Bulletin: Your book explores the history of city making and focuses on today’s dominant form: suburban sprawl. Why have you, a law professor, chosen this topic?
Gerald Frug: The purpose of my book is to give readers a sense of how the incentive system built into local government law has helped generate suburban sprawl. Many people seem to believe that suburbanization is the only conceivable option for America’s urban areas. In fact, there are many options. The way to build an alternative future is to retool the current “sprawl machine” by revising existing legal rules and creating new institutions to implement them.
Suburbs have been around for quite a while. Why pay so much attention to sprawl now?
There was a tremendous increase in suburban sprawl just in the 1990s. The obvious consequence of this growth has been the relentless transformation of farmlands and countryside into tract houses, strip malls, office parks, and highways. But there has also been a dramatic expansion and decline of poor African American neighborhoods, a flight from public schools, a decrease in the availability of affordable housing, and an intensifying fear of others epitomized by the rapid growth of gated communities.
These phenomena are closely related to each other. After all, you can’t create “exclusive” communities without some place for the excluded to go. Legal rules have been a central device in creating separate cities in America for the excluding and the excluded — a development that is bad for all of us.
Yet suburbs continue to expand, which means people still want to live in them. So what’s driving growing public anxiety about sprawl?
For some people, it’s the environmental damage caused by the loss of open space; for others, it’s the burden of commuting that our car-centered life has imposed; for still others, it’s the difficulty of living in declining communities without access to the jobs that have moved out of town. Another problem is the sheer cost of building the highways and other infrastructure required to support all this expansion. Even those who are moving further and further out — thereby creating more sprawl — often oppose it: the reason many of them move is to escape sprawl.
That brings us to the central theme of your book. Could you explain how our legal rules actually fuel sprawl and disempower cities?
The easiest way to understand the impact of legal rules is to recognize how much a person’s life changes simply by moving across the boundary line that separates the central city from a prosperous suburb. Crossing into the suburban side, one finds oneself in a different world: the troubles that face the central city suddenly become not “our problem” but “their problem.” Legal rules define what moving across this boundary line means.
Consider the impact of this boundary line on suburban residents. State law enables suburbs to limit housing to single-family residences on large lots, thereby making them too expensive for ordinary people. State law also enables suburbs to treat the property located within their boundary lines as a source of tax revenue that can properly be spent only on residents.
What do you mean when you call modern cities “creatures of the state”?
American cities only have the power that states give them. And, in fact, many efforts by central cities to improve their residents’ quality of life have been frustrated by state decision making. For example, people in Cambridge and Boston have tried hard to maintain their diversity by making it possible for lower- and middle-income people to remain in town. One way they have tried to do so — through rent control and restrictions on condominium conversions — was recently prohibited, over their objection, by a statewide referendum. This is only one example of a disturbing fact: under current legal rules, it is harder for a central city to sustain economic diversity than it is for a wealthy suburb to exclude the poor.
How do you propose changing the system?
What I propose is for the state to recognize the impact that cities within the same region have on one another. Exclusionary zoning has as much impact on outsiders as on insiders. And much of the commercial and industrial property on which the suburbs rely to fund their schools and other city services is owned by outsiders. Why should taxes on a shopping mall used by metropolitan residents generally be spent only in the jurisdiction in which the mall is located? Recognizing the inter-connection between people who live in the same metropolitan area does not require establishing a regional government; it requires rewriting the rules of local government law.
One could do so, for example, by requiring zoning decisions to be made with the housing demands of the region, and not just of city residents, in mind. One could require cities to treat commercial and industrial property as a regional, rather than a local, asset on the grounds that the current system gives cities a fiscal incentive both to compete for these enterprises and to exclude from town many of those who would like to work for them. And one could adopt a school choice plan for local public schools in order to open them to children from elsewhere in the region. That way, employees who work near a school but who cannot afford to buy a house nearby would be able to send their children to the most conveniently located public school.
How would ordinary people take part in your proposals?
Along with changing legal rules, I propose creating institutions that would allow metropolitan residents to work together on common problems — involving them, for example, in decision making for their children’s schools and in community policing efforts. Support for reforming local government has to come from the impact that the reform will have on problems that everyone in the region worries about: schools, crime, transportation, affordable housing. Efforts to address these problems will work best if they cross city lines. After all, many of America’s older suburbs are now beginning to suffer the kind of decline that traditionally has been associated only with central cities.
You offer a different take on the concept of “community building.” Could you describe it?
I don’t use the term “community” to refer to the romantic notion of nurturing a shared sense of identity. I hope instead to foster the kind of relationship among strangers that cities have traditionally created throughout human history. City life has not been built on a feeling of solidarity or affection or acceptance. What it has offered instead is the idea that one can learn how to live and work with people who are not like oneself. Everybody recognizes that American society is becoming more diverse. The issue we face is deciding what we are going to do about it. One possible answer is to intensify the kind of separation and division of different kinds of people that local government now encourages. The better answer, I think, is to help people learn how to live in a diverse society. That’s what I mean by “community building.”