extent that policies favoring the “haves” over the “have-nots” are traditionally defined as “conservative,” NIMBYism clearly falls on the right side of the political spectrum. Yet in a discursive regime of unfathomable irony, anti-housing activists proudly portray themselves as members of the progressive left, struggling to save their leafy neighborhoods from rapacious developers. Casting 83 percent of its votes for Hillary Clinton (and two percent for Jill Stein) in 2016,2 Palo Alto is a decidedly left-leaning community, most of whose residents disdain anything with a whiff of conservatism. They tend to embrace the 1960s eco-adage of “acting locally” (by fighting development) while “thinking globally” about such issues as anthropogenic climate change. In the process, they manage to obscure the ways in which their own privilege obstructs the road to a lower-carbon future. In Silicon Valley, buses often run mostly empty and commuter trains come infrequently because public transportation is undermined by the low-density suburban environment. Instead, the private automobile (most often with a single occupant) reigns supreme, reviled though it may be by the region’s progressive inhabitants.

Even so, self-styled conservatives sometimes come to oddly similar positions on high-density housing. Not surprisingly, the right-wing preference for free markets can quickly evaporate when it impacts one’s own backyard. But the issue goes much deeper. The mere fact that most environmentalists now (theoretically) support urban intensification leads some on the right-wing fringe to concoct fears of UN-led green totalitarians forcing people out of their comfortable suburbs into dismal eco-tenements.3

Americans want to live in single-family houses in low-density tracts, some conservatives argue,4 implying that the Bay Area housing crisis can be addressed in a fair manner only by pushing the suburban frontier further into the girding hills and across the farming fields of the metropolitan periphery. The existing Bay Area housing market, however, undermines the premise of this argument, as new high-density units in the core are snapped up at pronounced premiums over new low-density dwellings along the fringe. The market, it seems safe to say, gives a better indication of what people actually want than does the musing of pundits.5

National political considerations similarly boost conservative suspicions of a more open housing market in regions such as the San Francisco Bay Area. Many would just as soon see heavily Democratic-voting metropolitan areas languish, preferring economic and population growth to be focused in the more demographically accommodating, Republican-voting parts of the country.6 As a result, articles and blog posts celebrating the fact that it costs twice as much to rent a truck to drive from San Francisco to Austin as in the opposite direction appear not infrequently in the conservative press.7

Considering the opposition to urban intensification on both the right and left sides of the political spectrum, it is hardly surprising that it took many years for the housing crunch found in major tech hubs to gain substantial political attention. In our hyperpolarized country, neither camp has had much interest in tackling the issue, as doing so would alienate key constituents. Until fairly recently, outrageous housing costs were seldom mentioned in political debates at the California state level, and the problem is still largely ignored in presidential and congressional contests.

But over the past several years, the housing crisis has grown so severe that it can no longer be denied. The year 2016 saw the explosive growth of a grassroots campaign that calls itself the YIMBY movement (“Yes In My Backyard”),8 advocating strenuously for new construction. By 2017, the California state government was, as reported by The New York Times, “considering extraordinary legislation to… crack down on communities that have… systematically delayed or derailed housing construction proposals, often at the behest of local neighborhood groups.”9

Yet as salutary as these developments are, they appear unlikely to make much of a dent. The crisis is severe, and local opposition runs deep. Given the environmental, economic, and human-rights consequences of the housing shortage, a more radical response might be needed.

 

2.

The human-reserve scheme rests on the simple idea of designating limited areas in which restrictions and delays on residential development are eliminated, excepting those devoted to basic health and safety. The assumption is that housing proposals would be automatically approved regardless of density, architectural considerations, or costs. Real-estate developers would be allowed to respond as nimbly as possible to market signals, essentially taking bureaucrats and planners out of the process. In this scenario, the market alone would determine what is or is not built. But if the market is to be let loose, it is not to be given absolutely free rein. In the interest of solving the housing crisis, commercial development should be limited in the designated reserves; the Bay Area has no dire need for new offices or tech spaces. Shops, entertainment venues, and other businesses catering to the needs of the residents should be allowed and even encouraged in the interests of convenience and walkability but would have to remain secondary to housing. Other limitations might be imposed in the public and environmental interest, especially in regard to parking spaces (more on that later).

