Building from the Top Down

Senator Chris Dodd is sponsoring a bill to promote development of livable cities.  The Livable Communities Act is designed to coordinate federal policies on housing, transportation, energy, and the environment.  It would provide grants to cities to build in alignment with federal urban policy.

As Reuters explains:

Dodd described the bill as combining housing development, public transit, and infrastructure and land-use planning into one comprehensive approach to city development. Currently, many of those decisions are made separately from one another, and Dodd and others said the partitions have led to urban sprawl.

However, Dodd’s explanation of the causes of urban sprawl ignores the history of density restrictions, federal subsidies of highways and mortgages that have pushed and pulled many cities to their current states of sprawl.  His policy prescription does not address the types of challenges that cities pose.

Urban development is the essence of an economic problem, rather than an engineering problem.  Even a “coordinated” federal policy will not necessarily help urban development, which must be a ground-up process.  As Jane Jacobs explains, top-down funding for urban development is often “cataclysmic” because vital development must come from entrepreneurs rather than politicians, and must be supported by local residents.  Without an understanding of the hyper-local issues that impact block-by-block development, federal funding for urban development is likely to destroy blossoming vitality by diverting resources from their most valued uses.

Previous federal urban policies, such as Community Development Block Grants and Federal housing Administration loans have led to systemic problems in American cities such as concentrated poverty and urban sprawl.  The Livable Communities Act is likely to have similar, unforeseen consequences.