Centrally Planned Suburbia

One great example of how much politics is about identity is the spectacle of libertarians like John Stossel doing things like defending sprawl. They note that “smart growth” environmentalists disparage sprawl and want to regulate what people can build and where, and they know that libertarians don’t like environmentalists, so they write in defense of sprawl. But as Austin Bramwell points out at The American Conservative sprawl is also central planning:

For the 101st time: sprawl — an umbrella term for the pattern of development seen virtually everywhere in the United States — is not caused by the free market. It is, rather, mandated by a vast and seemingly intractable network of government regulations, from zoning laws and building codes to street design regulations. If Stossel wants to expand Americans’ lifestyle choices, he should attack the very thing he was defending, namely, suburban sprawl.

Not being a libertarian or a conservative of any sort, I’m happy to just take it for granted that you’re never going to have a genuinely “small government” approach to the built environment. But I would sort of be interested to see, as an exercise, someone try to put together a serious, genuinely libertarian view of how cities and towns should be built — what’s the absolute minimum we could get away with.

But whatever that would be, it’s certainly not what we have in America’s sprawlier places. Take the thrilling Maricopa County Zoning Ordinance in Phoenix and it’s suburbs. Chapter 6 covers single family residential zones. You’ve got your R1–35 areas in which you need 35,000 square feet of land per dwelling unit, your R1–10 areas where you need 10,000 feet, and then separate zones for 8,000 square feet per unit; 7,000 square feet per dwelling; and 6,000 square feet per dwelling.


If you want to build a mult-family structure in those places, you can’t. If you find yourself an R2 zone you can, but it can only be a two family structure. Also your building can’t be taller than 40 feet, “There shall be a front yard having a depth of not less than 20 feet,” the year yard needs to be 25 feet, and the side yard needs to be at least 5 feet. On average, buildings can only occupy at most 50 percent of the lot. And there have to be two parking spaces per dwelling unit. And you can go so on and so forth throughout the whole thing. The point, however, is that walkable urbanism is illegal in most of the county. Not just giant skyscrapers, but anything even remotely non-sprawling.


People sometimes cite Houston as an example of a libertarian-style “no zoning” city, but this is mostly a myth and it’s completely a myth with regards to parking and density. It all hinges on the semantics of what’s “zoning.”