By freeing the market in limited areas, for limited purposes, and perhaps for a limited period of time, we would be engaging in a colossal experiment in “planned planlessness.”10 The results of such a test would be unknowable beforehand, and each reserve would evolve on its own, some no doubt with much more success than others. Depending primarily on their location, some designated areas would probably see mostly luxury construction, whereas others would turn more toward the needs of the middle and working classes. Whereas left-wing activists often scoff at the idea that we can “build our way out of the housing crisis” by noting that most new construction aims at an elite clientele, such an argument misconstrues the basic nature of the market. High-end housing dominates at present only because building opportunities are severely constricted. Imagine, for example, the price range of automobiles that would result if manufacturers were limited to producing several thousand vehicles per year. An unbridled market, on the other hand, provides for needs all along the demand spectrum. In the world’s poorest places, after all, entrepreneurs have found “fortune at the bottom of the pyramid,”11 both enriching themselves and collectively improving the lots of their myriad, penny-pinching customers.

Unplanned, organic growth that responds to the needs of the many rather than reflecting the dreams of the experts generated most of the world’s pre-20th century urban environment. It did so, moreover, in a manner that most people find preferable to the top-down, planned alternative, as Jane Jacobs12 demonstrated decades ago and as Charles Siegel13 has argued more recently.

The Brasilias and Canberras of the world have never garnered much affection and are often derided as sterile and artificial. Oddly, the construction-averse residents of tony Bay Area towns often find delight in the unplanned, diverse, somewhat chaotic, and high-density milieus of traditional European cities, yet howl in horror at the thought of replicating anything similar at home. (Eight-story apartment blocks with shops on the street level are perhaps fitting for the Old World, but the global center of the high-tech economy evidently demands an urban fabric that is both less convenient and less charming.)

We have no guarantee, of course, that similarly human-scaled structures would emerge in the proposed American housing reserves, and it is quite possible that many a charmless Miesian high-rise would crop up instead. But if significant numbers of people actually prefer old-style urban environments, then they would probably materialize, as the market has an uncanny ability to fulfill desires.

Reserve location is another crucial issue, as is always the case when it comes to real estate. My initial idea was to focus on little-used or neglected areas, such as decaying warehouse districts, abandoned industrial zones, and unneeded military lands. But in addition to such tricky issues as toxic-waste contamination, these areas are generally poorly served by the existing transportation network. Conveyance concerns are paramount, as the Bay Area’s highways are already overburdened, and adequately expanding the road network would be time-consuming, expensive, and controversial. A key benefit of urban intensification, moreover, is to reduce carbon emissions by minimizing vehicular traffic. Bringing new rail lines to such urban backwaters, however, would be a similarly slow, difficult, and expensive endeavor.

With these considerations in mind, the preferred alternative would be to center housing reserves around existing transit stations, particularly those on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and Caltrain lines. Doing so would allow the prohibition of new parking spaces in the intensification zones, obliging residents and visitors to turn to public transportation, walking, cycling, and other alternatives. (For the time being, parking spaces are more often required for new developments, thus locking in automobile dependency.) The very density of habitation that a spatially constrained but otherwise free housing market would underwrite would in turn generate its own walkable spaces, further enhancing the potential for effective public transport.

