242 Comments

I think people would be shocked to see exactly how much poorer the UK is than the US.

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I suspect this in part due to most people when they are travelling to the UK are traveling to London and specifically to the big tourist spots in London; Westminster, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben etc. And those tourist spots tend to be (not surprisingly) located in the wealthiest areas of London.

I forget who said it, but I saw a quip that imagine if Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and New York City were all one city in America and you would have an idea of London's outsized importance in the UK (and that's probably underselling it). Point being, the extreme focus on London warps most outsider's views of what UK is really like in places like Sunderland or Blackburn or Liverpool etc.

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London's about 13% of UK population. London/SE region (broad definition) is about 22% of UK population. The latter's GDP likely approaches 30% of GDP and even higher share of tax revenue generation.

The numbers for the largest US city (NYC) are about 2.5%, 7% and 9%.

And, as you point out, NYC doesn't house the national government.

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022

It's been too long since I read it for me to recall what the upshot was but many years ago I recall reading an article that noted there are certain countries for which the primary economic hub (generally also the country's political capital city) has such an outsized proportion of the country's population and activity that it's accurate to call them effectively "one city countries" despite the existence of very large land areas (and numerous smaller population centers of dramatically lesser importance).

I believe the UK (London) was on the list, and I think France (Paris) was as well, although IIRC South Korea (Seoul) and Iran (Tehran) were considered even more central examples.

At least with respect to South Korea this has resulted in particularly poor development consequences because Seoul has exerted a continuous gravitational pull on economic and population activity at least since the end of the Korean War and it's very difficult to opt out of those dynamics for individuals or companies, even though at any given point in history it would likely have been desirable to draw a line under Seoul's expansion and build SK's primary economic and population hub somewhere that *wasn't* in range of conventional North Korean artillery. Instead, said military-logistic hole has just been getting dug deeper for the past 70-odd years because the centralization dynamics are a positive feedback loop.

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These cities are called "primate cities."

Overall, the size of cities tends to follow a power-law distribution, and the n-th largest city in a country is expected to be about 1/n the size of the largest one. A primate city is one that is the largest in its country and significantly larger than expected from the power law. Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primate_city) credits Mark Jefferson (1939) with defining a primate city as one that is "at least twice as large as the next largest city and more than twice as significant." They are often the center of government, but this is not necessary -- for instance, Jakarta will remain a primate city even as the capital of Indonesia is moved to the planned city of Nusantara, unless populations change dramatically enough.

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The metropole!

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Rick Steves said it, and didn’t attribute it. Could be him.

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022

I think Americans have come to associate UK towns/villages with a kind of quaint pastoralism (see: "cottagecore") so they think of the average UK lifestyle more as a function of aesthetic and cultural preferences than as a function of lower wealth / living standards.

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UK GDP per capita is $20000 less than America. If the UK were to somehow become the 51st state tomorrow, it would be the poorest state in the country.

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Yea but if the uk was part of America trade growth would be double digits. And NYC really might lose its status as global money hub :)

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It would also be, by far, the largest state in the Union

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Isn't Alaska more than 6x bigger than the UK?

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By population should have clarified

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I think Benjamin is talking about population.

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Yep. I lived in UK for several years. My son lives in Scotland. Standard of living is way lower. The homes are tiny.

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022

I don't think you can just look at home sizes to compare standard of living. I mean dwelling size is part of it, but you also have to consider proximity to amenities. I'd argue that a New Yorker with a 900 sq ft condo has a higher standard of living than someone with a 1500 sq ft house in Battlecreek, MI.

Also, I think that American/Canadian/Australian home sizes are international outliers. I'm guessing that this is because they sparsely-populated continent-sized countries. I'm guessing that house sizes in the UK are more comparable to other countries whose native populations weren't depopulated at the time of their founding.

I'm pretty sure that in MY's one-billion-Americans America, where the US has the population density of France, that Americans would also live in smaller houses on average. But they would also have more abundant amenities nearby and may consequently live richer lives.

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022

>> I'd argue that a New Yorker with a 900 sq ft condo has a higher standard of living than someone with a 1500 sq ft house in Battlecreek, MI.<<

Argue all you like, but Battlecreekers get themselves some fantastic deals on breakfast foods.

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I'm sorry if I offended any Battlecreekers :)

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It’s “Battle Creek.”

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"I'd argue that a New Yorker with a 900 sq ft condo has a higher standard of living than someone with a 1500 sq ft house in Battlecreek, MI."

I'd hope so, the New Yorker is likely much wealthier. If they don't have a better standard of living there's a big problem.

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I'm not only talking about the New Yorker being wealthier. I'm talking about the fact that they have more access to more in-demand amenities.

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022

Okay, but what about someone with better housing in, say, Chicago or Philadelphia instead of Battle Creek, Michigan? Where is the crossover point?

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022

I wouldn’t know how to calculate it. I guess it would be the property value if the market were freer and supply were more responsive to demand. Someone with more knowledge in economics could maybe give a better answer.

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Keeping in mind in the UK workers are entitled to almost 6 weeks of vacation. Some of the home size differences can be attributed to lower earnings as a result as well as a larger vacation budget.

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How else does lower standard of living manifest?

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I thought that the deal was most people in the UK earn less and are taxed more but their standard of living for the poor and lower middle class is higher than in the US. Is that wrong? Isn’t the UK richer than Japan?

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Yeah that's what I mean -- the median American (which is undoubtedly below basically everyone in this comment section) makes a lot more than the median Brit or Japanese person. And that's true even when you control for things like healthcare and education costs.

People don't really appreciate how much higher standards of living are in the US. Like, the vast majority of homes in the UK don't have air conditioning -- when was the last time you were in an American building that didn't have AC?

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My dorm

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Transfer now! No wonder Yale students are always having drama.

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022

Yale has what, $40 billion in the bank, and they won't give you AC?

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They didn't get their 40 billion being stupid with money.

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No AC? You should've picked a school with decent resources.

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Luckily you won't generally be there for the crazy New Haven summer action.

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Hmmm...I'm not sure that Brits don't have AC primarily because they can't afford it. I think it's more that (usually) the summer climate is mild enough that people don't think they need it. This summer of course there were massive heatwaves in the UK, and the likelihood of heatwaves is likely to increase. But if you want to illustrate differences in living standards, I would use something else. Here in Israel, nearly everyone has AC, but GDP per capita here is substantially lower than in the UK.

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Yeah plenty of buildings in Seattle don’t have AC but that’s because it doesn’t hit 90 very often and it tends to cool off a lot at night. And it’s not as if Seattle is a poor city. Most office buildings have AC though.

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It's partly the difference in wealth, partly the difference in climate, partly some other things.

For instance, most US houses are built of wood, and are built with space for all the ducting central AC systems require - UK houses aren't built that way and cannot easily be retrofitted.

(Heating is usually hot water radiators, which only require narrow pipes routed through the house.)

It's partly just expectations. Increasingly, it would be nice to have AC in the summer, but it's still worth saying basically no-where in continental US has summer temp.s as low as even southern England.

