Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ten principles for developing a great city

I recently came across these excellent principles from the Lone Mountain Compact (hat tip to Josh). For the most part, Houston already follows most of them most of the time, but it couldn't hurt to have them formally adopted by the City Council, the CoH Planning Commission, H-GAC, Harris County, and other entities.

The phenomenon of urban sprawl has become a pre-eminent controversy throughout the United States. Recently a number of scholars and writers, gathered at a conference about the issue at Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky, Montana by the Political Economy Research Center, decided to distill their conclusions into the following brief statement of principles. The authors have called this statement the "Lone Mountain Compact," and have invited other writers and scholars to join in endorsing its principles. A partial list of signatures appears at the end.

The unprecedented increase in prosperity over the last 25 years has created a large and growing upper middle class in America. New modes of work and leisure combined with population growth have fueled successive waves of suburban expansion in the 20th century. Technological progress is likely to increase housing choice and community diversity even further in the 21st century, enabling more people to live and work outside the conventional urban forms of our time. These choices will likely include low-density, medium-density, and high-density urban forms. This growth brings rapid change to our communities, often with negative side effects, such as traffic congestion, crowded public schools, and the loss of familiar open space. All of these factors are bound up in the controversy that goes by the term "sprawl." The heightened public concern over the character of our cities and suburbs is a healthy expression of citizen demand for solutions that are responsive to our changing needs and wants. Yet tradeoffs between different policy options for addressing these concerns are poorly understood. Productive solutions to public concerns will adhere to the following fundamental principles.

1. The most fundamental principle is that, absent a material threat to other individuals or the community, people should be allowed to live and work where and how they like.

2. Prescriptive, centralized plans that attempt to determine the detailed outcome of community form and function should be avoided. Such "comprehensive" plans interfere with the dynamic, adaptive, and evolutionary nature of neighborhoods and cities.

3. Densities and land uses should be market driven, not plan driven. Proposals to supersede market-driven land use decisions by centrally directed decisions are vulnerable to the same kind of perverse consequences as any other kind of centrally planned resource allocation decisions, and show little awareness of what such a system would have to accomplish even to equal the market in effectiveness.

4. Communities should allow a diversity in neighborhood design, as desired by the market. Planning and zoning codes and building regulations should allow for neotraditional neighborhood design, historic neighborhood renovation and conversion, and other mixed-use development and the more decentralized development forms of recent years.

5. Decisions about neighborhood development should be decentralized as far as possible. Local neighborhood associations and private covenants are superior to centralized or regional government planning agencies.

6. Local planning procedures and tools should incorporate private property rights as a fundamental element of development control. Problems of incompatible or conflicting land uses will be better resolved through the revival of common law principles of nuisance than through zoning regulations which tend to be rigid and inefficient.

7. All growth management policies should be evaluated according to their cost of living and "burden-shifting" effects. Urban growth boundaries, minimum lot sizes, restrictions on housing development, restrictions on commercial development, and other limits on freely functioning land markets that increase the burdens on lower income groups must be rejected.

8. Market-oriented transportation strategies should be employed, such as peak period road pricing, HOT lanes, toll roads, and de-monopolized mass transit. Monopoly public transit schemes, especially fixed rail transit that lacks the flexibility to adapt to the changing destinations of a dynamic, decentralized metropolis, should be viewed skeptically.

9. The rights of present residents should not supersede those of future residents. Planners, citizens, and local officials should recognize that "efficient" land use must include consideration for household and consumer wants, preferences, and desires. Thus, growth controls and land-use planning must consider the desires of future residents and generations, not solely current residents.

10. Planning decisions should be based upon facts, not perceptions. A number of the concerns raised in the "sprawl" debate are based upon false perceptions. The use of good data in public policy is crucial to the continued progress of American cities and the social advance of all its citizens.

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At 10:44 AM, March 17, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The amazing part is how much we actually already follow most of these.

Even the part about no having lot sized restrictions we do follow. The neighborhoods that do have them are part of the deed restrictions and covenants discussed in a previous principle.

At 10:59 AM, March 17, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...


The link below goes to a pretty good analysis entitled "Rich States/Poor State". There is even a 1 page quick PDF summary for each state.

The authors are Art Laffer and Steve Moore. Two economists I have some respect for.


You may be able to make a new post off of this one.

At 1:45 PM, March 19, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

This sounds interesting (and mostly at odds with your principles) from US DOT:

"The HUD/DOT task force will:

• Enhance integrated regional housing, transportation, and land use planning and investment. The task force will set a goal to have every major metropolitan area in the country conduct integrated housing, transportation, and land use planning and investment in the next four years. To facilitate integrated planning, HUD and DOT propose, through HUD’s proposed Sustainable Communities Initiative which it will administer in consultation with DOT, to make planning grants available to metropolitan areas, and create mechanisms to ensure those plans are carried through to localities. DOT will encourage MPOs to conduct this integrated planning as a part of their next long range transportation plan update and will provide technical assistance on scenario planning, a tool for assessing future growth alternatives that better coordinate land use and transportation planning.