Still, new strains would likely emerge in the face of population growth. Existing train and subway lines might be overwhelmed, although they could probably be upgraded and intensified to handle the increased load. And even if they were denied private parking spots, reserve residents would surely turn to ride-sharing services, thereby generating additional vehicular pressure. But by the same token, enhanced public transport systems would appeal to some of those living outside the reserves, reducing their time on the highways. In the end, however, roadway congestion could well intensify. Unfortunately, trade-offs are inevitable in almost any solution to almost any crisis.14

Roads and rails, however, are not the only modes of transportation. In the water-centered Bay Area, ferries already transfer tens of thousands of commuters daily, and many more boats could be added at a reasonable cost. Ports could form epicenters of their own housing reserves. To be effective, however, the ferry system would have to be expanded and integrated with existing rail lines, necessitating significant expenditures. The small recreational ports that dot the Bay, extending along the little-used shores of Silicon Valley, could be upgraded to handle a new fleet of “water buses.” Much more than rail lines, an upgraded ferry system could integrate the entire Bay Area, allowing the extension of the housing-reserve network into Marin, Sonoma, Napa, and Solano counties, which are not served by either BART or Caltrain.

To be sure, creating such a marine transport system would generate its own environmental problems. A great deal of dredging and tailing dumping would be necessary, and portside housing would encroach upon wetlands and other natural habitats. A relaxation of green regulations would thus be necessary. But again, trade-offs are always necessary, so I suspect that comprehensive environmental accounting would place housing-oriented port development on the positive side of the ledger.

Size is another crucial consideration in establishing any kind of sanctuary. Given the transportation considerations outlined above, any housing reserve should extend no farther than an easy walk from a station. As most people comfortably stroll at around three miles an hour, and as most balk at more than a 15-minute pedestrian excursion, a circle with a radius of three-quarters of a mile might be appropriate. But due to the orthogonal patterns of real-estate divisions and the gridded nature of most cities, rectangular reserves would be preferable. Given the three-quarter-mile walking limit, a typical urban intensification zone might thus approximate a square with sides measuring 1.5 miles, resulting in an area of some 2.25 square miles per reserve.

Actual sizes and shapes, however, would have to vary in accordance with site considerations. In an already densely populated place such as San Francisco, two square miles would probably be too big, as the resulting reserves would monopolize an unacceptably large portion of the city. In currently urbanized environments, the threshold might be reduced to as little as a quarter of a mile. Elsewhere, the proximity of parks, important historical sites, highways, and waterways would reduce reserve expanse. Further considering the ease of calculation, one might initially assume an average allotment of roughly one square mile.

Because a single square mile is hardly a vast spread, it might seem dubious that the proposed scheme could make much of a dent in the housing problem. But the numbers do add up. If each one of the BART line’s 45 stations were designated as a reserve nucleus, the resulting intensification zone would be roughly the size of San Francisco. Adding the 29 regular stations on the Caltrain commuter line, the planned extensions of the BART system, and the Bay’s ports would yield a sizable urban expanse. If 90 reserves ended up with average densities equal to that of San Francisco at present, 1,675,000 people could be housed. If densities were to approximate that of Manhattan, the figure would be over six million.

Such numbers do not, of course, represent the actual increment of newly housed residents, as the envisaged reserve locations are already inhabited. But outside the few central cities, stations along the BART and Caltrain lines are situated within low- or at most moderate-density neighborhoods. Thus, housing-reserve intensification could conceivably provide dwellings for several million additional residents within the Bay Area. Such growth would obviously take time, as construction itself would be constrained by the high cost of housing workers as well as by the complicated logistics of the required operations. But to the extent that the market is allowed to function, development would proceed as rapidly as possible, easing the housing crunch and perhaps eventually eliminating it altogether.

The urban form that would result from the successful institution of a housing-reserve scheme would probably turn out to be unlike anything that currently exists. Instead of a city (or multiple cities) surrounded by a lower-density periphery, a discontiguous urban zone would emerge scattered across and cleanly differentiated from the suburban field in which it was planted. Perhaps the best metaphor would be that of a bead city — one constituted by several strands extending along each public-transportation corridor. Similar forms are indeed encountered elsewhere, such as along metropolitan Washington DC’s Orange metro line, where mini-cities have sprouted along each stop in an otherwise largely suburban environment.