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A/C is uncommon in the UK partly due to planning. Although sticking a window unit up is usually considered permitted development (i.e. you can do it by right) it's very difficult to get modern integrated A/C built as part of a new development.

Due to global warming, there's a big campaign ongoing AGAINST A/C, with the Government instead deciding to manage overheating in buildings not by adopting new technology, but by making all the new homes in London have tiny windows: https://twitter.com/AntBreach/status/1521986907378495490

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I’m absolutely positive that Yale dorms aren’t without AC because they can’t afford it.

I kid. Lived in Boston for a while. Was in a lot of homes, and surprised by how many didn’t have AC. The last year I was in Mass, I lived right on the water and mostly just kept the windows open. Ran the AC for maybe 2 weeks total.

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Definitely only a modest minority (still, in 2022) of homes in Metro Boston have *central* AC, I think. I imagine that's the case in many northern US cities.

Though in my experience the vast majority at least have window units at this point. It does get genuinely sub-tropical for 9-12 weeks each year...

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Yeah, I live in Metro Boston and I (and most people I know here) do not have central AC, but use window (or sometimes wall) units regularly in summer. This is also common in NYC. It's just a function of old buildings.

I do think if stats about proportion of households without AC in Europe and other places don't take window or wall units into account...well, that seems kind of misleading. I've lived in four apartments in three US cities in my adult life and have never had central AC, but I wouldn't say I "don't have AC" because window units exist.

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The US is a bit weird in that ductless split AC units aren't so common. So in the US, it's either central air or window units. I think internationally, the ductless split "wall" units are more common

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AC is also uncommon in France and they have much hotter summers than the UK

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Yeah over a thousand people died this year because of a heatwave but sure, I take your point (though compare AC adoption in the UK to that in Minnesota and there's still a huge disparity).

I think the most salient demonstration in the difference in living standards is what the post described as the difference in home sizes.

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The UK’s climate is a lot different than the MN.

“July is the warmest month in London, with an average high-temperature of 22.3°C (72.1°F) and an average low-temperature of 13.5°C (56.3°F).”

“The hottest month of the year in Minneapolis is July, with an average high of 83°F and low of 65°F. ”

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Air conditioning abundance in the US has far more to do with the hot, humid and unhealthful climate of the Eastern side of the Continent where most Americans live than pure expense.

People on the West Coast, who have a climate much more similar to Western Europe, are much less likely to have air conditioning

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The UK has a lower nominal GDP per capita than West Virginia

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deletedSep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022
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I'm annoyed that they are using average household disposable income and not median...

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Are they? In this context, average could very easily mean median. Couldn't find anything on the website to confirm either way.

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Well, generally unless otherwise stated, the average refers to an arithmetic mean. If they use something else, like a median, mode, geometric mean, then it should be clear. So I have a right to still be annoyed :)

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I know that people in the UK have higher college debt than in the US

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Yes the UK is richer than Japan in GDP per capita nominal terms; Japan is surprisingly poorer than much of W. Europe though.

UK is poorer than Germany, Denmark, Netherlands etc.

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022

Japan has pretty badly stagnated, growth-wise, for the better part of three decades at this point.

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Yet, worth pointing out that Japan has the zoning policies most often called out for praise by econo-yimbys.

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Japan's issues also include being immigrant wary until recently and still not a good place for women to work. Housing policy isn't a panacea for all other bad policy and cultural decisions

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Here's a fun story.

I work in a field associated with transport planning. Somebody wants to build a new housing development (about 100 houses or so) in a well-to-do town near a bigger and even wealthier city in the UK. I don't know the details, but somebody wealthy didn't want this development and they were able to appeal against the construction of this development on traffic grounds (I understand there have been multiple appeals already. Someone convicted of murder wouldn't have been allowed this many appeals). I was part of a team that worked on this guy's appeal, which involved multiple technical staff and lawyers some of whom were very senior. The other side would have employed the same. The cost of this process is astronomical. I don't know what has happened with the appeal but no doubt it is still stuck in planning hell.

Of course, there would have been (marginal) traffic impacts caused by this scheme. But any proper solution to traffic problems, like allowing more development in the bigger city that everyone would have driven to, or creating a high quality bus service, or building a bigger road, or anything at all, is laughable. The only way of mitigating the problem, according to the team I worked for, is to not build the new development. It's a joke.

As an aside, climate change is now a new stick for NIMBYs to beat any new development. Having a meadow near a tube station is crazy. But if you build houses on a meadow, the people that live there will use energy! And that's not consistent with the governments climate change strategy!

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The core reason for the above is that local plans and local transport plans in England are completely different documents, written over different timelines, by different people, usually in different organisations (district and county councils), and so have absolutely no connection to each other. Planning in England isn't spatial and it isn't about managing growth in an orderly way or providing infra and services to new development - it's about negotating between different stakeholders, including anti-housing Nimbys.

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It’s so painful, but at the same time it is maddening how little thought is giving to what makes new development manageable. There is a prospective new development near me (500 homes, so not small by any means) yet so far there is no plan to increase traffic routes, GP or dental surgeries, or school places despite everything being oversubscribed. Sure I will miss living on the “edge of town” and being able to easily go for a run in the woods, but the people who buy those cramped and practically gardenless houses are going to be even angrier when they have to take their kids to crappy schools 20 minutes drive away.

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I imagine whoever buys these houses will appreciate only being 20 as opposed to 60 minutes away. Perfect planning doesn't exist.

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I think I agree that the benefit to those people living in those practically "garden-less" houses is greater than the inconvenience to those currently living in the neighborhood.

Question for Joolz--in the UK, are the number of GPs, dental surgeries, etc planned at the neighborhood level? I know it's a fully nationalized system with doctors and clinics being run by the government, so I'm curious how planning like that works at the neighborhood level.

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Sure, they don’t need any sort of quality of life as long as Taylor Wimpy sells them a shoe box and they have both a commute and school runs to do in opposite directions. I guess you expect people to be grateful for whatever scraps they get.

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022

I live in 52 sq m with no garden. Don’t have kids so don’t need to worry about school location. I live with my partner, and we’re very happy with our quality of life.

So people have different needs and priorities. While you value size, school location and garden, I may value new construction and ability to save money.

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So that housing estate isn’t aimed at you - they are building family houses. So the gardens and schools point holds - but I am taking about something specific, and you are generalising to centre yourself and your needs.

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No, you are generalizing to your needs. If it's not appropriate for people to live there, then they won't live there. If they decide to live there despite having other options, then it makes sense for them. It is possible that these specific apartments are a bad idea, but your general reasoning can be applied to any development at any time, making the perfect the enemy of the good.

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TWENTY MINUTES DRIVE!

*stares in American*

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I think you mean *stares in coastal megalopolis that dominates American discourse*

I live in a city big enough for an airport with flights to both coasts, and my driving commute is twelve minutes, fifteen if I hit rush hour.

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We're talking about school commutes -- work commutes are, I think, distributed differently.

