Dynamist Blog

Zoning Abolition, AI Advances, and a Cultural Confidence Contest

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For Bloomberg Opinion, I interviewed Nolan Gray, author of the new book Arbitrary Lines, which advocates abolishing zoning (but not land-use planning) in the U.S. Here are a couple of excerpts:

VP: Is zoning a specifically US phenomenon?

NG: Most developed countries have something resembling zoning. They will say industrial building is not allowed in certain quarters of the city, or certain portions of the metropolitan area are going to be reserved for agriculture. But US zoning is unique in at least two ways. The first is single-family zoning. No other zoning system in the developed world, to my knowledge, demarcates specific areas only for single-family housing.

The second way that US zoning is unique is the complete orientation around the car. It’s often illegal to build an apartment building without a parking garage, or it’s illegal to build a commercial strip without a large parking lot….

VP: You write about the origins of zoning in both New York and Berkeley, California. Can you explain what drove it?

NG: Both reflect the “Baptists and bootleggers” coalition that gets us zoning. The “Baptists and bootleggers” idea is that political coalitions will normally have someone who’s cynically invested in the policy — the bootlegger who supports prohibition because he can make money off of it — and then the Baptist who provides the political movement with moral cover.

Start with the “Baptists.” During the Progressive Era there was this notion that cities and markets are too scary and chaotic. Wouldn’t it be great if we got all the smartest people in the room to come up with a big master plan for what’s going to be allowed on every single lot in our city for the next 50 years? Most modern people look back and think that’s a little crazy. But that was the ethos.

The bootleggers were the landlords who — in the Manhattan context — think, “Way too much office supply is being built in lower Manhattan and it’s lowering the value of my assets.” In the Berkeley case, if you read the zoning promotional materials, one paragraph will say, “We need to adopt zoning so we can keep industry out of residential neighborhoods.” With modern eyes, you read that and think, Yeah, that makes sense. You don’t want an oil refinery next to your house. But then the next paragraph explains what industries they’re concerned about. It’s Chinese laundries. Or dance halls that are bringing African Americans into the neighborhood.

In New York City, shopkeepers on Fifth Avenue were worried about loft manufacturing moving closer to the shopping district. Again, you read that with modern eyes and think, OK, factories. There must have been smoke or noise or vibrations. But the shopkeepers’ specific concern was that poor Jewish factory girls are coming to window-shop along the corridor, and they’re scaring off our elite clientele. Zoning is much more of a social project than it is a good-government process.

VP: You repeatedly make the point that zoning “cannot build a building. It can only ever stop something from being built.” Why is that an important distinction?

NG: When Minneapolis abolished single-family zoning recently, some of the media coverage said that it was banning new single-family homes. But that’s not what they did. They got rid of single-family zoning, which was just a prohibition on apartments. They were getting rid of a prohibition.

In L.A., there are a lot of conversations about getting rid of minimum parking requirements. And people say, “Come on, you’ve got to have somewhere to park.” But getting rid of minimum parking requirements isn’t saying to developers that you’re not allowed to build any more parking. It’s saying that we’re not going to force you to build any parking. We’re not going to mandate things that you wouldn’t otherwise have done. It’s a really important difference.

You can read an ungated version here, courtesy of my WaPo subscription. Our conversation was much longer than what I was able to publish, and, of course, the book goes into further depth. The discussion of Houston, the great American unzoned city, is particularly interesting.

America’s Secret Sauce & the Faux Sophistication of Critique

Speaking of interviews, I highly recommend this conversation between Persuasion founder Yascha Mounk and Eboo Patal, the founder of Interfaith America and the author of We Need to Build: Field Notes For Diverse Democracy. It’s excellent throughout. Patel has a particular appreciation of the success of America’s dynamist approach to religion and how it plays out in the constant evolution of civic associations. I also appreciated the early discussion of the appeal and limitations of the “critique” approach Patal embraced as a college student. “I thought sophistication meant only telling the most negative story possible,” could be the slogan not only of the academic left but of many libertarians and conservatives.

The 21st Century Seems Like Science Fiction…even if it doesn’t look like old science fiction illustrations.

I’ve spent the week interviewing people at synthetic biology startups. I’ve eaten salmon sushi grown from a few cells, with no fish killed and no impurities (parasites, heavy metals, microplastics, whatever). I’ve eaten cream cheese made from whey protein excreted by fungi. You can read more later this year, in a longer article elaborating on the themes in this column from last year. As Greg Benford argued in this 1995 Reason article, ours is the Biological Century: “Beyond 2000, the principal social, moral, and economic issues will probably spring from biology's metaphors and approach, and from its cornucopia of technology. Bio-thinking will inform our world and shape our vision of ourselves.”

The biological advances proceed not just from greater biological understanding, however, but also from advances in computing power and now increasingly in machine learning. Last week brought the news that protein folding is no longer a mystery. The AI company DeepMind, owned by Alphabet (Google’s parent company), announced:

In partnership with EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), we’re now releasing predicted structures for nearly all catalogued proteins known to science, which will expand the AlphaFold DB by over 200x - from nearly 1 million structures to over 200 million structures - with the potential to dramatically increase our understanding of biology.