But what is proposed here is far more extensive and based on a much stricter spatial differentiation of land use and planning — as well as unplanning.15 Given the mooted parking restrictions, we might see the emergence of two parallel worlds existing in the same area: one essentially suburban and car-oriented, and the other hyper-urban and auto-averse. These two zones would be interdigitated and always interacting, but would remain separate in form and structure — and quite possibly in culture as well.

Yet imagine the benefits that could flow if the housing market were freely opened in the core urban zones of the Bay Area. A local economic boom would likely ensue, with crane-dotted skylines reminiscent of Shanghai in the early 2000s. An unleashed Silicon Valley, in turn, could bolster the economy of the country as a whole. Enhanced economic growth would yield higher tax revenues without an increase in the taxation rate, perhaps averting California’s pending budgetary squeeze and financing the new infrastructure that would be necessary for an expanded population. Environmentally, the resulting increase in density would boost mass-transit ridership while reducing per-capita carbon emissions in myriad other ways as well.

 

3.

Judging by the constant flow of letters to the editor in the Palo Alto Weekly deploring development by those who prioritize their own comfort, convenience, and pocketbooks, I am under no illusion that the burgeoning YIMBY movement can win the day. Efforts in the California State Legislature to allow housing intensification near transit stations (most notably Scott Wiener’s 2018 Senate Bill 827) have failed to advance from committee. Ironically, much of the opposition to this bill came from tenants’ rights activists who argued that the construction of new housing would lead to gentrification and hence force low-income residents to relocate.16 In San Francisco and Oakland, affordable housing proponents more often than not oppose construction of market-rate housing, contending that increasing the housing supply will only generate more demand, propelling prices upward at an even quicker pace.17 Unfortunately, even among those on the Left who are dedicated to “afflicting the comfortable,” rank economic illiteracy has undermined pragmatic strategies to address the housing crisis. Senator Wiener does, however, plan to reintroduce his urban intensification bill in 2019.

For many progressive housing activists, markets are unfair and socially inimical precisely because of their profit orientation. In an ideal society, they imply, bakers would bake not out of the self-interest celebrated by Adam Smith, but rather out of their fellow feeling for humanity — or at least out of that of their benign state employer. But in actual market-thwarting regimes, from the Soviet Union of yesteryear to today’s Venezuela, the results have been only breadlines and want.

Or consider the lowest rung of the US urban housing market, which was formerly provisioned by flophouses and SRO (single room occupancy) hotels.18 Well-meaning but market-averse reformers understandably found such residences inadequate, and were appalled at the profits collected by slumlords from their unfortunate tenants. But after such cheap lodgings were mostly shuttered, homelessness exploded,19 truly immiserating those who formerly had been merely very poor.

Markets, by contrast, work because they automatically convey vital information about scarcity and abundance through price signals (obviating the need for impractically massive information processing systems) and because they entail voluntary exchanges in which both parties benefit, generating massive non-zero-sum structures of mutual gain. Market forces desperately “want” to provide housing, as substantial profits can be made in the process; as a result, the market would incessantly figure out how to do so as efficiently as possible, if given the chance.

If this vision seems improbably sweeping, it is worth considering the alternative: an intensifying crisis in Silicon Valley and similar places that are at once sterile, dysfunctional, and deeply inequitable.


But if the benefits of the market are many, so too are its shortcomings. Markets are not well suited to providing security, criminal justice, the adjudication of disputes, scientific and technical research, or public goods more generally; monopolies and monopsonies form genuine threats to market integrity; and market failures can and do come in many different forms.

In a democratic polity, moreover, market-based reforms must pass the electoral test. Any attempt, for example, to legislate a fully free market in Bay Area housing, or indeed in the United States as a whole, would prove politically untenable. A completely market-based approach might also be environmentally devastating, as developers could eagerly convert crucial areas of natural habitat into human habitation. Regional amenity values would also suffer as the bucolic landscapes of such places as southern Santa Clara County were converted to yet more suburban housing tracts.

