American Cities Have a Conversion Problem, and It’s Not Just Offices

Cities have accumulated more prohibitions, more prescriptions, more appendix tables. More hitches.

“I have a name for the buildup of that stuff,” said Phil Wharton, a New York-based developer. “I call it the kludge.”

There is another part of this story that isn’t about laws and formal rules, but about the politics and culture that have emerged alongside them.

City transportation officials, for example, aren’t usually required by law to hold public meetings for every bike lane, or to defer to nearby property owners with each bus route. Cities broadly hold power to alter public streets and spaces for the public good. But something similar often happens anyway — the neighbors still say no, or a local politician does, or someone threatens a lawsuit. And the city concedes (or wastes years trying not to).

These informal forces are often just as powerful as legal codes, but they can be even harder to change, said Noah Kazis, a University of Michigan law professor. Legislators can rewrite a law that caps the density of residential buildings, but it’s a larger task to uproot the idea that nearby homeowners get to veto density.

This cultural opposition to change (and deference to neighbors) grows partly out of the era of urban renewal. It stems, too, from Americans’ growing reliance on housing as a vehicle to build wealth. The more people count on rising property values, the likelier they are to block change they fear might harm it.

Americans have also become more conservative about change as society has gotten richer, Professor Kazis suggested.

“If you go back 70 years, or 100 years, or 150 years, there was a general understanding that the housing stock or neighborhood design was just not good enough. People didn’t have plumbing,” he said. “So how you fix that might be up for grabs, but whether to fix it kind of wasn’t. And that’s not true anymore.”


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