And the problem exists on both sides of the tail, as far as I can tell: short school commutes are things that primarily happen in (some) exclusionary post-ww2 suburbs. If you live in a big city, it's luck of the draw: maybe your school is walking distance, maybe it's on the other side of town. And if you live in farmland or abandoned rust-belt mini-cities, you've probably got a nice long drive ahead of you.

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Really? I'd imagine that the people driving that far for high school are truly living in the middle of nowhere, or are choosing to drive that far to send the kid to a specific school. Most people, I think, are not driving that far to send their kids to school.

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Yeah - I mean in a country of 330m people I am sure *someone* has a 90 minute school commute - but at least in my state its literally impossible as schools are countywide (at worst) and the counties aren't that big.

"I cannot emphasize enough how many americans would sell their soul for a 20 minute school commute for their children, at any gas price." - that makes it sound like something, if not common, not too rare, when i think you would have to really go out of your way to find anyone with a mandatory (not by choice) 90 minute school commute.

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“…exclusionary post-ww2 suburbs”

What (and where) are those?

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Gas in the UK is $7.40/gallon. Americans just lost their shit when it reached $5 for a couple of months and are still complaining with it at $3.70. That 20 minute drive cost double what it does in the US.

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I cannot emphasize enough how many americans would sell their soul for a 20 minute school commute for their children, at any gas price. 40-60 minutes is not uncommon. 90 is far from unheard of in deeply exurban areas.

(The average high school commute, thankfully, is under 20m. But with 325M people and 3.1M square miles, the tails are long and the outliers significant.)

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That's kind of comparing apples and oranges - the people facing 90 minute commutes aren't exurban - they are either in the middle of nowhere or not going to public schools.

The schools are all city or county in my state (Alabama) and since no county is that big (and almost all have multiple schools) there are no 90 minute commutes.

My kids ride the bus every day so I think its over half an hour but that's because the bus has to stop a bajillion times.

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Someone once said something like - 100 miles is a long way in England, 100 years is a long time in America.

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But what alternative do they have if they ever want to own a home and get on the vaunted property ladder?

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Interesting comment. My frustration from today's post was that I could only get a superficial understanding of the UK housing challenges. Something something green belts something something historical preservation. More would have been nicer. This comment fills in more needed detail.

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There was an episode of the weeds a while ago focusing on UK housing policy. It may fill in a few gaps. https://podcasts.apple.com/ci/podcast/housing-policy-but-make-it-british/id1042433083?i=1000540115339

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Thanks for the shout-out Matt! Completely agree with this analysis, - the case-by-case system England has is really really bad, and much worse than American zoning. Agree too on the connection to not just housing affordability (which is very poor in the UK) but also economic growth as well. It's really difficult to build a bigger economy when it's really difficult to build anything.

Just a quick correction - it's not necessarily the case that homes in the UK are becoming smaller, but rather that space per person for new households (i.e. renters) is falling because they're having to share a stock that isn't growing nearly as fast as population and incomes. Plus, the original chart is from Mayor of London's Housing Research Note 06: https://data.london.gov.uk/dataset/housing-research-notes

For people who want to know a bit more:

As well as poor quantity, the UK also has really poor quality stock. There's an element especially for people who visit the UK that they see lovely period housing stock in Chelsea or affluent suburbs and imagine this is commonplace across the country, but it's really not. For instance, there's a massive and actually really upsetting ongoing scandal with social housing in Britain, with poor people living in terrible squalor because it's really difficult to both build more and to demolish housing stock that's at the end of its useful life: https://twitter.com/DanielHewittITV/status/1496431107381858304

In terms of how we fix this, Centre for Cities has a clear proposal - moving away from England's unpredictable planning system, where builders can follow the rules and still be denied permission to build, towards a new flexible zoning system, where if developers follow the rules they can always build, and with less strict zoning than a lot of US cities: https://www.centreforcities.org/publication/planning-for-the-future/

The Levelling Up Bill going through Parliament at the moment will help create a national set of rules that's a pre-requisite for further improvements, and is probably the most promising source of progress towards flexible zoning in the short-term: https://www.centreforcities.org/blog/the-levelling-up-bills-planning-proposals/

And there's a whole bunch of other problems to do with Britain's incredible centralisation that make it very difficult to get local government in England on board with economic growth and building more stuff. Fixing local government is probably a pre-requisite to properly fixing planning and housing in England: https://www.centreforcities.org/publication/centralisation-nation/

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>>the case-by-case system England has is really really bad, and much worse than American zoning.<<

In the aggregate, yes. We have Atlanta and Dallas as Matt points out. But there are significant swaths of the US where it's every bit as arbitrary and "case by case" in nature as in England, I think. Pretty much all the "blue" US metros operate policies hugely hostile to housing abundance, where local government units possess mostly unfettered authority to veto housing proposals because incumbent owners (ie, those who vote in local elections) want them vetoed. This often happens (indeed almost always happens) even when the proposal in question satisfies zoning criteria. The NIMBY veto in many US municipalities can be triggered on entirely arbitrary grounds (though the perennial favorite "traffic" is often cited, as is "adverse environmental impact").

Basically, the question of whether or not a "shall issue" legal standard exists with respect to housing construction permits is the whole ball game. If that doesn't exist, housing abundance won't exist, either (human nature being what it is). I can't really fault a person for preferring one hundred neighbors to one thousand neighbors.

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After California said that you can build four units on your property by right, my dad was scared that the empty lot next to him would be developed into a 4-plex and said he really doesn't want that because of parking concerns. This is in a neighborhood where everyone has a 2 or 3 car garage, and most houses have a driveway where you can store another two cars at least. So basically the concern is that if they throw a dinner party with more than 2 familes, a few of the guests may have to park around the corner. Or if you own a 5th or 6th car, you may have to park it around the corner...and for this 4 families shouldn't live in our neighborhood and take advantage of the good public schools and nice amenities.

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We evolved to fear crowding and resource competition. For similar reasons people dislike immigration.

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That describes some but by no means all neighborhoods. My LA neighborhood now allows 4-plexes and very few houses have garages usable for parking and most only have room for one car in the driveway. There will be quite a competition for street parking. (I'm still in favor of the law, though.)

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What’s a garage unusable for parking? I’m familiar with garages full of stuff, of course, but that’s a choice.

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For example my house where the previous owner turned the garage into an art studio. Now it's just for storage, without even a garage door for a car.

Many others convert theirs to ADUs.

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I have some sympathy for people who physically don’t have the space for off street parking and would have to either go car-free or move (rental garages aren’t a thing in most neighborhoods & new ones wouldn’t be permitted).

But if you have parking space and you’ve simply chosen to use it for other purposes, that’s a tradeoff you’re allowed to make and live with the consequences of, IMO. If it’s so important, they can convert back.

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Agree it's totally possible to introduce discretionary elements into zoning systems - this is why I refer to the US zoning approaches as "inflexible zoning", and best practice in Japan as "flexible zoning"

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022

Thank you so, so much for this. The housing situation in this country is maddening and it really feels like there are huge forces stopping any improvements from being made.