What will come of this information remains to be seen, but it promises to be big, with implications for medicine, agriculture, and more. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Lisa Jarvis, a former skeptic, wrote (ungated version here):

Since the early 1990s, scientists have been trying to train computers to predict a protein’s structure based on its genetic sequence. AlphaFold had the first taste of success in 2020, when it correctly predicted the structures of a handful of proteins. The next year, DeepMind put on its server about 365,000 proteins.

Now, it’s put the entire universe of proteins up for grabs — in animals, plants, bacteria, fungi and other living things. All 200 million of them.

Much as the gene-editing tool Crispr revolutionized the study of human disease and the design of drugs to target genetic errors, AlphaFold’s feat is fundamentally changing the way new medicines can be invented.

“Anybody who could have thought that machine learning was not yet relevant for drug hunting surely must feel different,” said Jay Bradner, president of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, the pharma company’s research arm. “I'm on it more than Spotify.”
Count me as one of the former skeptics. I hadn’t discounted the possibility that AI might have an impact on the drug industry, but I was weary of the many biotech firms hyping often ill-defined machine-learning capabilities. Companies often claimed that they could use AI to invent a new drug without acknowledging that the starting point — a protein structure — still needed to be worked out by a human. And so far, people have had to first invent drugs for the computer to improve upon them.

Producing the full compendium of proteins is something entirely different — and outside the usual hype cycle. It’s little wonder that executives at biotech and pharma companies are widely adopting AlphaFold’s revelations.

For more background on AlphaFold’s approach and the potential, see this Technology Review article from February.

On a more disturbing note, this AI-written letter to Glenn Loury fooled me completely. And I dread having to be on the lookout for AI-written student papers. (If you don’t want to learn, please don’t take my course!)

Envisioning the Future and the Recent Past

I am a huge fan of Jim Pethokoukis and his Substack newsletter, “Faster, Please!” But I’ve spent too much time thinking about glamour to share his enthusiasm for 20th-century visual depictions of the glorious future. They leave out too much—glamour always does!—and those omissions have had some perverse consequences, particularly in urban planning.1 I don’t want to live in the world of The Jetsons for the same reasons I don’t want to live in 1965. Plus there’s more to progress than faster transportation and robot maids. Surely our images can do better, including more human-scale views rather than grand visions that abstract away individual experience.

Meanwhile over at another Substack newsletter I enjoy, Anton Howes writes about Victorian confidence, quoting an 1859 document arguing for a successor to the Great Exhibition of 1851 (known for the Crystal Palace). It describes the previous eight years:

Looking back for that period in England, we find that several new arts and industries have arisen, and old ones have been extended. Scarcely more than ten years have passed since the submarine telegraphs were unknown; the screw propeller applied to our steam-vessels; the glass-duty removed; the great improvements and advancement in the trade and products of the Staffordshire potteries effected; the manufacture of bricks left free to take such form as may be required; the excise duty on soap got rid of; photography and chromatic printing introduced and perfected as arts; gutta percha and many vegetable oils from our Colonies, such as the Bassia Latifolia and the Cahoun Palm, introduced as new raw materials in commerce; whilst the declared value of our exported manufactures has risen from £65,756,000 in 1851 to £122,155,000 in 1857. Add to the above the fact, that within ten years the resources of our Colonies have been largely developed, and the commercial world has acquired three additional emporia: two on the shores of the Pacific, and one on the great American Lakes, viz., San Francisco, Melbourne, and Chicago, none of which are even named in the edition of Mr M’Culloch’s Dictionary of Geography, published in 1849; also that China and Japan have now been opened to trade with England; and we cannot but come to the conclusion that ten years is a period fully sufficient to justify the Society of Arts in proposing to hold an Exhibition in 1861.

Anton comments: “The contrast to today is marked. It is striking that so many intellectuals — particularly in the UK, but also in the US and elsewhere — believe economic and technological stagnation to now be an unavoidable fact of life. Although I don’t subscribe to the view that we’ve been seeing stagnation, I do think we’re falling far short of our potential. It’s worth imagining what kind of Victorian-style paragraph we can write about our last eight years, and what we would hope to write about the next.”

So here’s are the challenges. You can pick one or try any combination.

  1. Write an updated version of the Victorian paragraph, looking back at 2014.
  2. Write a speculative version of the Victorian paragraph, looking back at today from 2030.
  3. Come up with an inspiring illustration of a possible 2040.

I’ll publish a selection of the best here (you’ll retain rights, of course) as I receive them and will accept entries through September 30. I’ll then award the top two in each category a collection of what Jim would call “Up Wing” books.2 The judging process will depend on how many entries are received, and I reserve the right to award fewer than six prizes. Email them to me at [email protected].

Periodic reminders

  1. The references for The Fabric of Civilization are online here. They’re particularly useful if you have the audio version, which leaves them out. And if you don’t have the book, please buy it now.
  2. I welcome comments, but unless they’re personal, please leave them below rather than emailing me, so that other readers can read them as well.

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