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Make More Land (jefftk.com)
311 points by QuitterStrip on Oct 16, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 270 comments

America has an attitude problem. It thinks it is already developed. Like, there is nothing left to do. That is the single biggest difference between the America of today and the America of the last century.

The Netherlands feels more like India, in that everything is under a state of continual improvement all the time. The Netherlands is fantastically futuristic, though, and super nice (much more developed than most of America). That's because they don't think they are "done".

Here is a map of the parts of the Netherlands that are under water. https://images.app.goo.gl/c5E11LJfLETAFFBy9

Your comment reminds me of the Strong Towns concept of "built to a finished state". The idea that, say, a suburb gets built and it must stay in the form it was built in forever and ever, rather than, say, gradually gaining a few businesses, or some denser housing in more desirable locations.

I mean, this is basically what zoning was designed to do. For the most part, it's working as intended.

Yeah, unfortunately, for values of 'working' that signify huge costs for people, cities and the environment.

"Working as intended" is often a euphemism for "broken as designed"

What do you suggest? Houston has its own set of problems.

Houston, like many American cities, massively subsidizes sprawl and an auto-centric (or auto-only) lifestyle. They may not have zoning, but they do have things like parking minimums throughout much of the city. And in their favor, it is a place where many people can afford to live, something that can't be said of places like the San Francisco bay area.

Where I lived in Italy, I could walk to:

* My kids' schools

* A small grocery store

* A cafe

* A takeout pizza place

* Our doctor

* A tram stop

* A small park

With a bike, many more places were within easy reach. How many places in the US allow so many different things so close together?

Most towns downtown area, and most major metro areas. The real problem - they were seen for over 50 years by white americans as an undesirable place to live (high amount of minorities, crime), and are just now catching up and moving in. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_flight

Its a big part of racial politics in the US - and now as all the current tech workers move back into the cities, there's a problem of gentrification where minorities are being pushed out of their neighborhoods due to cost increases.

Affordable, with a nice walkable downtown, low crime, and access to well paying jobs is the holy grail for almost any town - there are very few that achieve it. Generally as downtown gets nicer it gets less affordable. If we had a good way to actually spread out wealth and jobs, the smaller towns could improve and there would be many desirable local places to live. Until then, people will enclave themselves away in their suburbs. There will also always be those who want to live in more rural, large spaces.

Australia has the same problems as America regarding sprawl and autocentrism.

I now live in Berlin, which is incredibly walkable, prioritises bicycles over cars (except on the autobahns), and has I think four different train systems (u-banh, s-banh, trams and intercity), plus a great bus service. Oh, and now about half a dozen scooter and bike hire apps, plus Uber (and clones), and at least 3 short-term car hire apps.

I lived in Perth for ~10 years without a car, and it was painful. The contrast is incredible.

Given that Berlin was completely rebuilt in the same timescale that Perth was built, it's got nothing to do with history. It's about attitude. Everyone has to expect to live in an apartment (or townhouse), without a car, near their work, and demand adequate public transport (and use it when it arrives).

It is the Holy Grail, but it's not some mythical artifact unobtainable by a rational set of people working towards the common good.

Most downtowns were built up before they got zoning laws: that's part of why they tend to be a bit better from that point of view.

Also, where I lived in Italy was a suburban area and it still managed to have all those amenities.

Towns and villages in Europe are almost always highly compact compared to the US - I put it to that auto ownership was a bit lower and trains could be more efficient. Plus the relatively homogenized cultured meant there was less of a need to have sub enclaves on things other than economic class.

> Towns and villages in Europe are almost always highly compact compared to the US

That's a political choice. I mean, yes, the US has a lot of land and fewer people, but there are plenty of places that might be more compact if it were legal.

> That's a political choice.

Well, yes, in that, among other things, many European towns and cities are shaped by political choices made when population to length of enclosing wall ratio was an important political consideration.

The neighborhood I lived in and described above was mostly all post-WWII construction.

Right, but local control is a pretty large part of our governance. Its not like zoning laws are mandated federally - they remain in place because the representatives of that local area do not remove it.

The Houston Metroplex is nearly 10% the area of the entire country of Italy.

The former essentially didn’t exist before automobiles. The latter was laid out for pedestrian travel.

So, I don’t get your point... why would you expect to find anything comparable between a city in Italy and Houston?

Are there towns in the US where everything is within biking distance? Of course. Hundreds — maybe thousands — of such towns and villages; indeed, far more in the US than in Italy.

why would I want to walk so much all day? I had my fill of that lifestyle in college just walking around campus.