One way in which I'm quietly optimistic is that the new housing and levelling up secretary, Simon Clarke, seems to be well-aware of the huge problems housing shortages create in the UK. He's previously advocated building lots of new houses around Green Belt train stations and is also a supporter of street votes. And it's possible, given that the Tories are becoming a rare breed in London anyway, they may decide they have little to lose by just massively liberalising planning in the capital. But I don't want to get my hopes up.

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I think the maddening thing about the situation there is by rights in ought be easy to implement nationwide change (at least wrt England/Wales), right?

In the US there's virtually nothing that could be done by Congress to deregulate house building, from what I can see (maybe Matt Y. knows otherwise) because it's almost entirely a state/local matter. But in Britain Parliament is supreme, and is not even beholden to the judiciary. Just pass a damn act!

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Oh yes, if parliament wanted to they absolutely could do it. But they're afraid of electoral backlash. The Chesham & Amersham by-election last year made the point quite well, sadly :(

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Hopefully next Labour government does something substantive. If they're smart they'll do it at the very beginning of their term.

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The next what?

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What's that supposed to mean; you think it's a foregone conclusion Tories will win the next general election?

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With the obvious caveat that I don't live in the UK and am just an interested external observer: I don't think we'll see another Labour government in the next 20 years, and I wouldn't be surprised if we never saw one again in my lifetime.

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Federal supremacy clause + commerce clause means that there's actually nothing stopping the US government from overriding local zoning rules. The federal government already does it, just not for housing.

For example there are federal laws that make it so cities have only limited grounds to block cell phone towers, and so that no zoning/HOA rule can prevent you from installing a satellite dish on your own home.

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Communications is different because it uses the instrumentalities of interstate commerce, which cross state lines. That makes it inherently federal.

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Housing is definitely an interstate market though. That is the reason why the Fair Housing Act is constitutional. There is no reason why you can't amend the Fair Housing Act to include zoning reform.

Some of America's biggest metro areas cross state lines, and even in cases where that's not true, there are substantial interstate impacts on housing markets. People priced out of California are a big factor in driving up prices all over the Western United States.

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Would probably be v. unpopular with much of the conservative base.

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Well sure, obviously it's politics that prevents this. Eventually the constituency for lower rents starts to exceed in influence the constituency for higher rents, and then change will come. We're seeing this now (incipient stage, to be sure) in California.

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This is the usual story. In the UK, 65% of households own their homes. At any given time, only a small fraction is looking to buy a home. And renters are only 35% of the population, and tend to be lower income and less politically powerful than their home-owning counterparts.

Homeowners benefit from high home values and high rents.

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022

>>Homeowners benefit from high home values and high rents<<

This is 100% true, of course. And I think it is indeed a primary concern for landlords.

But I believe for most homeowners, restricting construction is more basic and less rational than it is for landlords. Humans evolved to be leery of crowding, and to protect their turf. We eschew more noise, more traffic, more neighbors, less nature. I believe very few incumbent homeowners coldly calculate the hit to net worth that more homes in the vicinity might potentially cause.

In my experience NIMBYism is far more a visceral and emotional phenomenon for the average person than it is a reflection of concerns about wealth.

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Also, not sure how true this is in the UK, but while there are some genuine tangible benefits in terms of HELOCs or favorable loan-to-value dynamics to housing price increases, as well as the prospect of downsizing, the fact that people still have to live somewhere if they sell their home makes most homeowners a lot closer to net neutral than long the housing market.

While there are potentially significant consequences to housing prices going *down* for current homeowners, housing prices going up don't really aid homeowners in the way that half the internet seems to think they do. Had a conversation with a coworker during the pandemic who's experience of this was basically elation at how much his house had increased in value followed by a return to complete indifference (or worse, given the higher tax burden) because there was no reasonable way to capitalize on any such appreciation because *everyone else's house* had gone up too.

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And many incumbent homeowners have serious concerns their children (and grandchildren) will be forced to move far away. At this point it's no longer just certain neighborhoods that have become pricey, but increasingly it's entire metropolitan regions.

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Of course.

I mean, this is where the distinction of expensive land vs expensive dwellings comes in. Property owners benefit from land being very expensive. But in some areas, property owners would benefit more if they could further develop their land, and collect rents from the extra units on their property. Land would stay valuable, but the value of each dwelling would be more affordable. But this argument wouldn't work in all areas without the right economics, and some areas there may be some real tradeoffs between land values and levels of development.

But I agree people have quality of life concerns outside of just property values. And strong status quo biases.

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What are street votes?

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It's a policy that a lot of British YIMBYs are enthusiastic about, where residents of a single street could essentially vote to give themselves permission to build denser housing. The idea is that they'd be incentivised to do so because it would make their houses much more valuable: https://yimbyalliance.org/street-votes/

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022

Unless the residents of the street happen to own development companies, aren't they practically speaking giving other people the right to build denser housing while they themselves sell out at the appreciated land values, thereby privatizing the benefits and socializing the costs of new construction?

[I see the FAQ has a section labeled "Won't street votes just give power to big developers?" but the answer seems rather non-substantive "Won't street votes just give power to big developers? / The idea of street votes is the opposite: to help local people create more work for small and medium sized builders. The big sites released under the current planning system are only suitable for big developers."]

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Clever idea.

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Matt, I sincerely appreciate your obsession with housing. I’m a firm believer in the “housing theory of everything,” and via my work at Strong Towns I am doing what I can to try and help.

For your audience, and America, I think it would be more helpful for you to spend less time writing “we have a housing problem.” We know this. Everyone who needs to know, knows.

Where we need your help and energy is finding a way through the politics that make this issue a nightmare. There are so many status quo interests benefiting from the housing crisis, and so far nobody has been able to come up with a message or policy prescriptions that can break through the wall of opposition.

I would love to see you, and all of us, spend our energy on *that.* What would it take, politically, to actually deliver a reasonable, predictable, by-right development environment?

Because as I see it now, roughly 2/3 of US voters (and I assume also a majority of the UK) are home owners, and that’s plenty large enough majority to force us all to suffer terrible collective consequences in defense of each individual homeowner’s status quo.

Your political pragmatism is what draws me to your writing. Unfortunately on this political issue I feel the pragmatic “popularist” position is to do nothing on housing, because it would take catastrophe on the order of the London Blitz to break the electorate’s death grip preference for the status quo.

Is there any possible rhetorical breakthrough that could change hearts and minds, or policy that’s somehow both effective yet so mild it can sneak through Secret Congress?

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Various GOP-run legislatures in states that are still interested in being well-run (Utah, for example) have apparently decided "screw it, the blue metros don't vote for us anyway so we might as well take the stance that lets us claim we're in favor of middle-class housing in campaign ads anyway by preempting their local governments."

The precedent will surely end up abused on other matters, but on zoning and density it should be better than the status quo.

