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Friday, November 1, 1974

Impossible Riddles

Mr. Siegan is the author of Land Use Without Zoning and many articles on the subject. He practiced law for 20 years in Chicago before moving in 1973 to La Jolla, California where he is professor of law at the University of San Diego Law School.

Cities and towns do not come packaged in boxes like erector sets. I hope this revelation does not unduly shock the journalistic profession. Reading the newspapers and watching TV have led me to the conclusion that the reporters think that’s about the way cities are created.

Cities are arising in the West near new mining operations, and reporters seem disturbed that housing, schools and shopping facilities are not standing in these desolate areas waiting for people to arrive. They keep interviewing the new inhabitants who say what most should be expected to say, that conditions are not very pleasant. The reporters are quite surprised by it all.

But how can it be otherwise? Anyone who would have demanded the creation of housing in these areas several years ago, before the energy and resources crisis made such areas economically important, might have been committed as a looney. On the other hand, if mining and production are delayed until all workers are comfortably ensconced in their respective dream homes, the resources will not be mined for years to come —if ever. The workers would suffer along with the rest of us.

It is inevitable that boom towns bring living problems for those attracted by the prospect of new riches and lush jobs. This was the story of the American West, now probably the best housed section of the country. The settlers usually anticipated the kinds of hardship they found, but chose them in preference to the life they left behind in the East. They developed great portions of the country and succeeding generations were well served.

The best to be hoped for in these situations is that the developers and builders will be allowed to respond to the demand for housing and shopping, and not be hamstrung by zoning and building regulations. Schools and other facilities will follow.

This course of action, however, can bring added fury from the press. They may charge that the builders and speculators are desecrating the landscape, selecting sites that are scenic attractions or perhaps the habitat of unique four-legged creatures. And it may well be true of some of these potential sites.

However, the buildings will have to go somewhere on earth; no one has yet invented any which float in the sky or are subterranean. If new construction is required to bypass the challenged areas, houses will be located longer distances from other housing, shopping and employment. These are the characteristics of that notorious villain: Urban Sprawl. And the arguments about how the land should be used will delay considerably new construction.

Well, what do we do now? The usual way out of this dilemma is to demand planning and regulation, and then more and more of the same when the prior doses don’t work. That’s today’s automatic cure-all for those who keep insisting on perfect solutions to these problems, with the same probability of success as the bottled stuff the hucksters used to sell.

Greater and greater powers will then be given to politicians, bureaucrats, and planners, hardly a winning combination. But regardless of their knowledge or wisdom, they will be unable to accomplish the politically or physically impossible. Yet, that is what will be demanded of them.

Thus, to conserve land by obtaining a greater yield per acre requires taller structures. The mere mention of this, however, tends to evoke deletable expletives from environmentalists and planners. They prefer bigger lots to provide more open space, but want them to cost less and take up less land. They would like more housing but less construction. Even Albert Einstein couldn’t have solved those riddles.

The regulatory process invariably curtails development. Fewer housing units will be created and there will be additional horrors to report.

A more realistic and responsible approach to these difficulties is required. While new growth may create problems for people, the history of new development in this country shows that most of them will be solved within a few years. I doubt that conditions in life were idyllic where these people previously lived — else why did they migrate? When individuals move they usually do so to better themselves.

The more we allow normal market processes to operate unhampered, the quicker the solutions will arrive.

Copyright 1974 Bernard H. Siegan 

  • Bernard H. Siegan (1924-2006) was a longtime law professor at the University of San Diego School of Law, libertarian legal theorist and a former federal judicial nominee to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.