>America has an attitude problem


>Like, there is nothing left to do.

Nope. That's not it.

More like: There is nothing you're allowed to do.

In my town, we tried to get a town only beach, since most of the beaches in town are owned and controlled by CCNS and fill up with tourists in the summer.

But our town owned undeveloped beach-front land, so we tried to get a parking lot approved. Sounds easy right?

Environmental impact study, traffic study, land use issues, etc... The final reason why we couldn't make this happen was a MOTH...an insect. That is why we don't do much any more. They want you to spend $50K on studies...just so they can tell you no.

My daughter's school spent years in litigation to turn a failing golf course it had purchased into: 2/3 nature reserve and 1/3 athletic fields (for a small artsy school that hardly draws crowds to sporting events).

Yeah, America thinks that, because it's already developed, it can go ahead and impose ridiculous limitations on development -- because we have to be 'enlightened' about growing more.

That’s exactly our problem. Even on hacker news, check out the top comment on any new proposal or technology. It’s always negatively mentioning the downsides and unintended consequences.

I think a big part of that is the limited upside of unambitious projects.

I doubt too many people became engineers or entrepreneurs because they were pessimistic luddites.

I don't see a lot of people here poo-pooing public space programs or other truly horizon expanding projects.

I'm looking out my window at Boston's seaport. It has been under heavy development for over 10 years that continues. It's like a new city within a city. You may find that attitude in some places, but here in America's oldest city, it doesn't appear to exist.

On the subjects of Boston, its new-ish Seaport District and "Make more land": was it ever under discussion to simply fill in the Fort Point Channel completely? That could have potentially knitted the Seaport development into the city itself.

If I recall correctly, during the "Big Dig" work they had to jump through all sorts of hoops to run the new harbor tunnel road under the channel and deal with the water, and mud, etc. The entire South Bay has already been almost entirely filled in as can be seen on the map at the top of the linked article. Why not just finish it off entirely? Does it serve any actual purpose at this point?

I always feel like a bit of a wet blanket when it comes to the Seaport. Sure, it's nice to see the development happening, but it still feels very car-centric and cut off from the rest of the city. Just looking at a satellite image shows that there's a lot more roads and parking than actual buildings. It also feels very disconnected from the city center. Getting into town requires a fairly long walk across one of several windy, car-filled bridges.

> was it ever under discussion to simply fill in the Fort Point Channel completely?

At the end of the linked post I reference an earlier post of mine where I propose filling in the channel: https://www.jefftk.com/p/fill-in-fort-point-channel

That was an interesting note about the FPC. It's something I've wondered about for years ... and proof I didn't read until the very end of the linked article I guess :)

It reminds me of the small vestigial canal in Cambridge, the Broad Canal, that is one of the last remnants of a much larger canal network that ran through East Cambridge. I've always wondered why that last bit hasn't been filled in. It's a man-made canal, so if anything, filling it in would restore the original land. There's an old steel draw bridge spanning the canal that I don't think has actually been opened in 20 years. The bridge is actually a bit of a burden: the state recently did a good job widening the walking/bike bath along the Charles River but there's a pinch point at the bridge because the old pedestrian walk way across the bridge is so tight it can't readily accommodate the bike traffic it gets a lot of now.

There has to be some reason why they've left the bridge. My dad said when he was a kid he remembers barges delivering coal to the power plan that runs along the north side of that canal. It's all gas powered now, but I wonder if it could use coal in an emergency and they've left access to the plant for that reason?

Go there on any Saturday night and it won't feel car-centric or cut off from the city. Very robust pedestrian night life.

I'd be the wrong person to ask about Fort Point Channel. I love it and it's full of history which in Boston is a big deal.

>Go there on any Saturday night and it won't feel car-centric or cut off from the city.

Going there is the part that makes you feel cut off from the city.

" . . . America's oldest city . . ."

Santa Fe, Newport News, Hampton, Albany, and Jersey City would disagree.

He could mean that in the sense of "first to declare independence from European colonists and fall under control of the political body that would become the United States."

That would be a pretty idiosyncratic use.

San Juan has these beat by a hundred years or so. Saint Augustine is about 50 years younger (so also has these beat) and I think the oldest on continental soil.

And Saint Augustine.

The Netherlands is futuristic? Now I'm wondering if there's another Netherlands somewhere I haven't yet visited.

I love the Netherlands in part because it feels like it was frozen in time in the 1800s.

Disclaimer : I have only seen SF and NY in the US.