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Really? This is good news. I hadn't seen it. I was under the impression the (MAGA-captured) GOP was increasingly going down the "the liberals are trying to abolish suburbs" road in terms of their issue positioning.

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Utah apparently slipped a "no minimum residential unit size" provision into an omnibus bill last session?

Something along those lines anyway.

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>>Is there any possible rhetorical breakthrough that could change hearts and minds<<

Personally, I don't see a breakthrough coming. I think it will be incremental (IS incremental). California is leading the way. As housing affordability becomes a more pernicious issue in an ever-growing swath of the country, the pro-housing abundance stance will gradually become politically more popular. It has become more politically popular over the last few years, I think. The pandemic-related housing spike has added to this...

Also, remember, the percentage of voters who are hardcore NIMBY is likely to be lower than the percentage who are homeowners. Some are indifferent; some are worried about their children having to live far away; some are ideologically in favor of housing abundance; some realize teachers and firefighters can't afford to live nearby...

Finally, as YIMBY policies gradually (and maybe not so gradually in a few places) spread, opposition to housing abundance may recede, as more people realize the world doesn't end when someone builds a six story apartment building on the next block over.

I sense a sea change of opinion on this issue similar to where we were previously with gay marriage, prison reform or legalized weed. It happens gradually—then suddenly.

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Productivity is important. I remember the fixing of an I-95 interchange by building some new on ramps when I lived in New Haven. I believe it took about 10 years, started shortly after I arrived and ended just before I left. Who the F would want construction dragging on like that? If it takes 4 years to construct an apartment building that I'm not convinced is good for the neighborhood, why would I even entertain the idea?

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Improved productivity is always welcome. But my sense is America's construction productivity issues are mostly a matter of big projects and infrastructure. *Housing* can be slapped up pretty quickly.

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I work with real estate investors in the UK and there’s genuinely profit to be made from buying vacant land, getting planning permission, then selling it on to someone else to actually build.

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From what I've read, the situation in England has generated a great deal of land speculation characterized by significant swaths of property—some of it already has planning approval for homes—being "banked" for future sale at a steep profit. I'd imagine that's partly reflective of a lack of meaningful land taxation.

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Some of it is probably that, another issue though is that you’ll have communities putting up tremendous resistance to building nice new houses next to their shitboxes from the 1930s.

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Mixer taps are for the nouveau riche.

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I live in a city with a green belt that is apparently the largest in the world though the city is not major. We also have a widely acknowledged housing crisis, but few suggest developing the green belt. It’s a failed policy - massive exurbs have sprung up beyond the belt - and yet no one wants to change it.

I think it’s just massive status quo bias and a common fallacy that the nature people observe is somehow more valuable than the nature they don’t see being destroyed outside the belt. Don’t get me wrong, some of it is used for recreation and I’d be happy to keep those parts, but the keeping the rest is nonsensical to me. Failed policies should be reversed!

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Portland?

I don't know the specifics there, but, a green belt (and this is similar to the situation in the UK) is a really bad idea especially if there's no strong "shall issue" law wrt building permits. If the area within the green belt is allowed to get as dense as the market calls for, the pressure to build far-flung subdivisions beyond the belt will lessen. Just the opposite occurs, of course, when the inside-the-belt core is prevented by law from being maximally developed with housing.

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I wonder how usage of these green areas has changed over time. I would expect that there’s less use per person than in the past. With the possible exception of dog walkers, we now have much better leisure options than a green field or forest. Even if one wants to be active, there are an abundance of indoor forms of recreation that were at least less available in the past.

In short, what I’m using these unsupported claims to argue is that we simply don’t need as many parks as it may have once been sensible to have. But maybe I’m in the minority because I hate the outdoors.

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You're in the minority because you hate the outdoors, yes, lol.

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Running on treadmills is hell compared to just finding a nice paved path in a park.

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I find it's bad on my knees, too.

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"my sense of the general tenor of the conversation is that the Tories have decided the previous dozen years’ worth of Tory governments have been too focused on fiscal responsibility and that the government should run a larger deficit"

Of course, sensible people were saying that running a bigger deficit was a good idea about 10 years ago. Inflation was low and there was plenty of slack in the economy. That is not the situation now. Of course, expecting any sound decision making from this shit-bucket government is madness.

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That is really incredible. "Our policy is to swing at balls and take strikes."

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Can you translate that into cricket?

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I believe it's pronounced "swings and roundabouts."

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022

I think this crisis is tearing up British society. Matt illustrated the housing crisis nicely. He didn't discuss that both leading parties mostly pretend the problem doesn't exist, because it's so toxic politically. Each election they both set ambitious targets for new homes which are then missed by huge margins, and there's very little discussion of why this keeps happening.

So there's a glaring crisis, but politicians' responses to it don't come close to addressing the problem. I think this is the fundamental backdrop to people voting for Brexit against elites' wishes, 3 Prime Ministers having to resign in 6 years, Scotland considering leaving the union, and a bit of a recovery in industrial action. The system isn't working and isn't honest, and it's incredibly corrosive.

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I'm actually curious how much of the pathology is london-centered and thus imposed on the rest of the country by fiat. Specifically, I'd love to know what the local opinions about this look like in Scotland: if Scexit happens, do we start seeing new apartment blocks go up in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee?

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As a Brit, maybe you can clarify my understanding of the political situation surrounding housing: the Tories are ideologically disposed to allow a lot more development, but their new-ish constituents in rural-ish and exurban England are against it for self-interested reasons? Whereas Labor's new-ish constituents, mainly young, urban, professionals, would be practically supportive of more development for self-interested reasons but the party is mainly ideologically opposed?

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It's nothing as sophisticated as coherent ideology.

At a policy level, it's simply revealed preference that housing policy has failed under both parties throughout this crisis, including two Prime Ministers who won landslides and were viewed to have majorities that allowed them to do just about anything (Blair and Johnson). I can speculate about why that is, but it's just reality.

At a micro level, the UK 10x as many MPs per capita as US has Representatives. If you think of the random projects that US Representatives get involved in, British MPs are 10x worse, so they get drawn into even tiny developments. They don't necessarily openly block projects but they seem to feel obliged to make some demands, leading to delay.

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That's interesting, because in the US, normally, representatives get involved in local projects by obtaining Congressionally appropriated money for the projects, to prove to their constituents they are doing something in Congress. There are a few oddballs who don't attempt to get any money for small projects in their district, but they do not actively try to stop development.

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022

MPs do fight for resources - Sunak got in trouble during the recent leadership campaign after being secretly filmed boasting that as Chancellor he redirected resources from Labour to Tory constituencies.

But they often fight for funding of services - for example, a more frequent or comprehensive waste collection service, or more generous funding of elderly care. So you can be "delivering for your district" while also blocking development.

For example, I live in one of the few Liberal districts in the country. Word on the street is that a bridge that failed in the area isn't receiving 'federal' funding needed for repairs to punish the constituency for switching from Tory to Liberal at the last election. Meanwhile our MP, despite supposedly being a Liberal, opposes the biggest housing project in the area for simple reason that this is what most of her constituents want her to do.