A purely market-based approach to the housing crisis is thus a nonstarter. A geographically focused, limited market strategy, however, might be a different matter altogether. If the power of the market could be given free rein to provide housing in environmentally and politically appropriate areas, perhaps the crisis could be addressed in a reasonably rapid, equitable, and ecologically responsible manner.

 

4.

I am under no illusions that the scenario outlined above is at all likely, which is why these ideas are presented as more of a thought experiment than a blueprint for change. Although a few of us are willing to say, “Yes, please, in my backyard!”, most demure. But could we hope that a majority might at least say, “Yes, I suppose, in my downtown”? I am still not confident. Most residents of Palo Alto, I suspect, would no more want to see their city’s two precious core areas, each anchored to a Caltrain station, transformed into real urban hubs than to find apartment complexes sprouting in their backyards. Downtown landowners would probably lend support, as the value of their holdings would skyrocket overnight, but that consequence would only enrage those who bristle at the notion of enriching landlords and real-estate developers. Many other objections would surely be broached, as such a disruptive proposal would disadvantage many and impose an array of social costs, both foreseeable and unknown. But I would ask those who reject the plan outright either to offer their own proposals for solving the Bay Area housing crisis or to cogently argue, in terms divorced from personal considerations, that the emergency is unreal and can thus be conscionably ignored. I imagine that most would have a difficult time with either alternative.

Of the many likely objections to the proposal, perhaps the most salient is that of democratic deficiency. That is, if most of the people of San Francisco and Silicon Valley reject urban intensification and demand strict planning and interminable delays on the few projects they do allow (the infamous “Palo Alto process”20), should they not have that right to govern their municipalities in accordance with the local will?

Here we simply face one of the classic quandaries of the liberal democratic order, as other levels of the political hierarchy also have legitimately democratic interests in setting land-use policies. Similarly, property owners surely have some rights over their own lands that cannot simply be annulled by a concerted local majority. No interest group thus has absolute authority over such matters.

In general, a centrist orientation inclines toward a strong degree of federalism, giving substantial power to local communities to govern themselves. But in matters of national interest, and in crisis situations more generally, decisions often must be made at higher levels. Nature reserves, as mentioned above, are often established against the wishes of local communities, as evidenced by the recent debate over Bears Ears National Monument. Considering both the depth of the current Bay Area housing crisis and its local and national economic repercussions, it does not seem unduly antidemocratic to restrict the power of local electorates to thwart development, provided that such decisions are themselves made in a democratic manner at a higher level of legitimate authority.

It is also essential to recall that the reserve proposal would not require any city to allow unrestricted housing development everywhere. Rather, it would call for such latitude only in restricted areas, constituting much less than half of the territory of any given jurisdiction. In most places, current land-use regulations would remain unchanged. If anything, the existence of nearby intensification zones would reduce development pressure in most residential neighborhoods. This safety-valve function could potentially ease the fears of genuine NIMBY activists: those concerned merely about changes in their own neighborhoods, as opposed to those rejecting new housing across the board.

 

5.

The proposed housing reserves would be only vaguely analogous to actual wildlife sanctuaries. In my envisaged sanctuaries, only a single species is to be “protected,” and that protection is limited to providing shelter. Both the lands in question and the mechanisms for conservancy, moreover, are to be privately held rather than forming part of the public domain. Indeed, the whole point is to limit the authority of the state and empower private actors, whereas in a genuine nature reserve, the opposite situation obtains. At its core, the proposition might thus seem inherently paradoxical.

But in metaphorical terms, the parallels are more pronounced. The housing reserve is envisaged as a relatively wild place, one that is purposively de-domesticated through the removal of imposed constraints on the basic human predilection for entering into mutually beneficial relations of exchange. In the carefully planned urban milieu of the modern industrial (or postindustrial) state, one generally knows several years ahead of time how the built environment will appear. In a housing reserve, in contrast, little would be foreseeable, with audacious schemes potentially running feral, constrained only by the labile discipline of the market itself. As in all evolutionary processes, no endpoint or even stable equilibrium can be anticipated. What comes about does so on its own — the results of innumerable decisions cast by multitudes of players. We can anticipate exuberant growth but have little clue about what form such exuberance might take.

