Neighborhoods

Russell Turpin deafbox@hotmail.com
Sat, 27 Oct 2001 14:49:26 -0500


The previous thread on sprawl, America vs. Europe, got
me to thinking about this ..

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A friend of mine and his wife recently moved into a new house
they built. It is a very pretty and well-designed house. It 
is large, with a kitchen where one can cook for thirty, a big 
living area, offices, game room, and guest rooms. It has a 
pool with wrap-around patio, a hot tub, a wetbar both inside 
and out, and an upstairs balcony. It is in a suburb that has 
nothing but similarly nice houses for miles around. And a 
country club. The nearest grocery, a large suburban store in 
a strip mall, is three miles away.

I live in a very different kind of house. It is an older 
house, just under 900 square feet. But it is luxurious, in a 
different way. Our small pantry and modest refridgerator 
will not hold a week's worth of meals, so we (there are three 
of us) more frequently have to shop. Fortunately, there are 
two neighborhood groceries within three blocks. If we need
cilantro for soup, or milk for tomorrow's coffee, a pleasant
five-minute walk solves the matter. With little shelf space, 
and fewer bar accoutrements, we keep only a couple of bottles
of liquor on hand. When we want margaritas or fancy drinks, 
we choose between four bars within a three block radius. If 
we want merely to renew our rum, the liquor store is just a 
bit further. Three of those bars are in restaurants. There 
are another dozen restaurants within a seven block radius. 
The fourth bar is a sidewalk dessert shop and bar. Every 
neighborhood should have one of those.

When we want to swim, instead of stepping out the back door, 
we step out the front door and cross the street to the 
neighborhood pool. It has a reserved lap lane, and for kids, 
a separate wading pool and a playground. It is next to a 
sculpture museum. We have no guest rooms for visitors who 
spend the night or weekend. Instead, there is a B&B behind us. 
A second B&B is three blocks away. 

To fill a prescription, Walgreens is four blocks west. To 
mail a package, the post office is one block south. To get 
help in an emergency, the fire house is across the street. To
dry clean a suit, the laundromat is three blocks east. Between 
the bakery and the barber. Further away, but still within 
walking distance, this neighborhood has a bank, an auto 
mechanic, a quick lube, a gym, a karate school, two video 
stores, two convenience stores, and a variety of shops. 
Everyone walks in this neighborhood. The sidewalks have ramps 
for those who are in wheelchairs. The laundromat, the bakery, 
the sidewalk bar, and the park are public spaces where 
neighbors rub elbows. When we're not feeling sociable, we sit 
in the swing on our front porch and watch the world go by. 
(Yes, our front yard has the requisite oak and pecan tree.)

Our house holds only what we privately need. We rely on the 
neighborhood for almost everything that businesses and
community can supply the public. Most things we need are a 
short walk away, on sidewalks under trees. This makes things 
very simple for us. Instead of stocking and maintaining a large 
house, we live in a sparse house, in a rich neighborhood. 
Minimal inventory. Minimal maintenance. While I clearly like 
this modus vivendi, I recognize the benefits of how my friend 
lives. Any guest who swims naked at "my" pool likely will be 
arrested. We must plan ahead for overnight guests. We can't
have a loud party that runs too late, because my neighbors'
windows are three yards away. The suburban lifestyle more lets 
one do these things in their own chosen way, to their own
time, and in their own space. That has its advantages.

In an ideal world, individuals would select their neighborhood
based on the characteristics they prefer, and the market would
adapt to these preferences. To some extent, this happens. But
in this area especially, there are a variety of ways in which 
the spectrum of choices are subject to non-market influence.

PUBLIC INFRASTRUCTURE. Cities decide where to build roads, 
where to lay sidewalks, where to run utility connections, and
how to charge for these. Without a pure market, it is hard
to distinguish between "building in response to anticipated
demand" and "they will go where you build." How the city 
constructs and maintains its streets determines how pleasant 
-- and safe! -- it is to walk or bicycle for short trips. 
Neighborhood businesses of the sort I describe above require 
that folks nearby can easily reach them without car. Once 
you're driving, three miles is not that much different from 
three blocks. Many neighborhoods in this city were built to 
be hostile to pedestrian use. Conversely, you cannot have 
suburbs unless the city builds the highways to them, and 
modifies the street system for the malls that are required by 
the suburbs. Utilities often are required by state regulation 
to offer suburbs the same pricing structure as they do to 
urban neighborhoods, even though it costs more to run lines 
further out.

RESOLUTION OF EXTERNALITIES. Each choice of infrastructure 
imposes external costs on different groups. Building out 
roads for high car traffic requires others to put up with 
their noise and pollution. It makes the routes used by 
pedestrians and bicyclists fewer, longer, and more hazardous. 
Conversely, walkways and bikeways impose delays to people 
driving. So do stop lights for malls and gated communities.
There is no market resolution here, because there is no 
mechanism to incorporate the external costs. There is no 
original owner. Long before any city or developer claimed the 
routes, people had to walk them during original exploration 
of the land. Cities and states resolve these externalities 
through a purely political process. 

ZONING AND BUILDING STANDARDS. It saddens me to realize that 
the kind of neighborhood in which I live likely could not be 
constructed today. The many stores and services nearby rely 
on a high population density. This was achieved by mixing 
apartments with houses, by building small houses on small 
lots, and by the build-out of garage apartments, often reached 
by alleyway. There are some larger houses, including 
historical homes that sell over the half-million dollar mark. 
Mine is a fairly upscale neighborhood. At the same time, we 
have a lot of residents in a relatively small geographic area. 
Many cities have adopted zoning and building codes that 
prevent or impede the kind of construction that led to this
neighborhood. Thankfully, some are starting to take a second 
look at this. 

EDUCATION. The public school system binds parents in a 
neighborhood to one or two schools at each level, which 
sometimes aren't in the neighborhood, and often have 
questionable quality for reasons that have nothing to do with 
the neighborhood. Many parents have moved to the suburbs 
solely to find or start a more appealing school system. For a 
variety of reasons, we need to loosen the coupling between 
where one lives and the quality of education one's children
receive.

CRIME. An urban neighborhood relies almost entirely on its
city police to combat crime. The suburbs more easily supplement
the police, with community gates and private security guards. 

There is a significant and intransigent element of public 
policy that determines the range of neighborhoods in a region. 
In this area, more than any other, I think pure market theory 
butts up against a long history of non-market influence, and
the impossibility of capturing the relevant externalities. 
Perhaps if we were to start anew, we could choose between 
entirely private arcologies, gated communities, planned towns, 
etc. But we're not going to start anew. Cities have deep roots.

The kind of neighborhood in which I live has become quite 
rare. There are only a few like it in this city. One could 
argue that that reflects the low demand for it. There is some 
evidence to the contrary: the small, old houses here are in high 
demand, selling for more per square foot than newer and fancier 
homes. It isn't because the houses are special. Most are small
spec homes built before WW II, heated with floor furnaces, 
cooled by window units, low on closet space, and lacking most 
of the modern conveniences. (We have neither dishwasher nor 
garbage disposal.) My tentative conclusion is that the rarity 
of this kind of neighborhood, of this way of doing things, 
turns less on the market demand for it than on public policies 
that have discouraged it vis-a-vis other kinds of development.
The sprawl of America does not entirely reflect market demand
to live in the exurbs, but is partly the result of public 
policies affecting roads, infrastructure, utilities, zoning, 
crime, and education.

Or maybe I'm dreaming.

Russell