Incremental Development

When people complain about “big developers” and the changes they make in a town, they often mistake the development that takes place as the result of a “free market”.

Nothing could be further from the truth: with all the zoning and planning codes in most towns – Bend included – land use is one of the most regulated sectors in the economy.  With the exception of single family housing built within very prescribed limits (you must have two parking spots in your driveway!) it’s often a difficult process to build townhouses or a taller building, or open a retail business in an area not zoned for it.  There are applications and meetings and reviews and potentially appeals if some of the neighbors disapprove.

In a truly free market, you’d be able to build whatever you wanted on your land.  Of course, most of us accept that since what you build on your land affects the people around you, there should be some limits.  However, in the US, these limits have gotten completely out of hand, and rather than stopping a noxious factory in the middle of a quiet neighborhood, people are now fighting tooth and nail over, say, apartment buildings.

Perversely, this has the effect that rather than see a few apartments here, a townhouse there, and a corner store or barber stop at a busier intersection in a residential neighborhood, the hurdle to development is so high that you’d better have a lot of time and money to dedicate to it.  This means it’s not worthwhile for a smaller development that won’t change much, but only for bigger developers with deep pockets, and fewer connections to the area in question.

So instead of some apartments like this:

That are right next to shops, and single family homes, and a mix of other uses, we get things like this:

Which is certainly better than having only single family homes, but this massive block of apartments that is walled off on two sides by busy streets is not the kind of area that can grow or adapt as the city around it changes.

In many places, a mix of housing that includes both single family homes and owner-occupied apartments is the norm, and works pretty well.  Indeed, once upon a time, Bend was like that: it only got its first zoning regulations in 1947.  Rather than having an area that is ‘only renters’ or ‘all single family homes’, you have some apartments that are rented, and many that are owned, creating a healthy mix of people.

Back in the present, “planning” and regulation that attempt to corral certain uses in certain portions of a town seem to have left us with “big chunks” of development: big box stores, blocks of apartments, and large areas of single family homes that are so far away from other uses that they make a car almost a requirement.

It’s possible that, absent quite so many rules and regulations and attempts to specify exactly what can go where, we’d have more incremental, human-scale development that would allow our cities and neighborhoods to adapt in a more natural way.

Here’s a great Strong Towns video about the same concept:

Update: Also, a timely article about the same subject:

America Needs Small Apartment Buildings. Nobody Builds Them

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