Yet on deeper reflection, the proposed housing reserve would only be half wild. The form, density, and cost of housing construction would be unregulated, but reserves would still require public amenities, such as water and sewer systems, roads, hospitals, electricity, and policing. Basic regulation of construction for public health and safety would be necessary. Without such “domesticating” processes, the modern city would be unthinkable. These areas would thus be comparable not so much to traditional wildlife reserves as to the “rambunctious gardens” described and envisaged by Emma Marris (2013) — a burgeoning diversity of housing forms and functions, and urban design, amid the familiar meta-functions of a modern metropolis.

If this vision seems improbably sweeping, it is worth considering the alternative: an intensifying crisis in Silicon Valley and similar places that are at once sterile, dysfunctional, and deeply inequitable. In crisis, fortunately, there is opportunity: to open up our urban environments to new solutions in bottom-up fashion and to let people — and markets — figure out the way forward.

Endnotes

  1. Carlos Castañeda, “Protestors Block, Barf on Bus in Fight Against Yahoo’s Oakland Shuttles, April 2, 2014, http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2014/04/02/protesters-block-vomit-on-yahoo-employee-shuttle-bus-in-oakland/.

  2. Siddarth Sharma, “How Palo Alto Voted in the 2016 Election,” The Paly Voice, http://palyvoice.com/2016/11/10/how-palo-alto-voted-in-the-2016-election/.

  3. See, e.g., M.K. Styllinski, “Dark Green X: UN Agenda 21 And Smart Growth,” Infrakshun, https://infrakshun.wordpress.com/2015/02/15/dark-green-x-un-agenda-and-smart-growth-2/, and Joe Otto, “Marxism and Fascism Being Implemented in Your Neighborhood,” Conservative Daily, March 17, 2013, https://conservative-daily.com/2013/03/17/marxism-and-fascism-being-implemented-in-your-neighborhood/.

  4. See, e.g., Joel Kotkin, The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Evanston, IL: Agate B2, 2016). Kotkin is a perceptive author who argues powerfully for the need for more housing. Although I respect his views and value his many insights, I must reject his emphasis on suburbanization on environmental grounds.

  5. Other writers, not surprisingly, disagree profoundly with Kotkin. See, for example, Ryan Gravel’s aptly titled and innovative study, Where We Want to Live: Reclaiming Infrastructure for a New Generation of Cities (St. Martin’s Press, 2016). Charles Siegel backs up a similar claim with data from The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community (Pantheon Books, 1967): “In fact, the data we have shows that most of the people who moved to the new postwar suburbs did not particularly want to live in this sort of neighborhood. When Herbert Gans interviewed the residents of Levittown, a name that was symbolic of the mass suburbs of the fifties, he found that 72% of them had moved there for reasons that had nothing to do with its suburban setting.” Siegel, Unplanning, 32.

  6. Others on the Right, however, fear that the resulting population movements could turn “red” states such as Texas “purple” or even “blue.”

  7. See W. Gardner Selby, “Rick Perry Correct that Trucks Cost Half as Much to Rent Going from Austin to San Francisco than the Other Way Around,” Politifact Texas, March 12, 2014, http://www.politifact.com/texas/statements/2014/mar/12/rick-perry/rick-perry-correct-trucks-cost-half-much-rent-goin/.

  8. See the webpage of the YIMBY Party: http://www.sfyimby.org.

  9. Adam Negourney and Conor Dougherty, “The Cost of a Hot Economy: A Severe Housing Crisis,” New York Times, July 18, 2017, A1, A13, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/17/us/california-housing-crisis.html.