Netherlands is one of the best countries I've been to. Its squeaky clean throughout with excellent infrastructure. Most of the roads, public transport systems look spanking new and are not overloaded. Its also quite green. The long distance trains are also pretty fantastic compared to the ones you might find in the UK or US. Amsterdam is one of the most liberal cities in the world with a good startup eco system. It definitely is one of the best countries in the world. The USA honestly feels like a downgrade compared to it.

Futuristic, why not. Squeaky clean throughout - now that must be a different Netherlands than the Amsterdam I lived in!

Particularly after Koninginnedag or the New Year's Eve it would take days of wading through a thick layer of mush before it got cleaned. I've never seen such a mess anywhere else! (And I kind of enjoyed it. It felt... alive?)

Are you japanese by any chance? Amsterdam is considered a messy place even by the Dutch themselves, especially inside the canal ring, but compared to most european capitals it is as clean as a shopping mall. Those festivities are special days, and there aren't many throughout the year.

Well generally it’s not like that Atleast whenever I’ve been there. Or try comparing the Caltrain or buses in the US with ones in the Netherlands.

I’ve read that every street in the Netherlands is completely rebuilt every thirty years.

One good thing about density is you need a lot less infrastructure. America way too much infrastructure and its poor state of repair shows it.

Almost all infrastructure should be designed with a 30-year life- it's the limit of practical amortization.

No, that's a map of the parts of the Netherlands which were underwater.

Here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oceans_and_seas_boun... is a map of the parts of the Netherlands that are under water (highlighted in blue). They haven't colonized those parts yet. But as you say, they don't think they are done.

Or you may prefer the map at the bottom of the page on https://what-if.xkcd.com/53/ depending on how you think global warming will play out.

> America has an attitude problem

The older I get, the less it feels like America.

america has 350 million people. california, for example, has 40 million people.

netherlands has 17 million people. india has 1300 million people. population density of netherlands is 488 people/km2. population density of india is 416 people/km2.

usa is 98 people/km2. we are not netherlands or india.

https://countryeconomy.com/countries/compare/netherlands/ind... : netherlands and india country comparison.

https://countryeconomy.com/countries/compare/netherlands/usa : netherlands and usa country comparison

https://countryeconomy.com/countries/compare/india/usa : india and usa country comparison

continual improvement is aka constant readjustments for optimal function. america functions just fine because of our less than highly dense population/km2. stability is not a negative point. change and progress occurs with stability too. perhaps india and netherlands ought to consider stability and aim for lesser population density.

> america functions just fine [...]

I think reasonable people might disagree with that assessment.

Also, as an example the South Bay (Santa Clara County) houses 2'400 ppl/km2. That's cherry picking a bit, but somewhat comparable to the Netherlands' densely populated area (the Randstad @ ~1'600/km2). The US just happens to contain a lot of desert in the middle, but that says little about the metropolitan areas. I don't think anyone suggests Alaska should polder-up or Nevada desperately needs urban mass transit.

The vast majority of Santa Clara County is rural or open space. Only the Valley north of Coyote, and the 101 corridor, are populated to any semblance of density.

Probably because the region is mountainous and the San Andreas fault line runs right through it.

How do you think America is malfunctioning compared to other countries?

I have never seen anyone trip over to try and immigrate to Netherlands.

US has a lot of ‘desert’ in the middle? Pray do tell..what is the name of said desert in the middle of America?

> How do you think America is malfunctioning compared to other countries?

Apparently many people are upset with their housing cost and commute situation, which I understand triggered the original post on making more land. Having lived in the Bay Area for a while, the housing/commute/living cost situation there definitely seems dysfunctional.

> US has a lot of ‘desert’ in the middle? Pray do tell..what is the name of said desert in the middle of America?

Most of the west is arid, as you can see on the map here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_of_the_United_States#/... Here's a list of the deserts: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_North_American_deserts

In the context of this conversation, "desert" was meant as a placeholder for "sparsely populated" though. Here's a map of population density in the US: https://www.arcgis.com/apps/View/index.html?appid=49471c6646...

As you can tell, the arid/desertified areas from the first map match to low population density in the last one, as you'd expect.

> I have never seen anyone trip over to try and immigrate to Netherlands.

I don't think that's a useful argument. Migration is a complex, many factor issue, with affordable housing presumably being a minor point amongst many. Your personal impression might also be colored by the people you happen to know.

Data suggest the EU has a net immigration rate of ~5 per mil, with the US at ~15 per mil. Given higher population in the EU, in absolute numbers that's 2.5 million vs 5 million immigrants over the last 5 years. So apparently a lot of people do try and immigrate to Europe. But again, it doesn't seem like a useful argument.