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While we’re colonizing the London Green Belt with mid rise apartments, let’s not forget how easy it would be to reclaim southern San Francisco Bay and flood that overpriced market with affordable housing. Omelettes are available for statesmen willing to break a few eggs.

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I realize this is not your point, but I'm pretty sure that filling in the San Francisco Bay would be a slightly larger and more complicated project than "build some apartment buildings on land that is currently a park."

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Calling the UK green belts "parks" is pretty charitable.

They're mostly just fields that are, thanks first to CAP and now to UK ag/climate policy, left fallow while their owners take various subsidy monies.

They're (mostly) not actually recreation areas and public access is limited to that allowed by traditional common law on private property.

Hence why it's so profoundly stupid to have them located where they are.

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022

Seems like they might provide a helpful forcing function for a more liberalized and permissive housing policy if they prove to be more immovable object than demand pressures in London prove to be unstoppable force -- can't build out, so build up?

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No.

This is your priors in favor of highly dense housing talking, not anything that the public actually wants.

I say this as someone whose own preference is basically Beijing or Shanghai, with more parks, but who is well aware that Americans and Western Europeans simply don't, in the main, want that.

Sure, it should be easier to build up (the historical preservation regime and entrenched vetocracy make it damned near impossible in British cities). But the grave misallocation of land use is effectively robbing the British middle and working classes of the basic means of life and the ability to seek economic opportunity, to a far greater extent than in the US.

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Auction of the south bay in moderate sized lots with no height restrictions and let the market rip, subject only to safety inspections

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Ugh, no.

Land reclamation in seismic zones is a no-no. It's so ruinously expensive to do it safely that it's vanishingly unlikely to pencil out even if you propose to allow people to scratch-build Manhattan in the South Bay.

Just fucking override the NIMBY idiots who insist on single-family zoning in all of Palo Alto and start building shit there.

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Both and!

Let’s roll some logs together. I’m also keen to solve the water crisis by tapping Lake Tahoe. Those who want to see a crater lake can go to Oregon.

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Also an "ugh, no" from me.

The wonder of technological advancement is that we can have all the awesome benefits of industrial abundance without turning the land into a Mordor-esque hellhole. We've found our way out of any compelling reason for Tolkien's neo-pastoralism, and we don't have to reenact the 1950's by laying waste to every body of water in sight and spraying DDT on everything.

In other words: desalinization and fuckloads of solar cells FTW.

As for the land reclamation bit, again, no. There's no need. The Bay Area is not short on land, it's short on a rational planning regime that will let us use the land.

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The other thing is partially draining Tahoe would free up gobs of subalpine land for development. Those folks wouldn’t even need AC!

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There are fewer NIMBYS amoung the fish than amoung Palo Alto homeowners

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Speaking of breaking eggs, I'm sure the residents of San Francisco's Marina District can tell you how fun it is to live in a reclaimed area when a big earthquake hits and the ground liquifies.

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On a related point (and Slow Boring favourite topic) the UK transit system is also badly broken.

There is substantial high-density re-development in London around key transport links (Battersea, Vauxhall, Stratford, etc) but there are large parts of South London which attract basically no re-development because they are transit dead-zones with no underground service.

Building out the underground should be a key priority but the work is painfully slow and ruinously expensive. For example the new Elizabeth (/Crossrail) line *partially* opened this year after a 13 year build and a £25b price tag. That comes out to roughly $300m USD per km, that's obviously much better than NYC but it seems to be 2x what it costs in Spain (https://pedestrianobservations.files.wordpress.com/2019/11/costspresentation2.pdf).

It is often faster and more reliable to live in a commuter town outside London than to live in South London.

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The UK has shockingly bad housing quality for the money paid. Also the extreme centralization of everything in London means that its gravitational pull is hard to resist as far as economic measures go. The UK is a place where Heathrow expansion was a national parliament issue for decades.

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022

"The idea of incurring some economic cost for the sake of preserving nature is perfectly reasonable. But one really ought to think this through. The economic burden of preserving an acre of meadow immediately adjacent to a London metro station is astronomical, and if you developed it instead, you could preserve many, many acres of less valuable land elsewhere."

Isn't part of the value of nature preservation in this context precisely that it's actually near where people are and can experience it, as opposed to where it's providing much less utility to nearby humans?

Furthermore, path-dependence would seem to dictate that nature preservation in areas that may experience high housing demand in the future has to be done ex ante, when it's feasible, as opposed to ex post, when it's impossible (no one is going to demolish a bunch of high rises to build a park), particularly because parks generally don't generate much if any revenue.

I understand the argument being made in the quoted paragraph, but I think it also puts the onus on pro-housing urbanists to explain why would be improper to preserve open land what appears to be an extremely non-dense area, but it wouldn't be improper not to pave over Central Park and replace it with skyscrapers, given that that land may have among the highest opportunity costs of non-intensive use in the country. As a native New Yorker, surely Matt is aware that "[several] acres of meadow immediately adjacent to a [] metro station" describes every subway stop from from 110th St to 59th St along Central Park West and East.

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 13, 2022

This is an extremely false equivalence. Building over the one park in an otherwise densely populated area is not the same as building over a field surrounded by other fields and low density homes near a transit centre. Or not even building over the field, but raising the density of the existing buildings.

I also believe modern urban design does do the nature preservation ex ante. A bunch of quite tall towers around a park, a school and a shopping centre, basically.

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022

Is the argument that the one (ex-ante preserved park) should never be adjacent to a metro station because the opportunity costs are too high and we would / should never build Central Park West / East given the opportunity to do it over again, and thus normatively the open land next to this stop *shouldn't* be the ex ante preserved park? How is the ex ante preservation determination made?

EDIT: Also as to the argument that "Building over the one park in an otherwise densely populated area is not the same as building over a field surrounded by other fields and low density homes near a transit centre." -- without a good number to put on the imputed value of a park for public use that competes with the (implied) numbers for private use that are driving Matt's argument here, the point is that denser surrounding development and high housing demand probably drives *up* the opportunity cost of parks rather than down. Sure, *lots* more people benefit from Central Park than from a meadow near Theydon Bois, but the private value of that land is probably even higher used for housing, so even with (much) higher imputed value for public use, the delta between that use and (EDIT: previously mistaken said public) private development n is likely even higher still.

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Just to reiterate: we are not talking about parks or nature preserves, we're talking about privately-owned land engaged in low-value added profitmaking enterprises, either forestry or agriculture, or the pseudo-agriculture (fallow lands) encouraged by EU and then UK climate policy.

Most of this is not public lands.

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This point is definitely relevant, but I think privately-owned low-value added land probably still provides a public benefit to incumbents -- this is sort of the essence of NIMBY, right? "I'd like my leafy suburb to remain such even if most of the land is nominally privately owned" isn't exactly a an out-there position.

The point being that I think it's credibly it's a matter of degree (i.e. the question "does forgoing building here create too high an opportunity cost?" can be asked equally of parks or zoned private land) rather than kind, although the opportunity cost is almost always going to be much lower for the public park example.