• The task force will redefine affordability to reflect those interdependent costs. The task force will also continue to ensure that the costs of living in certain geographic areas are transparent– using an online tool that calculates the combined housing and transportation costs families face when choosing a new home."

I wonder what this tool will look like. Will it be like an energy star rating where you can type in an address and get the total cost of ownerhsip? Below is one such tool:


At 2:56 PM, March 19, 2009, Blogger Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...

The first principle reads:

"The most fundamental principle is that, absent a material threat to other individuals or the community, people should be allowed to live and work where and how they like."

Maybe it is the lawyer in me but how do you define "material threat?"

For example, my definition would almost certainly include death which then basically eliminates most of the other principles you cited that encourage (and even celebrate) sprawl and complete auto-reliance.

At 3:59 PM, March 19, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I don't think that would be any more material than pedestrian, transit, and biking dangers, including crime susceptibility. And if the gas-consuming internal combustion engine is causing externality costs (like pollution), then the appropriate response is a tax to cover those costs and let the market adapt (with electric cars or plug-in hybrids, for instance)- not regulations forcing a certain lifestyle.

At 4:38 PM, March 19, 2009, Blogger Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...


Pollution is a diffuse problem caused by everyone and it effects everyone. An accident is based on a cause and effect relationship normally between two people (or at least a small number of people). The later is handled reasonably well through the tort and criminal justice system. The former, not so much.

But let’s run with your principles for a second here. Let’s say I want to drive 100mph down the freeway. Perhaps that is simply the way I like to drive to work from BFE into the city. I want to live far out but I work in the city and I don’t want to have to wake up early. I fell I “should be allowed to live and work where and how [I] like.” Following principle #1, given that such action is a material threat to others, I shouldn’t have the freedom to take such action. Communities have the right (the duty perhaps) to regulate such action and, yes, limit my freedom to act recklessly and place society at large in danger. Why can’t the same argument be used for pollution from cars? I mean, when I am speeding, I am only likely to kill an isolated number of people or perhaps myself. Pollution on the other hand, is caused by everyone and it effects everyone. Shouldn’t that present an even stronger case for regulation, plans and laws?

Anyway, to your point about taxing to address externalities; I very much agree with you on this point. But to address the negative externality like pollution through taxes, you will in the end be “forcing a certain lifestyle.” This is because to address this problem we would have to raise taxes to such a level to reduce the number of cars and type of cars on the road. Raising taxes on fuel or the vehicles themselves is a fine way to take such action. But in the end, you are forcing people to drive less, live closer to work, live in smaller houses, etc. That is, unless you have a magic wand to suddenly create pollution-free, marketable cars to the masses.

At 5:32 PM, March 19, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Appetitus Rationi Pareat wrote:
"Anyway, to your point about taxing to address externalities; I very much agree with you on this point. But to address the negative externality like pollution through taxes, you will in the end be “forcing a certain lifestyle.” This is because to address this problem we would have to raise taxes to such a level to reduce the number of cars and type of cars on the road."

Not necessarily. The tax of this kind is intended to deal with the externalities caused by pollution, not to reduce the number of cars on the road. You could use it to fund asthma treatment, tunnels (which could trap pollutants before they enter the area), a local tax credit on buying a hybrid or electric car, or funding electric car charging stations.

It's like the Superfund (RCRA). It is intended to deal with the externalities caused by certain types of industrial activities - i.e. cleaning up the pollution. While in reality, the Superfund can sometimes be a deterrent to would-be polluters, it was not intended to be such and does not operate as such.

At 5:47 PM, March 19, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Running my air conditioner, or anything else in my house, causes coal and other types of electric plants to produce pollution. Are we going to shut off the electrical grid? Clearly not. We want to price the pollutant proportional to the cost to society, so the market will make better choices (including the types of electric plants built, cars built, and housing created).

You think this will force the dense transit lifestyle, but I suspect the costs are lower than you think (and therefore the necessary taxes), and while it will make the dense transit lifestyle somewhat more attractive, I don't see it tipping any substantial portion of the population towards a new way to live (although it might shift the type of car they buy).

At 6:33 AM, March 20, 2009, Blogger Peter Wang said...

I say let's build bus rapid transit (BRT) down FM1960 / SH6 from Spring to Sugar Land, creating a 30-something mile long transit corridor... then as you say, let the market decide how the land will be used all along that corridor. I suspect we will like the results much better than the current results. Then, as things change, BRT can be more-or-less easily moved, whereas rail cannot be.


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