[Nitramp said]Apparently many people are upset with their housing cost and commute situation, which I understand triggered the original post on making more land. Having lived in the Bay Area for a while, the housing/commute/living cost situation there definitely seems dysfunctional.[..]

Right. But how is America different from other countries? Mumbai and Tokyo have similar problems and they can’t expand housing outside their dense zip codes unlike America because they are much smaller.

America doesn’t have to ‘make more land’. We have enough of it.

This whole issue must be reframed as a resource allocation problem and not a ‘land problem’.

Bay Area housing woes occur because those who can’t afford to live there want to live in expensive zip codes. When the city of San Francisco wants to build housing for the homeless at $800k per, they are essentially taking away the land resource from the working class and upper middle class people who can afford to live there with their salaries.

The case for mixed income neighborhoods has clearly jumped the shark. It’s political shenanigans and pandering to unions and a vote bank.

The Bay Area housing crisis as well as the commute problem is a failure of imagination and execution of sound policies by Sacramento and the elected officials whose progressive stubbornness is creating a Bread and Circus empire right out of the manual circa Roman Empire.

[Nitramp said] Most of the west is arid, as you can see on the map here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_of_the_United_States#/.... Here's a list of the deserts: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_North_American_deserts In the context of this conversation, "desert" was meant as a placeholder for "sparsely populated" though. Here's a map of population density in the US: https://www.arcgis.com/apps/View/index.html?appid=49471c6646.... As you can tell, the arid/desertified areas from the first map match to low population density in the last one, as you'd expect.[...]

Right. I am confused. You said ‘the middle is desert’ and then went on to claim that ‘most of the west is arid’(not true,btw).

And then you claim that desert in this context is ‘sparsely populated’. Which one is it?

[Nitramp said] I don't think that's a useful argument. Migration is a complex, many factor issue, with affordable housing presumably being a minor point amongst many. [..]

It might not be useful to you, but rates of immigration is directly related as a factor to an increase in population density outside of native population’s natural birth rate.

Bay Area does not have affordable housing and yet, the urban-rural migration has only been increasing. Intra state migration from states outside CA to Bay Area has also increased. Immigration to the country is also highly desirable.

[Nitramp said]Your personal impression might also be colored by the people you happen to know.[..]

Irrelevant and unsupportable.

[Nitramp said]Data suggest the EU has a net immigration rate of ~5 per mil, with the US at ~15 per mil. Given higher population in the EU, in absolute numbers that's 2.5 million vs 5 million immigrants over the last 5 years. So apparently a lot of people do try and immigrate to Europe. But again, it doesn't seem like a useful argument. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SM.POP.NETM[..]

Right. So you are changing tracks again. EU population density is 117 people/km2. It is closer to the population density of America.

While considering migrants data, refugee/asylum migration as well as immigration should be considered. As well as geographical location.

Can you state your position on this subject clearly and concisely because I can’t tease this beginning or end from this ball of yarn.

I think my comment is reasonably clear as it stands, if you don't intentional try to distort it.

Your style of argument (including the ad hominems) suggest to me you're neither interested in an exchange of ideas nor in a civilized conversation, so I don't think there's a point for me in engaging any further.

Apologies. No ad hominems intended. English is not my first language.

Having said that, I still don’t find your comment coherent or clear enough to pursue this discussion. So it’s probably a good idea to drop this exchange. Have a great rest of the day.

I immigrated to the Netherlands. I lived in Denver, Cleveland, new haven, NYC and San Diego. I love them all.

That said, the Netherlands truly does many things better than America. It is such a great place to raise kids. America will not be great if it doesn't steal good ideas where they exist.

Would you be willing to share the nature of your immigration? I understand if you would rather not. Just curious.

I am sure every country does what it can do best, best.

The notion that one can be best in something means that there is second to best and there will be someone at the bottom of the pile.

Constant comparison of United States with Scandinavian and Nordic countries isn’t helpful. At all. Bernie Sanders started this circle jerk. And it is entirely unhelpful.

It’s not a competition or a race. We all work with what we have.

Isn't this misleading though? Doesn't the vast majority of Americans live in higher density areas?

Well. That would be the literal definition of ‘higher density area’.

I don’t understand why that is misleading?

https://simple.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_by_p... :

Massachusetts, for example, has a population density of about 340 / sq km

And the cities within it are much more highly populated still, with population centers at the East and west ends. The center is relatively less populated.