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Sure, it's a matter of degree, but then we get to the other extreme of the spectrum, whereby derelict service stations, rotten, collapsing rowhomes, and weed-grown, needle-strewn lots are of sufficient public benefit to avoid developing them.

I think that, given the long-established proclivities of the NIMBY nuts to claim *ev-er-y-thing* as a public amenity, the rules should firmly draw a line on this sort of claim, set at public- or public-benefit-corporation-owned natural and recreational lands. Not so much as an inch of wiggle room beyond that.

If you value the open space enough to want it preserved, your town should *have* to bear the costs of that: pass the bond or tax bill to fund its purchase on the open market and build the infrastructure to make it accessible to everyone as a park or nature preserve.

If you can't do that, and you're reaching for the "illiberal zoning" easy button, unwilling to bear any costs to create a genuine public amenity, then sit the hell down and shut up, because you don't actually value the "amenity", you value the artificial scarcity of the house you own nearby.

To be clear, rhetorical "you", not you personally.

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I'm partially familiar with this line of argument (less so with the public-benefit purchase, which I guess abstractly I'm fine with?) but I think it's one of those ones where the principles behind it run into the "sure, it works in practice, but what about theory?" problem.

Specifically, as I understand this proposal, the idea is that people can have preferences about development but the only proper way to reify them is through some formal mechanism of contract (e.g. a private HoA or public-benefit purchase) rather than solving the collective-action problems by statute ('"illiberal zoning").

The public-dedication option seems reasonable in general, and I've chewed on it less, but then if the town owns a bunch of land at the outset it's not clear that it would be improper for them to set conditions on its development (including NIMBY conditions), no?

The more common framing I see is one Matt has brought up where you're free to restrict development but you basically do it as an HoA so that the development patterns are akin to a single (large) private landholder forgoing maximal density of development. The chief trouble being that this seems to basically land you in the world where you have the same outcome as illiberal zoning in the sense of less-dense development, but now people are forced to deal with their busybody neighbors restricting how tall your begonias can be or what color drapes you have instead of setting a basic development pattern and calling it a day -- it risks being strictly worse in practice than just allowing illiberal zoning even if by YIMBY proponents' lights it's sounder in theory.

Also I'm not sure I quite understand the artificial scarcity point - I think the people in question really do value the amenity of looking out at a field or a copse of trees instead of a midrise apartment building -- I know I do. While they might not necessarily enjoying traipsing through private property as they would a park it seems weird to say that they don't value the amenity per se in that context.

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I don't know. I'm not a professional in this field. However, countries that commit to rational urban development manage to do it - see Matt's prior writings on Tokyo. The UK and to a lesser extent US housing regimes are incredibly destructive and I find it inappropriate to imply the only alternative is a regime that would pave over Central Park.

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Central Park was conceived and created many decades before onerous zoning requirements came to NYC, and it would never be created today, so it seems like a really, really bad example for Ethics Gradient's point

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Doesn't this make the parallels with the British greenbelt that much more acute? Matt is basically saying that we should be suspicious of setting aside land near potential development (or at a minimum transit hubs) because the opportunity costs of not building on it are high--but that's actually exactly how we get Central Park in the first place, because path dependency. I think we're talking past each other here.

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Matt is lamenting regulations created long after Central Park was created. So I don't see how it could possibly bolster your point

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022

I think Tokyo genuinely is a lot closer to the "fuck all urban green space" model, to be fair. That is, admittedly, absolutely a glib oversimplification but if you have to characterize it one way or the other I'm not sure it's misleading.

https://www.google.com/maps/place/Tokyo,+Japan/@35.7143609,139.7131006,28299m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x605d1b87f02e57e7:0x2e01618b22571b89!8m2!3d35.6761919!4d139.6503106

https://www.reddit.com/r/pics/comments/mtet0z/theres_cities_theres_metropolises_and_then_theres/

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022

I found it very difficult to run in, personally, though not a long sample size (I think about eight nights total spread over a couple of trips; the second time I didn't bother to bring running shoes).

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My experience was similar during a similarly short stay. Having eventually found a navigable pedestrian-friendly footpath, my attempts to navigate around the numerous citizens of Tokyo also on it were cut short when (totally my fault) I dodged one set of passersby only to immediately cut in front of the path of an unfortunate cyclist.

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Copied from an above post of mine:

"Calling the UK green belts 'parks' is pretty charitable.

They're mostly just fields that are, thanks first to CAP and now to UK ag/climate policy, left fallow while their owners take various subsidy monies.

They're (mostly) not actually recreation areas and public access is limited to that allowed by traditional common law on private property.

Hence why it's so profoundly stupid to have them located where they are."

To make things worse, the UK's historical preservation standards also make it virtually impossible to replace existing structures older than WWII, or even engage in major retrofits thereof to bring them up to a reasonable spec without incurring ruinous costs. My understanding is that if I were to take a 1900's-issue industrial townhome and attempt to tear it down, every single neighbor would have veto power and I would need to get approval from a local commission for historic preservation. Then my new design would again be subject to veto from everyone.

If I were to attempt to preserve the structure and rebuild the interior, I would be subject to all manner of limitations on the materials and trades used. If, god forbid, the building were actually listed as a structure of interest (like a fairly significant percentage of all buildings including virtually everything pre-industrial), it would be impossible to alter the outside appearance, even down to the color of the window frames, and I would be required to use almost entirely period materials and techniques (aside from electrical and plumbing systems) to retrofit the interior.

It's literally insane, the whole country is worse than any single jurisdiction in the United States including freaking Berkeley!

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022

I can't help but think that at least the facade rules--while doubtless overwhelmingly dumb--are still probably on net a little better than NYC's, where often as not you can't change the exterior experience of some utterly nondescript, wholly commoditized midcentury concrete block because reasons. Presumably the exteriors being obnoxiously preserved in the UK are at least nice-looking, right?

.....Right?

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The utility of some facade rules can also depend on where you are.

For instance, "Old" San Juan, Puerto Rico has facade rules on all those buildings/apts lining the cobblestone streets, but they make a lot of money from tourism so to the extent that it raises housing costs (and this is kind of just the area within walking distance of where the cruise ships let off etc) it does provide a bunch of revenue to the island.

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founding

Where there is an actual park that makes sense. But the aerial photo appears to show some green space near a tube station that doesn’t actually have any amenities for people to use.

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Indeed, the greenbelt is just land protected from being developed, not necessarily land that is open to the public.

TBF, It's worth saying that with the example he picked, Theydon Bois, MY has picked one of the relatively few London Underground stations that is outside of Greater London, and in the green belt, so the mayor of London can do nothing to push development there.

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022

The actual area is borderline rural, the weirdness seem to be more that the tube station exists at all rather than that there's a big opportunity cost to the green space.

My point is that you can certainly make the argument "green space near a tube station is bad because the opportunity costs are high" but that's a fully general argument against literally any urban green space that doesn't pay its own rent, and in fact is a fortiori stronger for parks in places with extremely high housing demand.

