by Russell Turpin
A friend of mine and his wife recently moved into a new house they built. It is a very pretty and well-designed house, 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--have to shop more frequently. 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.
We fill a prescription at Walgreens, four blocks west, mail a package at the post office one block south. If there's 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. And 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 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.
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 in a fashion 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 at 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. 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.
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.
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. Ours has 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.