The middle is agricultural land. You have to consider rural areas akin to industrial areas or open air factories. Because acres under industry is not suitable for residences.

Agricultural/rural land doesn't need public transportation. The actual space within the US that merits it is a tiny fraction of the country, a much smaller fraction than in more densely populated European countries.

This argument always comes up and it's always so easy to refute, because the vast majority of America is not inhabited at any meaningful level of density. You can simply ignore those parts. No one's proposing building subways in the Nevada desert, Alaskan wilderness, etc.

Most Americans live within or near cities that are populous enough to support car-free lifestyles.

This is simply untrue. Habitable land is different from total span of a country. Habitable land assumes that there is public infrastructure, networked transport and public roadways and essential services.

The US has 34 people/km2.

Aiming for lower population density is why the Netherlands turns sea into land.

Here's the biggest objection, that would hold true for many expensive areas of the Western world, and any policy that will dramatically increase the supply of real estate:

"I own property here, and if we do this, the value of my property will fall. Therefore, we shouldn't do it".

This is the real motivation, but bring up some environmental concerns, something about retaining the character of the area, something about ensuring that the area won't be mobbed by new inhabitants, just to make the argument plausible. Then vote.

I tend to lean libertarian on most issues, but I am starting to think it just doesn't make very much sense for people to own land privately. it's one of the only things in the world that is truly scarce (ie, you can't make more plots in the upper east side), and the value of land tends to be based much more on improvements to the surrounding area than improvements to the land itself. also, land ownership seems to lead to all sorts of perverse incentives to lobby for laws that distort the housing market.

sometimes I wonder if it wouldn't be better to take a snapshot of all property values at a certain point in time, pay out the owners at the current value, and switch land over exclusively to long term leases from the government (where the lessee is allowed to sublet).

A land value tax, where you pay for the value of the land. Society builds a new subway stations near you, and land increases 20%, you pay 20% more tax. Society puts a power plant on your doorstep, land drops 40%, and you pay 40% less tax.

What you do with that land is irrelevent - you pay the same whether you have a small house on a 15 story building on it.

If you buy cheap land, build a subway out to it, and now the land is worth more, what should happen to your land value tax?

(I talked about this some in https://www.jefftk.com/p/land-value-taxes-are-distortionary , which I probably should have linked from the article)

The by far more common scenario is taxpayer dollars build infrastructure which is captured by private land holders. But thanks for coming up with an interesting thought experiment by inverting it.

If the government is reasonable they should have exemptions for this:

* Pay you back for infrastructure development

* Have the government agree to treat the area as a whole (it was unimproved land til you improved it) then grandfather prices in as you subdivide

If they are completely unreasonable I guess you are left with:

* Don't subdivide instead rent out the parts of your unimproved superblock

* Charge so much for a subway there is no consumer surplus and recoup your money that way

But isn't it relevant when the use changes the need for public services? Aren't the external effects captured when fair market value is the value against which a millage rate's applied? I'm not seeing what's gained by ignoring the use.

I agree with this objection. If I use my land for a business, it stresses the government more than if I live on my land. My customers need a place to park (my neighborhood has on-street parking), the local housing crunch is made worse because I have to find another place to sleep, etc. And what if my business has externalities like pollution?

That's Georgism, which was very popular around the turn of the 20th century

Isn't that exactly what property taxes currently are?

no? if you renovate your house in a way that increases the value of the structure, you will pay more tax. under LVT, you only pay more tax when the land itself increases in value. that's how the tax gets its name.

My property taxes are a combination of both land value and dwelling value. So property tax is a superset of land value tax (at least here in Iowa).

My understanding is that this is all screwed up in California because there are restrictions on how much your taxes can go up each year. So it's not an issue of needing an additional tax, it's just a matter of needing to un-break California's property tax system.

I personally don't know enough econ to know whether LVT is actually a good idea, but intuitively it makes sense to me.

the basic objection to property tax as it currently exists is that it penalizes you for improving your property. at the margin, this creates a perverse incentive to let housing stock degrade or even leave whole lots unused. in general LVT advocates want it to replace traditional property taxes, no be added alongside them. the claim is that, for a target tax revenue, LVT can raise the funds much more efficiently.

as for California, the problem with their tax system is outside the scope of LVT vs traditional property tax. they have land with massive valuations but get relatively little revenue out of it due to extremely low grandfathered rates.

Private ownership pushes the cost of upkeep to the property owner and charges them a yearly fee. I'm not sure society could afford to maintain those properties while cities lose their taxation ability.

