The ongoing heat wave in Europe and high heat in parts of the United States have prompted concerns about how to adapt if global warming causes permanently higher summer temperatures. According to some critics, this task is too difficult to be left to unregulated capitalism. Consider a representative argument from David Madden, an associate professor of sociology at the London School of Economics. “Anyone who thinks deregulation will create cities that are better able to survive extreme heat is deluded,” Madden writes. “Left to their own devices, housing markets will clearly produce exclusionary enclaves of air-conditioned luxury while leaving poor and working-class households to boil.”
But how valid is this prediction? Building regulations in the developed world, especially the United States, have made cities far more susceptible to heat. And this is just one instance of a broader lesson: regulations can hurt the environment just as easily, or even perhaps more easily, than they can help.
I live in Houston, the most notoriously hot and humid large city in the United States, in an intensively redeveloped prewar residential neighborhood that comprises mostly mid-rise apartment blocks and three-story townhouses. Even Houston’s summer heat is quite comfortable in most circumstances. I have never felt overheated while eating lunch outdoors on a shaded patio, for example, or even after mid-afternoon bicycle trips along local roads or walks along shaded sidewalks and park trails.
Houston heat is made intolerable by the city’s vast quantity of heat-absorbing asphalt and the frequent lack of shade. I frequent a few restaurants a short distance from my apartment, in strip malls off of a busy, six-lane arterial road. The walk from my apartment to the restaurant, along an unshaded sidewalk between the road on one side and the parking lots of the strip malls on the other, is far more uncomfortable than even exercise in the shade at the same temperature. Even a short one-minute walk through a big-box store’s parking lot can be almost intolerable and make the air conditioning inside feel almost life-saving. More rigorous research confirms that large parking lots contribute powerfully to the urban heat island effect. It’s no wonder that anyone whose experience of the Texas outdoors involves mostly walking between cars and commercial buildings would find the heat oppressive.
These aspects of Houston’s built environment owe less to the workings of the free market than to a set of market-distorting land-use regulations that sacrifice heat resilience, while also wasting large amounts of valuable land, in the name of giving motorists maximum possible convenience. In these respects, Houston’s land-use regulations are perfectly ordinary. Most prominent are the massive requirements for off-street parking spaces for almost all types of development outside a few downtown areas. In Houston, even studio apartments, seldom occupied by more than one person, require 1.25 parking spaces. Any commercial development requires far more parking space. Supermarkets, for example, require five parking spots per 1,000 square feet of floor area. Bars and restaurants, depending on classification, can require up to 14. A typical parking spot takes up about 300 square feet of space, so such establishments could need four times the amount of land for parking lots as for their building itself. Many commercial parking lots often sit mostly empty.
Other common aspects of American land-use codes, such as setbacks and traffic engineering standards, also make heat in American cities harder to bear. Old cities in hot regions such as Latin America and the Middle East typically have buildings (which often incorporate colonnade walkways) set close to the street to provide shade for pedestrians—an eminently sensible design specifically prohibited by most American zoning codes, which enforce a suburban appearance on residential neighborhoods by requiring “front setbacks,” or wide margins of land along the street that cannot be built on. Builders typically pave over large amounts of this setback land to provide driveways much longer than they would have to be without setbacks, adding yet more hot asphalt into cities. Houston, fortunately, has minimal setback requirements, and my own neighborhood furnishes evidence that typical setback requirements far exceed Americans’ actual desire for front lawns: almost every building in my neighborhood is built as close to the street as regulations allow.
Traffic-engineering standards also contribute to overheated cities. Houston, for instance, mandates street widths of at least 50 feet on local roads in new subdivisions—more than four times the standard 12-foot width of an interstate highway lane. This gives enough room for cars to pass one another at speed with one lane of parking on each side of the road, a massive waste of land and asphalt in residential areas with plentiful off-street parking where, even at rush hour, local roads will see at most a few cars per minute. It’s common traffic-engineering practice, as well, to maintain the sides of major roads as “clear zones” free from trees and other fixed obstacles, in order to limit the damage to cars that run off the side of the road. This practice eliminates shade while providing only doubtful safety benefits.
Though environmentalists are aware of how large parking lots and wide roads contribute to urban overheating, their proposed solutions frequently reflect a pervasive bias: treating environmental problems as defects of free-market capitalism to be solved with more regulation, often a precise reversal of the truth. One exemplar in this regard is a 2016 article from Louisville, Kentucky, discussing how the city’s government was addressing urban heat islands by considering zoning code reforms. These included one provision, since enacted, that “calls for developers to plant up to 25 percent more trees in parking lots that will exceed the minimum number of required parking spaces”—with no consideration given to whether the minimum number of parking spaces might itself be profitably reduced.
A long report on urban heat adaptation from Georgetown University’s Climate Center, similarly, contains a discussion of the benefits of “cool,” high-reflectivity pavements, and how zoning requirements and other government policies could encourage or force their adoption. The only oblique mention of how zoning codes contributed to heat island problems comes in a brief aside: “As a low-cost companion policy, governments can use mandates and incentives to minimize the amount of paved surface in general”—for example, it elaborates, “local governments could assess parking needs on a case-by-case basis or set maximum parking requirements rather than imposing one-size-fits-all minimum parking requirements.”
The role of zoning regulations in promoting overheated cities thus carries a broader lesson: overregulation can have environmental costs as bad as under-regulation. Much of the pollution created by electricity generation in the United States, for example, is the fault of excessive safety regulations imposed by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which have played an important role in preventing nuclear electricity from being cost-competitive with electricity from dirtier sources. The amount of highly polluting long-distance truck transport in the United States, similarly, can be attributed to federal laws that cripple more efficient freight carriers, such as the Jones Act—which gives a few technologically backward American shipping companies an oligopoly on shipping between U.S. ports—and needless rail-safety regulations such as a new two-person crew requirement on freight trains being promulgated by the Biden administration, a safety measure used by few, if any, foreign railroads. Solving America’s environmental problems, therefore, may depend on environmentalists’ ability to learn that “deregulation” is not a four-letter word.
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