A Strong Citizen’s Introduction to Market Urbanism

Nolan Gray is a Strong Towns member and writer for Market Urbanism. Today, he's talking about the intersections between market urbanism principles and the Strong Towns mission.

Earlier this month, I and others from the Market Urbanism community were spreading the good news about urbanism in the “Urbanism, Development, & Your Neighborhood” track at FEEcon in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a special moment for me in particular, since it brought together the people and groups that made me an urbanist: First, Sandy Ikeda who told me at a FEE seminar back in 2012 that “you should really go and read Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Second, Chuck Marohn, who explained the Strong Towns movement on EconTalk in 2014 and reenergized my then-fading interest in urbanism. Finally, the crew of Market Urbanism bloggers, who made me realize that there were other liberals (in the classical sense) out there who cared about cities and the restrictions holding them back.

In my mind, the thinking of Strong Towns and Market Urbanism communities are united in two ways: First in the negative sense, with both groups critiquing the fragility and immodesty of Euclidian zoning and the destructive fiscal and planning implications of contemporary public infrastructure planning.

Second in the positive sense, with both groups celebrating the value of urban life, emergent solutions to shared challenges, incremental development, and a light-touch approach to zoning and infrastructure planning that allow these processes to unfold. For the committed Strong Towns reader who is interested to learn more about Market Urbanism, here are three of the basic building blocks of our approach to cities.

With the right adjustments to local zoning codes, we'll see more affordable housing built in tight markets across the country. Read  "How Lexington Can Expand Affordable Housing (without Touching the UGB)"  to learn more.

With the right adjustments to local zoning codes, we'll see more affordable housing built in tight markets across the country. Read "How Lexington Can Expand Affordable Housing (without Touching the UGB)" to learn more.

1. Housing is expensive, in part, because of bad regulations.

If you love cities, the challenge of increasing unaffordability is probably something that keeps you up at night. This is definitely the case among Market Urbanists. Since Adam Hengels started the blog back in 2008, Market Urbanists have been writing about the supply restrictions baked into Euclidian zoning—parking requirements, floor area ratio restrictions, single-family housing districts—that keep housing artificially scarce. These supply restrictions are often harshest in politically powerful, high-income neighborhoods, which forces new development into politically disadvantaged, low-income neighborhoods.

With cities like San Francisco and New York facing an unprecedented housing crunch, this has lead to the kind of unusually rapid gentrification that has many observers of urban life worried. While this straightforward application of supply-and-demand to housing was once controversial among urbanists—and still is, in some marginal circles— it’s now relatively uncontroversial thanks in part to the tireless blogging of folks like Adam Hengels, Stephen Smith, and Emily Hamilton. To this day, members of the Market Urbanist community are working with allies across the ideological spectrum in support of the burgeoning YIMBY movement, a national movement to ease regulatory restrictions on new housing construction.

2. Don’t underrate the importance of bottom-up solutions to urban problems.

The growing Market Urbanist community is perhaps best known for its focus on housing affordability. But as the home of classical liberal and libertarian urbanists, we also spend a lot of time attacking the problematic thinking that underlies conventional planning. In many ways, contemporary urban planning looks a lot like the global mid-century experiment with centralized economic planning: both treat their respective subjects—cities and economies—as simple systems that could easily be improved with a little command and control from experts. As Friedrich Hayek shattered this myth with economics, so Jane Jacobs shattered this myth with cities in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Cities, like economies, thrive on facilitating millions of small experiments in living. For this reason, Market Urbanists spend a lot of time critiquing the command-and-control approach that is built into conventional planning, specifically the idea that planners (and the NIMBYs who often control them) can or should control minute details of urban development. For the same reason, we also spend a lot of time exploring the unique value of unnoticed or underappreciated innovations in urban living, including the wisdom of pre-planning urban form, the unexpected complexity of private governance in trailer parks, and the need for inexpensive, low-quality, housing arrangements.

This suburban transit system is doomed to fail. Read about why in Johnny Sanphillippo's essay, "Suburban. Comma. Transit."

This suburban transit system is doomed to fail. Read about why in Johnny Sanphillippo's essay, "Suburban. Comma. Transit."

3. More money isn’t the solution to America’s urban transit woes.

Unlike earlier market-minded urbanists—we like to call them “market suburbanists”—Market Urbanists generally live in cities (when they can afford it) and rely on walking, bicycling, and public transit to get around. For this reason, we spend a lot of time thinking not only about how to ease traffic congestion—through congestion pricing, for example—but also on how to improve public investment in non-automobile infrastructure.

For pedestrian and bicyclist infrastructure, we stay pretty uncontroversial: comfortable sidewalks and bike lanes are an inexpensive public goods that deserve more support in many cities. For transit, we take a somewhat different approach, applying the lessons of political economy to our restrictive transit policies. Unlike in much of the rest of the world, urban mass transit in nearly every U.S. city is managed by a single public monopoly. This is particularly strange given that, even in small and mid-size U.S. cities, private mass transit once thrived. The results have been poor service (colorfully documented daily by Stephen Smith on Twitter), massive cost overruns, and widespread car-dependence. For this reason, we are interested in learning from liberal transit systems in other countries, liberalizing public transit monopolies in the U.S., and exploring emerging private solutions to America’s urban mobility challenge.


Over on the Market Urbanism blog, we like to say that we are “liberalizing cities from the ground up.” We combine a generally classical liberal outlook with an on-the-ground appreciation for and understanding of urban life. Given the broad ideological spectrum of the Strong Towns movement—something I value as a member—I don’t expect our ideas to appeal to everyone here, but if you are interested in joining the discussion, join our Facebook group, follow us on Twitter, and of course, follow the Market Urbanism blog. Strange things are happening in the world of urbanism. As cities face new challenges and opportunities, more and more urbanists—whether they are planners, developers, policy makers, or just passionate observers—are turning to  “outsiders” like Strong Towns and Market Urbanism for new ideas. If you are interested in the Market Urbanism vision—a vision with a lot in common with the Strong Towns vision—come get involved.

(Top photo by Anthony Delanoix)

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Nolan Gray is a writer for Market Urbanism. You can follow him on Twitter at @mnolangray.