It also anchors a person to society forces them to partipate.

I'm not suggesting the city becomes a landlord and starts renting out apartments to people.

I'm suggesting the city owns the land, you lease the land for something like twenty or fifty years and do what you want with it. next lessee gets to decide what they want to do with whatever you built there.

I get what you're saying in theory. But in practice, that's essentially no different than the simple fee system most places have today, with the exception of forcing land to be re-sold at some set interval.

(Unless you're advocating for a method of distribution / allocation other than highest bidder.)

What most people consider ownership is really just leasing from the state via yearly property tax values.

What you're suggesting would only increase property values further. It's a similar mechanism that fuels "gentrification."

I've heard the argument that this is what property taxes are (usually as means to oppose property taxes). What practical thing would you expect to change, that's different from just raising property taxes?

you don't get to resell the land when you're done with it, so it loses its value as a speculative investment. also the government gets a window whenever the lease ends to decide to do something else with the land (eg, build a train station).

I guess it depends on the term of the lease. You do get to sub-lease the land when you're done with it. The terms could even include an up-front cash payment that looks not dissimilar to a sale. This creates some value as a speculative investment, depending on how long the lease is going to last.

> The terms could even include an up-front cash payment that looks not dissimilar to a sale.

that's an interesting point. whether or not they structure it as an upfront payment, there's still an opportunity for people to grab a ton of leases, do nothing with the land, and essentially arbitrage the government rent. I guess you couldn't really eliminate this behavior, but you could limit it by the shortening the length of the lease term. of course, if the term is too short and the government is free to pick a different lessee next, it might be uneconomic to actually build anything.

An alternative that some libertarians seem to like is the land value tax, as proposed by Henry George.


It has the problem that if you think existing property rights in land are legitimate, instituting it looks like a massive expropriation. Also, you can't avoid getting priced out of your home by buying it.

It apparently has some pretty large economic efficiency and incentive benefits.

LVT was part of the inspiration for this idea.

> Also, you can't avoid getting priced out of your home by buying it.

this is part of what I was getting at in the "land is one of the only truly scarce things" bit. I don't think the expectation that you should be able to afford to live on a specific piece of land forever is reasonable.

Plenty of people who rent even have that expectation, which I find completely unreasonable.

But then the goal is to run down property values so investment stops.

Whose goal?

That is what we already have. Land values are the price to change the lease from one person to another.

you can certainly look at it that way, but the cost to change the lease is way bigger than the "rent". I'm also implying that you shouldn't be taxed on improvements you make to the land (like building a house). you pay for occupancy of the land itself and for any services consumed.

I'm perfectly fine with the idea of a "land value tax" so long as the value of unimproved land is properly assessed: it is only use by humans that gives land economic value, so the value of unimproved land is zero. Feel free to multiply that by whatever rate you see fit.

imagine you have a single acre of dirt in the middle of the financial district in Manhattan. even if you aren't using it yourself, you really think the value of that land is zero? the fact that you aren't currently using the land for anything doesn't mean someone else couldn't use it for something extremely valuable. you are keeping that land idle at a massive opportunity cost. on the flip side, if you have a huge plot of land out in North Dakota, the tax may well be close to zero.

> the fact that you aren't currently using the land for anything doesn't mean someone else couldn't use it for something extremely valuable

That (speculative) value is based on how they propose to use the land. In other words, their improvements. That acre of dirt in the middle of the financial district might as well not exist, in economic terms, until someone actually builds something on it or otherwise starts using it to satisfy human needs or wants.

Put another way, say that acre of land is on the other side of an impassable barrier. It's exactly the same land, but no one can get to it to make use of it. What is its value now? The value comes from how the land is used, not the land itself.

If you're proposing to base the tax on what others would be willing to pay for the land (the market value) then this is no longer a land value tax but rather a property tax.

In the Manhattan case, perhaps the willingness to sell it constitutes improvement

>"I own property here, and if we do this, the value of my property will fall. Therefore, we shouldn't do it".

Everyone acts like this is about value as money, but it isn't. The value comes from a variety of factors. If you started pouring sewage into my bedroom, you can bet the value of my place is going to fall, and that's why I'd be strongly opposed to it, but it's not about the money. The dollar value would fall because it'd make it a worse place to live, which is the real cause of the objections. The dollar value going down is (often) a symptom, not a cause.

So pay out those people! They have a legitimate concern, just not one that should stop anything new from ever happening.

Although I think, based on experience and intuition mixed with logic, most nearby property values would actually go up.

