My Despair at American Land-Use Planning

J. Bradford DeLong

This morning I stood on a high mountaintop at sunrise. I watched the cracks in the thick boiling grey layers of cloud turn red and gold and saw the orange ball of the sun blast through. I looked across a fair valley at a towering forest-covered peak. I saw the light from the newly-risen sun sparkle off of the greatest river to flow into the Pacific south of the Columbia and north of the Colorado. And I despaired.

Why did I despair? I despaired because of the state of land-use planning in America.

Let me back up half an hour. I awoke to the sound of chirping birds. I looked out of the window of the house that my wife and I bought with the (very generous) Berkeley faculty housing subsidy. Back when we did the numbers and bought this house four and a half years ago, we calculated that we could afford a two-and-one-half bedroom house in Berkeley, or a four bedroom house in the next towns over, so we landed in Lafayette. While searching we discovered this house--a house with five acres attached to it, but five acres under a "scenic easement" which essentially turns them into a wild park but leaves us responsible for upkeep, and most importantly fire safety. The acres thus subtract from the value of the house.

But we bought it. Thus when I wake up I can look out in any of the four compass directions and not see another house or another soul. Instead when we look out on our five acres we see grassland... tall oaks...creek... marsh... blackberry patch... giant redwoods (well, they're only eighty feet tall)... pampas grass (which depresses the arborist: it's far from native)... We also see the cute and not so cute woodland creatures... sparrows... jays... crows... raccoons... mule deer... squirrels... red-tailed hawks (and once a golden eagle)... skunks... coyotes (the ex-Bulgarians who used to live next door thought they were large foxes)... turkey vultures (to eat the remains of the deer brought down by the coyotes)...

I put a leash on the dog, and walk out onto the five acres. We climb the hill whose top is a quarter mile away. We arrive at the top and look across the great Diablo Valley at sunrise. I see Mt. Diablo perhaps ten miles away rising from its base (100 feet above sea level) to its top (4000 feet above sea level). I see forest, grassland, scrub oak. In the distance I see the Sacramento River sparkling in the dawn sun as it winds its way to San Francisco Bay.

But suppose I look to my left, up at the very top of the hill. I see a forest of fifteen cellular phone antennas surrounded by a barbed wire fence. On the barbed wire fence is a sign: "Radiation levels may exceed allowable limits. Keep moving. Do not stop."

I look down, and see the 12 lanes of Interstate Highway 680 merge with the 10 lanes of State Highway 24 just next to the Walnut Creek Bay Area Rapid Transit Station. Just beyond the 22 lanes of highways we see the large blocks of the department stores of Broadway Plaza and Broadway Pointe... Macys... Nordstroms... the smaller blocks of the yuppie specialty and grocery stores... Williams and Sonoma... Restoration Hardware... Oakville Grocery.... Barnes and Noble... Andronicos under construction... Whole Foods Market under construction...

In my immediate neighborhood the local population density is only 100 people per square mile: only 11 people in the tenth of a square mile surrounding our house. Yet we live less than two miles away from 22 lanes of freeway, 2 major department stores, and a rapid-transit station. (But we have no highway noise: we live in the sound shadow of the ridges to our north and east.)

Greater San Francisco is boiling over with construction. However, the growth poles of the metropolitan area are thirty miles to my east, in places like Antioch, Livermore, and over the Altamont Pass. The town of Lafayette in which I live fights any proposals to significantly upgrade its density, just as Oakland and Berkeley to our west fight any proposals to significantly upgrade their density, and San Francisco as well wants to stay San Francisco--and not become Manhattan.

Yet there can be no doubt that human welfare would be greater if San Francisco did become more dense (like Manhattan), if Oakland and Berkeley did become more dense (like San Francisco), if Lafayette did become more dense (like Berkeley). For one thing, the enormous social waste of two-hour-long commutes would be avoided. For another, higher population densities support more things to do: the city council of Lafayette wishes that its downtown were denser and more active, yet has a hard time grasping that the shortage is not of retail or office space but of people living nearby to buy stuff at the retail and office space.

The way American politics is structured, there is no way for greater San Francisco to make the collective decision to become a denser, less sprawl-ridden metropolis. Barring the stick of much higher energy prices to make people demand apartments in the city rather than houses in Antioch because they will be unable to afford the commute, it will not happen.

I look down. All twelve lanes of Interstate 680 are bumper-to-bumper. All five lanes of State 24 heading toward San Francisco are bumper-to-bumper. It is 7:23, seven minutes after the upper limb of the sun rose above the last of the coast ranges to my east. Rush hour has been ongoing for an hour and a half already. "You get to the Bay Bridge after 5:45, and you are in trouble," my luncheon companion of the day will say.

So I despair.

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