Category Archives: General

The shopping center paradox

I had a simple (or not so simple) planning problem I liked to pose to students. You’re planning for a currently undeveloped area on the edge of a large city. The area is expected to see significant urban development over the next few decades. The extent of the development is such that you can anticipate a demand for a major retail center to serve the area. This could be a traditional mall, as in the past, or a new life-style center, or some other type of major retail development. The problem is to select the location for this development.

Now for the details. The area is the flat, featureless plain of location theory, so nothing in the topography would favor any location. The area is served by two major transportation arteries, which could be major arterials, freeways, or rail transport. One extends out from the city through the area that will see future development (say north and south). The other transport artery runs perpendicular to the first through the middle of the area where growth is expected to occur (east and west).

So now, where to locate the retail land use? The immediate, obvious answer is at the intersections of the two transportation arteries (with some of the students rolling their eyes wondering why I had even bothered posing such a trivially obvious problem). Correct!

Except not necessarily complete. The intersection of the two transportation arteries creates four corners or quadrants. In which one should the shopping center be located? Now we’re raising a whole host of new questions: In making a plan, how general or specific can or should one be with respect to specifying such a location? What about when you move to regulating development with a zoning ordinance? Do you choose a corner? What if the owner of land on one of the other corners comes in and says that they want to develop a shopping center? Or do you just allow the shopping center development for whomever asks first?

Each time, the discussion would veer in different directions. But it always provoked thinking about the complexities, uncertainties, and limitations in planning.


Density in Houston without zoning

Houston is well-known for being one of the only cities of any size not to have zoning. So an obvious question is how the urban pattern of Houston might differ from that of other large urban areas. Let’s consider the population density.

The density of the Houston Urbanized Area in 2010 was 2,978 persons per square mile. Dallas-Fort Worth seems to be a reasonable area for comparison. It is another large urban area in Texas, so aside from zoning, one might suspect other factors affecting density might be similar. The density of the Dallas-Fort Worth Urbanized Area in 2010: 2,879 persons per square mile, very close to Houston.

What about other large urban areas? Seattle is about as far away from Houston both in terms of distance and many other characteritics as you can get. The density of the Seattle Urbanized Area in 2010: 3,028 persons per square mile, just a tiny amount larger than Houston. Or how about the Philadelphia and Detroit Urbanized Areas, with densities of 2,746 and 2,793 persons per square mile, slightly below Houston.

If Houston doesn’t differ in terms of density, what about the other measures of the urban pattern that I have been using (see this post? Here are the values for 2010 for the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth areas as defined for my research (note density is now in housing units per square mile):

Urban area Density Dissimilarity (Variation) Centralization Ratio Moran’s I (Clustering)
Houston 1,066 0.31 0.12 0.41
Dallas-Fort Worth 1,066 0.31 0.17 0.51

Density and variation are identical (and their densities were nearly identical in 1950 as well). Houston is somewhat lower than Dallas-Fort Worth with respect to centralization and clustering. Not sure what to make, if anything, of these small differences. And remember that Dallas-Fort Worth is an area resulting from two separate urban areas growing together, so there’s that difference as well.

My major conclusion is that, despite the absence of zoning, the urban pattern in Houston does not look that different from other large urban areas.

Always compromises–never black and white

I live in Upland, California, a suburb about 35 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. A short block from our house is Euclid Avenue, a broad, busy boulevard running from south of the city north to the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Euclid Avenue is the signature feature of Upland, created when the city was originally laid out in the latter 1800s. The street is primarily lined by residences, becoming larger and more impressive as one approaches the mountains. Its 65-foot wide median is lined with large old pepper trees and has a spacious path in the middle constantly used by walkers and runners, the occasional horse, and I once even saw a llama. (The median was originally used for a streetcar line, first powered by a mule which pulled the car up the slope to the top of Euclid Avenue and then got to ride down on a trailer at the back as the car descended powered by gravity.)

Euclid Avenue, Upland, California

Euclid Avenue, Upland, California

Philip Langdon, in his book A Better Place to Live, excoriates contemporary suburbs for their boring and placeless design and their obstacles to mobility given their street patterns. Yet he devotes 8 pages of the book to describing and praising Euclid Avenue. (This is worth reading; his account is accurate and comprehensive.) He praises the frequent cross streets, 28 in 7 miles, as providing pedestrian access and not causing problems with the heavy traffic on Euclid Avenue.

Here’s my problem: Langdon gives the count of the number of cross streets, but he does not make the obvious point that these come each quarter mile. The blocks, in the north-south direction on Euclid, are a quarter-mile long. This separation of the cross streets is not unreasonable for a heavily traveled arterial. But these are awfully long blocks from the perspective of Langdon’s desire for a grid of connected streets and maximum pedestrian opportunities. A compromise reasonably required by the presence of the busy boulevard.