>So pay out those people!

If you give a mouse a cookie...

If you’re talking about owners holding out for huge sums of money then honestly good for them. They clearly know the value of the land to the developer and ought to have every right to squeeze.

I’ve always sort of wondered why we don’t also manufacture more of the rare types of environments.

Wetlands are hard to come by and getting more rare. Why not make more?

Seattle’s Union Bay Natural Area was previously underwater, then exposed by changing lake levels, then a dump, and now a natural area [0]. It’s partially wetland, partially forest. It’s a popular spot for birders now. Green Herons (rare-ish find in WA) took up the area recently.

It seems like we could, at least to an extent, compensate for clear environmental harm (paving over estuaries) by building up more elsewhere. Obviously not an easy task. Not even obviously possible (there are only so many places substantial freshwater meets the sea).

But at the moment we have substantial suffering in the Bay due to housing availability. We have clear suffering in nature due to habitat destruction (more broadly). Seems like we should at least try to engineer more interesting solutions than “build taller” or “build nothing”.

[0] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_Bay_Natural_Area

What you're describing happened accidenally outside of Anchorage at Potter Marsh. It's now a great spot to go birding and see other wildlife.

> Potter Marsh was formed when construction of the Alaska Railroad embankment limited tidal ingress to a bridge over Rabbit Creek. This embankment impounded the creek and consequently formed the marsh.


I met an environmental engineer who worked on the Hamilton project in the North Bay. This is a disused military airport that was turned back into a wetland, apparently successfully from a number of points of view.


This is happening more and more as mitigation banks are running out of same-kind habitat.

It's also being used as a way to clean city runoff and post-treatment wastewater effluent.

It's not really rare. Just not usually newsworthy.

> The world is very large, and cities are a very small portion of it. The land we set aside for animals should be outside of cities, where far more land is available at far less impact to people.

Wetlands in particular are pretty rare and environmentally valuable places though. The fact that you would fill them in and "set aside" some probably less valuable land somewhere else is not very reassuring.

This is where i cringed hardest. Wetlands are, as you say, disproportionately valuable in ecological terms. Not just for wildlife, but for nutrient recycling.

Wetlands are mostly found around bays and estuaries.

Now, where are major cities found? That's right, around bays and estuaries! Because that's where you can build ports and lowest bridging points, and those are fundamental drivers of the development of cities.

There's something about this failure to consider basic geography and ecology that complicates an otherwise shockingly bold and simple plan that is characteristically LessWrong.

Me too. I stopped reading the article after that "who cares, the birds can just move somewhere else" kind of thinking. It's supremely ironic that the author copped this attitude about land use in the Bay Area, of all places.

I mean, you either accept the plan or not. The author clearly accepts the plan. Instead of writing reams of text about how much they care about the birds, they state clearly that's one negative characteristic of the plan: the birds are fucked. You may disagree, but you have to commend the honestly and lack of trying to weasel out of it as we've come to expect.

And frankly, the behavior of stopping reading of a proposal when you get to a point of disagreement is the root cause for why people have to do such weaseling: otherwise, people who do that would just stop listening or leave the room. So what we get are leaders who are forced to come up with ornate, wishy-washy language to lead people to the end of the argument so they can, maybe, digest the whole thing at the end.

The reason I stopped reading is that the author didn't care enough to find out why the birds even have a protected area to begin with. His argument basically boiled down to "the birds can move" and he didn't appear to have done basic research to understand why they can't. If he's not going to dig into one of his major premises then it's not a very strong argument to be making and I think I'm better off moving on.

That's why.

The idea is sound though.

Calculate how much that particular wetland is worth ecologically and find a low-price equivalent somewhere, buy that.

The Bay gets more space to sprawl their ugly single family madness and the wetlands (or more precisely the wetland equivalents) are safe too.

Furthermore, it's possible to simply incrementally move the wetlands toward north by filling in a southern patch and wetland-ifying some of the southern parts of the Bay's open water.

And ... this modest proposal is very much the mirror that the Valley needs. Not that it will help much, but still. It would eradicate the wetlands and the Bay itself before allowing proper high-density development and mass transit.

So we've already destroyed 99% of wetlands in California in the last 150 years, let's play hot potato with the small patch that's left?

The entire central valley was a marsh. The delta is the small part that still slightly resembles its natural state.

Look at this picture of Sacramento from 1857 surrounded by ponds and wetlands:


This seems like a straw-man argument. I'm simply recommending that doing something that increases density and reduces commute time and sprawl while also accounting for environmental factors is strictly better than doing nothing and waiting for people to just stop moving toward the Bay Area.