  10. This formulation is not entirely accurate, as extensive private planning would be necessary for every individual housing project. As a result, they would all be ever vulnerable to the so-called planning fallacy, as outlined by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (Kahneman, Thinking: Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), which holds that planners tend to systematically underestimate costs, time, and obstacles while overestimating the benefits of whatever projects are being devised. The signal difference, however, is one of scale and exclusivity. Master plans devised by governmental forces tend to be more susceptible to catastrophe than small, project-specific private plans both because of the former’s greater size and because they are largely shielded from market discipline. Bad plans need to be able to fail: an opportunity that the market provides much more readily than bureaucrats. Nassim Nicholas Taleb nicely summarizes the situation: “Urban planning, incidentally, demonstrates the central property of the so-called top-down effect: top-down is usually irreversible, so mistakes tend to stick, whereas bottom up is gradual and incremental, with creation and destruction along the way, though presumably with a positive slope.” Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Random House, 2012, 324.

  11. C.K. Prahalad, Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty through Profits (Philadelphia: Wharton School, 2004).

  12. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great America Cities (New York: Vintage, 1962).

  13. Charles Siegel, Unplanning: Livable Cities and Political Choices (Berkeley, CA: Preservation Institute, 2010). http://www.preservenet.com/unplanning/Unplanning.pdf.

  14. We might want to consider as well Charles Seigel’s idea that limiting transportation, especially by removing subsidies of all sorts, could actually enhance urban livability. As he argues, “Rather than demanding that the planners provide us with more transportation, we need to realize that we would be better off with less transportation – and that the way to get there is by using the law to put direct limits on destructive forms of transportation.” Siegel, Unplanning, 122.

  15. The concept of “unplanning” has been developed at length by Charles Siegel in Unplanning: Livable Cities and Political Choices (2010). Siegel is highly critical of conventional urban environmental thinking, arguing that “environmentalists want more urban planning in order to undo problems caused by modernist urban planning. Environmentalists want to build cities with walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods — cities designed like American cities were a century ago, before most people ever heard of city planning.” Siegel, Unplanning, 5. But, unlike the current proposal, Siegel would apply “unplanning” across the board and is skeptical of efforts to focus development around transit stations. As the first two paragraphs of his book put it:

    "Environmentalists have not moved beyond the modernist faith in city planning. They say that our cities’ environmental problems are caused by lack of planning. When they see problems that were obviously caused by planning, they blame them on insufficient planning – on “piecemeal planning” that looked at transportation or at zoning in isolation. Instead, they say, we need comprehensive regional land-use and transportation planning: if a single agency controlled land-use planning and transportation planning for an entire metropolitan region, it could concentrate new development near transit stations in order to stop sprawl and reduce automobile dependency.

    Conservatives attack this sort of comprehensive planning on the grounds that it reduces freedom of choice and that it would replace local decision making with centralized decision making by technocratic planners. Environmentalists have a hard time convincing the public to let the planners make decisions that now are made by individuals and by local government" (Siegel, Unplanning, 5).

  16. Liam Dillion, “A Major California Housing Bill Failed After Opposition from the Low-Income Residents It Aimed to Help. Here’s How It Went Wrong,” Los Angeles Times, May 2, 2018, https://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-ca-housing-bill-failure-equity-groups-20180502-story.html.

  17. Julia Galef, “Should We Build Lots More Housing in San Francisco? Three Reasons People Disagree,” https://juliagalef.com/2017/07/13/should-we-build-lots-more-housing-in-san-francisco-three-reasons-people-disagree/#_edn1.

  18. Paul Groth, Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

  19. The shuttering of SRO hotels was not, of course, the only cause of the crisis of homelessness. The closing of mental hospitals and the societal increase in drug abuse, for example, were perhaps even more important.

  20. See, e.g., “Diana Diamond, “Even a Bike Bridge Project Can’t Escape the Infamous ‘Palo Alto Process,’” The Mercury News, December 16, 2015, http://www.mercurynews.com/2015/12/16/diana-diamond-even-a-bike-bridge-project-cant-escape-the-infamous-palo-alto-process.