And Langdon fails to address the rest of the story. Upland is not this jewel in the midst of the automobile-oriented faceless suburbia that he rails against. Not only are the blocks a rather long quarter mile in the north-south direction, many extend a full half mile in an east-west direction. Some of these huge blocks are cut through by more-or-less straight streets creating smaller blocks. But many of these large blocks are pierced only by cul du sacs and meandering streets that are the antithesis of the grid that Landon espouses.

Things are seldom black-and-white, good or bad. Before moving to Upland, I lived in Zionsville, Indiana, a suburb of Indianapolis. At its core was the original town settled in the mid-nineteen century with a street grid with small blocks, old houses on small lots, and a small, quaint downtown on a brick street. This part of Zionsville was affectionately referred to as the “village” and was the major element of the town’s attraction. And the village was surrounded by newer suburban development of exactly the sort Langdon decries.

Next door to Upland is the city of Claremont, home, of course, to the Claremont Colleges. It too has an older, somewhat denser core and an extensive, lively downtown area (attributable at least in part to the presence of the colleges). Claremont likewise refers to this portion of the city as the “village.” And most of the remainder of the city consists of typical suburban development.

Can urban environments be too planned?

I worked as a summer intern at HUD in 1970. They were really great, offering multiple educational opportunities for the group of interns. One of these was a tour of the planned new community of Columbia, Maryland.

At the time, the planned communities of Columbia and Reston, Virginia, were considered by many urban planners to be the outstanding examples of good planning in the United States. It’s worth noting as an aside here that many aspects of Columbia’s design would not be considered positively by many contemporary urbanists: For example, the density was too low and the street design included curving streets and cul du sacs. (See my earlier blog posts on connected streets here and here.)

We had the opportunity to walk around some areas and rode our bus to view other parts of Columbia. I was impressed. It was an environment I could see myself living in. {I did end up living in the planned city of Irvine, California, a few years later.)

But as we rode around, I started feeling a sense of unease. I didn’t know why, but I was not completely comfortable with the environment. Then I saw some graffiti spray-painted on the back of a street sign, and I realized my problem: This was the first thing I had seen on the trip that the Rouse Corporation, the developer of Columbia, had not planned.

Columbia was extremely well-planned. But it lacked the element of spontaneity and surprise that is a critical aspect of the urban environment. This is a part of what makes a city a city.

I think something similar was going on with the producers of the movie The Truman Show selecting the new urbanist community of Seaside as the setting for an artificial environment (see this post).

Making policy is hard–affordable housing

During the latter 1970s, the city of Irvine, California, imposed a requirement that new developments include a limited percentage of “affordable” housing units. The first development subject to this requirement included 900–1,000-square-foot townhouses that were to be sold for around $50,000. This was significantly less than market rate for such housing. I had put “affrordable” in quotes because at this time, houses selling for that price were hardly low- or even moderate-income housing.

The units were to be sold to people having an income less than a specified maximum but high enough to qualify for financing. The maximum was high enough that some assistant professors at the University of California-Irvine were eligible. Given the high and escalating housing prices in Orange County, demand was extremely high. Buyers were to be selected using a lottery.

I was teaching a course on land use policy. Students were required to complete a final paper on a topic of their choosing. One student came in, told me she had read about the affordable housing requirement and the lottery and asked whether that would be a suitable topic for the paper. Of course it was.

A week or so later, the student came in again. After starting to research the policy, she discovered that she and her husband were eligible for the housing, and they had entered the lottery. After the lottery had taken place, she came to see me once more, very excited. She and her husband had won and would be purchasing one of the units, which were to be completed soon.

The student kept in touch after the term ended. She came to see me shortly after moving into their new house with an update. The affordable housing program placed no restrictions on resale. The day they moved in and ever since, she and her neighbors had real estate agents knocking on their doors, offering to sell or even buy the houses for at least $20,000 more than they had paid. Most were not accepting the offer, because if that had, they could do no better in the market-rate housing market in Orange County.

This first iteration of the “affordable” housing policy did result in the addition of a limited number of smaller, less expensive (around $70,000 at market prices) houses in Irvine. It also allowed a small number of households with incomes that could qualify to purchase a $50,000 house to buy these townhouses. I’ve always found it interesting to contemplate how similar a policy would have been that required the developer to build these smaller houses, sell them at market rates, presumably around $70,000, and then hold a lottery in which the winners would each get a check from the developer for $20,000. Especially if they were given priority in purchasing the houses, if they chose to do so.

Nearly everything involves tradeoffs

Those who advocate for urban futures typically describe an ideal urban environment that will be superior to current urban areas. I think they are missing two important facts in doing so. One is that people are different and have different preferences. An urban environment that best meets the needs of one person will fail to be ideal for someone else. The second thing that is seldom addressed is that in making choices about the urban environment (and many other things), nearly every choice involves making tradeoffs among competing objectives. I’ll give a few examples of the latter.

