Wednesday, May 4, 2016

NIMBYism in defense of good outcomes is no vice

Building this street in Philly is illegal most places in the US. Would Jane Jacobs approve?  Source
Today is the 100th birthday anniversary of paradigm-shifting urbanist Jane Jacobs. She emphasized complexity, diversity, emergent order, resilience and antifragility in city design and planning prior to these concepts being formalized and mainstreamified. In a loose analog to the top-down vs bottom-up, planning-vs-markets divide, Jacobs showed the deep advantages of ancient design techniques like walkability, human-scale buildings and incrementalism.

She was also, however, a NIMBY:

The overlap between JJ's ideas and the market urbanism approach to land-use political economy is substantial: both share a skepticism of government planning and view economic development as fundamentally a Hayekian discovery process. An organization that tries to align both approaches is Strong Towns, which conceptually unifies architecture and design with economic performance and public finance. But even here, we see Strong Towns being much more stridently anti-NIMBY and pro-growth compared to JJ.

Ultimately, I think, the division comes down to market urbanists having a slightly different emphasis. Instead of affirmatively supporting specific design styles, they support a policy paradigm that will, in many cases, tend towards those same design styles. JJ certainly discussed policy, but mostly to the extent that certain policies fostered good design. For market urbanists, good policy (meaning a free market in buying, selling, and building) is paramount. This subtle difference leads to a stark difference when it comes to NIMBYism.

Not all NIMBYs are created equal

Consider three situations that would plausibly trigger intense NIMBY backlash:
  1. A state government, with federal dollars, wants to build a highway through a residential neighborhood
  2. A private business wants to build an asphalt factory in the middle of a residential neighborhood
  3. A private homeowner wants to densify their plot and create a multi-unit structure in a residential neighborhood
In the first scenario, NIMBYism is justified by both a JJ and market urbanist approach. For JJ, the highway destroys what is special about cities. For market urbanists, the highway is extremely unlikely to provide a net benefit and introduces a costly subsidy to motorists and sprawl.

In the second scenario, JJ would support NIMBYism for much the same reason as the first. For market urbanists, this is a borderline case. Some would say NIMBYism is not justified, and nearby residents should engage in Coasean bargaining. Others would say NIMBYism is okay in light of pollution externalities causing a market failure.

In the third scenario, JJ might approve or disapprove of NIMBYism based on the density level and local design landscape: if the project converted a single-family dwelling to "missing middle" apartments, she would likely disapprove of NIMBYism; conversely building a huge tower in a neighborhood of row houses might justify blocking action. For market urbanists, NIMBYism here is unjustified because it prevents the logic of price signals and supply/demand from working its magic. It also muddies the concept of private ownership by extending residents' control into property they don't own.

NIMBYism is a tactic.

The takeaway is that both approaches are concerned with outcomes, not process. NIMBYism is fundamentally a tactic to accomplish goals, and so its status depends almost entirely on the desirability of those goals.

In practice, market urbanists are quite anti-NIMBY when it comes to private land use, but pro-NIMBY when it comes public land use. Many left-urbanists are the opposite, championing transit, infrastructure and public housing while restricting private building. Design-focused urbanists, like Jane Jacobs, go both ways.

When it comes to discussions about how easy we should make NIMBYism, and whether to formalize its main weapons into law and regulation, being clear about which policy goals stand to gain relative to others would clear up lots of confusion and dogmatic rhetoric.

p.s. Tyler Cowen raised some good points in 2006 about applying Jacobs' ideas to poorer countries. I agree, but think rich countries face a different set of challenges regarding government efficacy.

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