Tweaks to the existing machinery or newer, better machines?

Spencer Gardner is a member of Strong Towns and guest writer, sharing his response to a recent series on housing in Portland.

Chuck’s recent series about high housing prices in Portland, OR highlighted an intellectual tussle I’ve had with myself many times over the years: How to balance an idealistic vision with what can realistically and practically be executed. The general thrust of the numerous comments on the articles also seemed to touch on this question and I felt it might be worthy of a response.

For background I will attempt to summarize the main points of the Portland articles:

  1. Restrictive land development regulations skew the market for developable land.
  2. Arbitrary relaxation of said regulations in isolated locations--”high density corridors”--creates a speculative market based on expectations of obtaining rights to higher density development.
  3. The speculative market reduces the incentive to maintain and incrementally improve properties in anticipation of winning the density lottery.
  4. Increased prices from speculation spread throughout corridors slated for high density housing, elevating housing costs throughout the metro area.
  5. The incentives at the core of the issue could be eliminated by downzoning the high density corridors and instead unlocking incremental development by right across a broader swath of the city

My apologies to Chuck if this summary is inaccurate. I’ll let him defend his own views. For our purposes, I wanted to respond to the final article in the series. Many commenters focused on the political infeasibility of allowing incremental development by right. In terms of what’s realistically possible today, the argument goes, I’ll take the high density corridors over the near impossibility of enacting the reforms described in the article. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. To this, the article responded: Change is hard, but we can’t afford to get this wrong. And here we arrive at the heart of my recurring dilemma.

Is it OK for me to feel that both sides are right here? Or to restate, am I wrong to see value in both arguments? If we could step through a wormhole and visit an alternate universe where zoning was declared unconstitutional in 1926, Portland’s problems would likely not involve the speculative feedback loop described above. Unfortunately, I have yet to find that wormhole and in the meantime making meaningful change to regulations in Portland and elsewhere will likely take decades of education, effort, and luck. Is it wrong to see the good in infrastructure more thoroughly used because some high density housing was built? The alternative, given the political reality, surely would be less efficient in fiscal terms.

The task of moving from our bloated, modern zoning codes to ones that create Strong Towns is different from starting with a blank slate.

If I were starting a city from scratch I’m pretty sure I could write an awesome zoning code. It would be very short and look more like the MIT software license than today’s zoning codes. But I’m not starting a city from scratch, and these days very few people are. We have 100 years of accumulated regulatory barnacles that need removing. The task of moving from our bloated, modern zoning codes to ones that create Strong Towns is different from starting with a blank slate.

I think there’s room in Strong Towns for an appreciation of both important questions. We need a vision for how things should be in order to know where to aim. But getting from here to there is tough business. I think it will always be a significant source of disagreement within our movement, but also the most fertile ground for sharing ideas and learning from each other.

To be perfectly clear, the two ways of thinking are not mutually exclusive. In fact, perhaps part of the problem is that, for too long, they have been mutually exclusive: the bureaucracy administers zoning without much self-reflection, and the thinkers and academics debate how things should be with little appreciation for how the world actually works. Strong Towns need both types of thinking!

The recent elections in the US have given life to strong feelings from people who are worried about our future. I’m reminded of a story from Mormon scripture about a prophet who laments the self-destruction and collapse of his people. Their sorrow was, he says, the “sorrowing of the damned”, because they would not turn their suffering toward the changes necessary to correct course.

The most important work we can do today is ensure that the angst, frustration, and disillusionment that so many people feel on both sides of the political aisle (and in many other countries as well) turns to solutions. Some of those solutions will be tweaks to the existing machinery and some will involve newer, better machines. Whatever your inclination, Strong Towns needs your voice. You’re not alone, and the more of us there are, the more powerful our message will be heard in cities across the continent.

(Top photo by Keith Williamson)

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Spencer Gardner is a transportation planner based in Madison, WI. He spends his spare time chasing his children, riding bikes, doing hobbyist computer programming, and very occasionally writing about urban issues. You can read his thoughts about transportation at