The most commonly considered tradeoff, at least among urban economists, is that between accessibility to the center and space that is the foundation of the standard monocentric model. People can reduce transportation costs by choosing a residence closer to the center or they can have more space for the residence by living farther away. But the tradeoff with space involves not only costs of commuting to the center. There is a tradeoff between having a walkable neighborhood with multiple destinations within walking distance and space for the residence as well. This must be the case because higher residential densities can support higher densities of commercial and other activities. In lower-density areas, commercial activities will be more widely spaced to achive sufficient markets.

In the design of street patterns for residential areas, a tradeoff exists between connectivity and restricting through traffic. High street connectivity supports walkability (though there are other ways of achieving this as well) while restricting through traffic with cul du sacs and curving streets may increase safety, especially for smaller children. I discussed this in an earlier blog post.

Another transportation tradeoff involves the use of streets. Space for lanes used for motor vehicle traffic can be converted for dedicated transit use or bicycle lanes. This achieves very laudable objectives. But it also can slow automobile travel and increase congestion. Political conflict associated with making such tradeoffs can be very real. Los Angeles had reduced the number of traffic lanes in one section of the city to increase safety, including by the addition of bike lanes. This produced an outcry among both motorists and businesses in the area, led to lawsuits, and ultimately to a restoration of the traffic lanes.

Limiting the physical expansion of an urban area to reduce sprawl can achieve worthwhile objectives. But given the laws of supply and demand, reducing the supply of developable land may lead to higher housing prices. This might be ameliorated by other regulatory policies, but those too will involve yet more tradeoffs.

Los Angeles, utopia or dystopia?

As Los Angeles and Southern California began to grow by attracting large numbers from elsewhere in the United States, its environment and opportunities were sometimes characterized as being a utopia. More recently, as a range of problems have developed and increased, some have described the area as a dystopia. Obviously Southern California is not, and never has been, either. Rather, it has become a great example of the importance of making tradeoffs among competing objectives.

A major contributor to the idea of Los Angeles and Southern California as a utopia has been, of course, the natural environment. The year-round sunny climate is really very nice–especially if you left Indiana when it was 6 degrees F. and snowing! The Pacific Ocean and the nearby mountains contribute scenic beauty and abundament recreational opportunities. One time we literally went cross-country skiing in the morning, returned to Irvine, and went to the beach in the afternoon.

As the area was developing, abundant economic opportunities were available to the newcomers as well. With the capturing of water resources, agriculture was a profitable endeavor. Citrus growing was especially important–it wasn’t called Orange County for nothing. Industries were established that benefited from the good weather and sunshine, first the motion picture industry and later the aircraft industry. More industry followed both because of the growing market and the expanding labor force. And there are the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

But the extremely large numbers of people pouring into the area created problems as well. Greater Los Angeles/Southern Califoria has grown to have a population of over 18 million. I am considering this to include Los Angeles and Orange Counties (the Los Angeles MSA), Riverside and San Bernardino Counties (the Riverside-San Bernardino MSA) and Ventura County (the Oxnard MSA).

Los Angeles is well-known for its notoriously poor air quality, the smog that is some of the worst in the county. High motor vehicle use combined with a topography and climate that can trap pollutants creates this problem (though it must be said that air quality is far, far better than at its nadir in the 1960s as a result of aggressive regulation). The automobile traffic also produces tremendous congestion on the freeways.

Continued population growth combined with the failure to expand the supply of housing at the same rate has led to very high housing prices. Barriers to the construction of more housing have been regulatory, physical (the mountains and the ocean), and sheer distance, as the barriers have channeled development farther and farther from the heart of the metropolitan area. And the high housing prices have contributed to a dramatic increase in the number of homeless persons.

Economic opportunities are fewer as well. Like other areas with significant manufacturing, jobs in this sector have been lost in recent decades. The problem was exacerbated in the aerospace and defense industry, which was negatively impacted by the end of the Cold War. Also on the the economic side, California is a high-tax state.

So what about the tradeoffs? During much of the last century, large numbers migrated to Southern California from elsewhere in the United States as the advantages were seen to outweigh the negatives. But their coming contributed to the growth of the problems. At some point, the growing disadvantages have come to slightly outweight the benefits, at least for some U.S. residents. From 2010 to 2015, net migration between Southern California and the rest of the U.S. was 225,000 out of the region. This was more than made up by the positive net international migration of over 370,000, however.

Why the differences between domestic and international migration? Domestic movers are giving greater weight to the problems. International migrants value the positives more highly, likely especially continued economic opportunity. And remember that even among those moving within the United States, this is net migration. People are still moving to Southern California. These movers presumably value the benefits, whether the physical environment or specific economic opportunities or something else, more highly than the problems. Those leaving, on the other hand, are saying good riddance to the smog, congestion, and high housing prices, which they feel have come to outweigh the climate, mountains, and ocean.

Most choices involve tradeoffs. The standard monocentric model of urban location has residents selecting a residence trading off accessibility to the center (lower transportation costs) with more space.