Market Urbanism: A Vision for Free-Market Cities
By Scott Beyer.
Market Urbanism Report, 2022.
Paperback, 194 pages, $30
Reviewed by Matthew M. Robare.
American cities are sometimes thought of as the domain of liberals and progressives. Most invariably elect Democrats to local and state offices and vote overwhelmingly Democratic in presidential elections. A number of cities, such as Chicago and Philadelphia, have not elected Republican mayors since before the Great Depression. For politicians, voters, and especially activists, there is no problem in these cities that cannot be solved with more regulations, more grant programs, more processes and boards and hearings on the latest issues manufactured by the university-industrial complex. But problems persist – high housing costs and homelessness, poverty and unemployment, poor school performance, gentrification and abandonment, crumbling infrastructure, and failing public transportation.
But conservatives and libertarians have not ceased to think about cities and urban problems, whatever electoral success they may have, nor writing books about them. In 1965, William F. Buckley, Jr, ran for Mayor of New York City on the platform of the newly formed Conservative Party; Murray Rothbard lived in New York for much of his life and discussed urban problems in some of his work; Wilhelm Röpke made the rather unhelpful suggestion that cities should have an upper limit of 10,000 population; in the 90s, The Voluntary City, an anthology of libertarian writing about the city was published by David Beito, Alex Tabarrock, and Peter Gordon.
The recent book, Market Urbanism, by Scott Beyer, is a welcome entry to the genre. Beyer is a journalist, with a regular column in Governing magazine, who runs The Market Urbanism Report website and Facebook group (full disclosure: I have written paid pieces for The Market Urbanism Report). As a result, his writing is much more accessible than some more academic works and since it is about contemporary issues it contrasts nicely with older books like Buckley’s The Unmaking of a Mayor, which often lack the historical context for the issues they discuss (although, if Market Urbanism is still relevant in 2083, we will be in trouble).
Beyer divides the book into two main sections, one focusing on housing and the other on transportation. The section on housing takes up the first half of the book and it contains little that is unfamiliar to anyone who spends time in urbanist circles – or who read William Tucker’s The Excluded Americans (Regnery, 1988): housing is unaffordable to many people because of artificial constraints on supply imposed by municipal and county governments. However, Beyer presents these arguments in a clear and accessible way and it is useful to have all of the information and arguments in one place. He ends the book with two chapters on promoting market urbanist politics and private cities, where investors would build and run a city for profit.
Each chapter consists of several sections and within those sections are sidebars summarizing the section’s conclusions or case studies illustrating a point in depth. For example, the section on historic preservation discusses the issue in a high level way, like pointing out the analyses demonstrating that historic status makes properties more valuable and explaining how NIMBYs (an acronym for supporters of Not In My Backyard policies that prevent developers from building new housing, usually multifamily) abuse legitimate concerns for historic or artistically significant buildings to create vast “historic districts” with onerous regulations that sometimes prevent buildings from being rehabilitated and used. At the section’s end there is a short case study explaining how rather than attempt to create a historic district on its East Side, Atlanta chose to connect two historic warehouses repurposed as markets with a bike/pedestrian path and rezone nearby areas for midrise housing, which help complement the older homes in the area without locking homeowners in to needing expensive, custom-made lintels or roofing materials to match the older ones.
But the arguments begin losing steam when Beyer gets to discussing transportation. This is not because of an inherent weakness in the thesis, that private entities pursuing profits can provide adequate mass transportation. There are many examples of this throughout the world today and in history. The New York City Subway, for example, was built and operated by several different private companies; commuter rail service in several cities was provided by private companies until the early 80s and today Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railways is owned by MTR Corp (although the government of Hong Kong continues to hold a majority of the shares). The problem is entirely practical: unlike the relatively straightforward housing reforms, some of Beyer’s market-based transportation ideas require radically new ways of thinking about public space and transportation.
For instance, he writes of cities privatizing their streets by auctioning off rights to curb and road space for bus lanes, outdoor dining, bike lanes, parking or picking up delivery orders. One can debate the desirability of such a change, especially curb pricing, but it seems unlikely any city would actually go all the way. Taking a public right of way like a street and auctioning off the right to access presents several problems, such as the ability of wealthy residents to hurt businesses they dislike or by preventing a bus network from being complete.
Currently, in Boston, there is a political storm between older, wealthier residents of the North End neighborhood, which is famed for its Italian restaurants, who want to continue parking on the street for free and restaurateurs who want to take advantage of a city program to allow outdoor dining. The streets in question have very little parking available in the first place, but residents are still determined to keep diners indoors. Were Boston to auction off the space per Beyer’s recommendations it would be possible for the vindictive neighbors to buy strategic access rights to keep the restaurants from receiving deliveries or forbidding customers from using the streets. Similarly, neighbors could buy street rights and have a blanket policy of denying access to multifamily developers. Such actions are, in many ways, opposed to their own self-interests, especially in the North End. The residents fighting the restaurants are making the neighborhood worse and would seriously devalue their homes if they actually forced the restaurants out. But self-interest, rational, or not, already does not bother these people.
As an introduction to many important ideas, Beyer excels in explaining concepts on urban affairs in a clear, accessible way to the layman regardless of his ideological commitments. As a practical guide to transforming cities, though, it has flaws and room for improvement.
Matthew M. Robare is a freelance writer based in Boston.
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