EDIT: context

https://www.google.com/maps/place/Theydon+Bois/@51.7417866,0.4043102,91461m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x47d8a21b21189467:0x6c7c73275f3e5729!8m2!3d51.6717598!4d0.1031094

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founding

“Green space” and “park” are two very different things. “Green space” is land that has plants on it but no human use, like the green space around a parking lot, or around many buildings. “Park” is land that is designated for public human use, which often happens to have plants on it that contribute to that use.

An argument against “green space” in high value areas does not extend to “parks”, because parks are higher value in high value areas.

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Sep 12, 2022·edited Sep 12, 2022

There's definitely a difference (maybe less so in the Nordics with allemansratten) but I think there's some degree of continuum as regards the stressors of being in a built versus natural environment (for which studies come out every few months like clockwork and that admittedly are strongly in line with my priors so I can't claim to have tried to poke holes in robustness of findings). Also relates to stuff like tree cover to mitigate the urban heat island effect.

Perhaps more importantly, "green space" is a necessary (though not sufficient) characteristic of "being a park" and specifically the one that's in conflict with development, so I'm not totally sold on the distinction being the be all end all.

Obviously there's usually going to be more utility to a public park than some privately owned nondescript meadow, but I suppose I'm inclined to treat that as a question of degree rather than kind (e.g. going to the magnitude of the opportunity cost) when it comes to the question of "should we build something here because the opportunity cost of not doing so is too high?" -- YIMBYism seems like the name you give to describe the belief that the answer is "almost always, yes,"

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founding

I don't necessarily say we should build there - but on land with valuable transportation assets, like a Tube station, I would think you would want some sort of intentional land use, whether it be buildings or a park, not just a vacant lot. If it's not worth spending a few thousand pounds putting in a trail and a park sign, then it's probably not worth keeping empty.

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The area is borderline rural because it's virtually impossible to increase density in the pre-existing town and the land on the other side of the tracks was placed off-limits to any construction 80 years ago.

There are plenty of places that are much more developed that are a longer commute from the City or other major employment centers because it was possible to develop them.

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This is basically what Brighton is nowadays, right?

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Well, it's also a beach town. If you look at any of the formerly-middle-class beach/lake/mountain resort towns that serve NY, Chicago, Washington, or Philadelphia you'll see the same densification and backlash that characterize Brighton.

My understanding is that Reading, Basingstroke, or Southend-on-Sea are better examples of purely commuter towns that have been given impetus by the green belt.

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I also wondered about Central Park but is there a distinction between a meadow and a park?

If the meadow is to be kept untrammeled, then not very many people can enjoy it.

If they turned it into a park specifically to increase the value of that tube station and allow people to enjoy it, that's fine.

Austin has a greenbelt, but specifically with hike&bike trails and recreation in it so that it can be enjoyed by the citizens and not _just_ kept green.

Central Park is obviously highly developed for this.

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I think even staunch YIMBYs like MY agree that it's good to provide public amenities, like parks, squares, and other public spaces in cities. Part of what makes a place valuable is its access to amenities--and parks, nature, etc. are amenities, and public transit provides access. I don't think anyone is arguing that a city should be only housing, with no aesthetic and quality of life concerns addressed.

But part of having a public transit system that connects people to other people and to amenities is people living near the transit stop (or amenities being located there). A privately owned meadow right next to a train station doesn't quite seem logical to me.

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Agreed!

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Just to give a personal anecdote, my 90sqm two-bedroom flat in Manchester (in what we'd call an inner suburb; I think that implies something further out in American English; it's about 20-30 minutes' walk to the city centre) cost me £112,000 in 2010. It is now valued at about £170,000.

2010 prices were still held down after the financial crisis - my flat was £94,495 list from new in 2004; looking at the history, one of the neighbouring identical flats was about £125,000 in 2008.

Manchester is well outside the London commuter zone, though is one of the most successful cities outside of London.

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Those prices don’t seem that steep. My aunt had a 3 story 250 sq meter flat in Manchester that was worth £400,000 a while back. The prices were higher than one would pay in a suburb of DC and salaries in Manchester are radically lower than in DC

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That's interesting! My totally uninformed picture of Manchester was one of (failing) dark satanic mills. Obviously, it has risen phoenix-like from the ashes. How did it do that?

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Partly: a bit of the same approach as London in the 1940s: an IRA bomb in 1996 blew out a large part of the city centre, resulting in a major redevelopment. This was mostly commercial rather than residential, but it resulted in a much more attractive centre to work in, which then started pulling in more residents too.

Partly: it has a much better transport network than Leeds or Birmingham, making it much easier to live in the suburbs and commute in without having to drive.

Partly: as a plausible candidate for the second city (against Leeds, Birmingham and Glasgow) it's been able to attract a number of secondary HQs and the like, most importantly MediaCity, which has a large fraction of both BBC and ITV located there.

Manchester doesn't have many actual mills (they are all up in the mill towns in the hills - places like Rochdale and Blackburn); what it does have is lots of warehouses, and Victorian warehouses have turned out to make for very good conversions into flats or commercial space - because they don't have structural internal divisions, they are easy to convert to shops or open-plan offices.

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That's really interesting; thanks.

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The analysis of the Blitz on productivity immediately made me think of post-WWII Japan. Does anyone know of any similar analysis for cities like Tokyo? Is part of what allowed Japan to generate some of the densest cities in the world related to the destruction of large parts of their urban centers and/or do they just have better policies in place to allow density to happen naturally?

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Japan has one of the rich world's strongest "shall issue" laws on housing construction permits. There's tons of stuff you can find via google. A few years ago, there was a lot of YIMBY chitchat regarding the factoid that, apparently, Tokyo prefecture (pop 13 million) was building more housing units annually than California (pop 39 million).

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This 'factoid' has been discussed so many times, I can't believe people are still repeating this inaccurate info.

Japan builds a ton because they don't tolerate old buildings- they tear them down & replace them in the same way people tend to replace old clothes or furniture. They're not building brand new buildings, they're simply demolishing and then rebuilding the same thing every 40 or 50 years. This is not really 'building more housing units'. Imagine if a 10 unit apartment building was demoed and then replaced with a brand new 10 unit apartment building- would you say that new housing has been created?

Tokyo's being relatively affordable is probably more a function of population & economic degrowth

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Degrowth? Greater Tokyo has added six million people since 1990. Japan's demographic profile ≠ Tokyo's (nor Osaka's, Nagoya's etc). But yeah, depopulation in *rural* Japan does drives affordability...

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This is a great column. Boris Johnson actually tried pretty hard to upzone the UK last year, before getting shutdown by his own party's MPs. The Conservatives did implement an experimental upzoning-by-hyper-local vote that some YIMBYs are excited about.

Here's my piece about the episode: https://www.sightline.org/2021/09/16/yes-other-countries-are-making-more-progress-on-housing-case-4-the-united-kingdom-and-new-zealand/

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