Rehabilitation of wetlands is a very important goal in itself. Now that 99% is already gone and fucked up (virtually beyond repair) ... well, it means it's almost irrelevant what happens to the remaining 1% if the other 99% will be "restored" somewhere else, then that 1% can be "moved" too.

Not to mention that it the fugly plain of endless mansions sitting where the wetlands were would be replaced with a few high rises, there would be ample space to recultivate a big chunk of it.

so wait i thought wetlands were super special and important?.. but apparently we got rid of 99% all the ones in the bay area 100 years ago with no ecological catastrophe to attribute to it?

Right, especially when practically every major ever delta is populated by a large city due to historical ports.

> The world is very large, and cities are a very small portion of it. The land we set aside for animals should be outside of cities, where far more land is available at far less impact to people.

Absurd. Just because a city happens to be there doesn't mean we should destroy the surrounding environment with impunity.

Want to increase available housing in the bay? Get rid of NIMBY zoning that prevents building up.

(author here)

I'm also strongly in favor of abolishing the restrictive zoning that prohibits building up, but in many ways it's less politically practical to increase density in built-out areas than build new dense areas.

If we don't use small amounts of land close to cities to build new housing we'll continue with our default of using large amounts of land far from cities. This destroys more of the environment, pollutes with more driving, and wastes more time commuting.

Nice, concise & persuasive article. Do you think the political environment in the Bay Area is ripe for it?

Why not extend the development in a direction that's already dry?

Hard agree. Also, realistically, what is this proposing? Should cities be totally artificial environments with bounded growth rings to demarcate human/animal boundaries? Even a totally paved artificial environment is an ecosystem: which animals are okay? If cities are not bounded, how do we justify expansion into "animal" areas?

To be clear, I'm fully onboard with no-build nature areas in countries like the US where we have lots and lots of sparsely populated land. But, environmentally integrated building is almost surely the best way forward for preserving human health and in terms of long-term maintenance of an industrial civilization.

Also wetlands the biome targeted for infill in the example are an especially important type of biome and are also comparatively rare.

"The world is very large, and cities are a very small portion of it. The land we set aside for animals should be outside of cities, where far more land is available at far less impact to people"

Perform a thought experiment in which human systems are part of nature, not separate from it; that land isn't set aside for nature, but that nature is everywhere. This frame will encourage systematic thinking of the sort that at least more realistically contextualizes this land-filling exercise, and at most entirely invalidates the ideas underlying the practice.

To decimate such productive, sustaining landscapes is reckless, short-sighted, and perhaps even cruel––not only to natural systems which depend on them, but to us, who in turn depend on those systems.

Read Wendell Berry's "Wild and Domestic" on this, if you'd like: https://orionmagazine.org/article/wild-and-domestic/

I'm not qualified to discuss the details, but I WILL say I moved to Seattle,WA 7ish years ago and was amazed at how green everything is (like, because there are trees everywhere). I've heard Portland, OR is the same.

Despite this, travel times to points of interest (theaters, stores, restaurants, etc) are LESS than I've found in other non-major cities in the US, such as Richmond, VA or Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, PA. Hard to compare to places like Boston, MA or New York City, NY.

I had the same reaction.

Every time I visit/fly over places like New York and SF I'm torn. Waterfront properties are beautiful, but then I think back to the dynamic ecosystem and landscape that was there 300-600 years ago and how different it is now.

It's just interesting to think about how the land we live on now was like before us. Are we living somewhere that could have been a beautiful national park?

Even pre WWII much of the Bay Area outside the ports was farmland or wilderness (not built-up). So you don’t have to go too far back, well, except for the salt evaporators, those have been around some time.

Yeah, this was my first objection, and the article addresses it in a way that I find completely misses the point.

I think it's a fantastic idea overall, but not at the expense of wetlands preserves.

Then again, what would actually be a fantastic idea overall would be increasing density in existing areas, but clearly that's politically fraught right now.

I used to think, why not build in desert or unproductive land? Well, you need water and you need jobs.

There is a reason very few people want to live in Siberia (south of the tundra). Except for some mineral extraction, fur trappers and some science/military outposts there’s not much to attract people even when Putin promises free land.

There's plenty of room between "inhospitable desert" and "protected wetlands" where people could live.

Not all deserts are inhospitable. Sure some are ovens or have moving dunes, but many are habitable, if water is available (most iconic example is an oasis). But lots of dry places are inhabited, just look at the Arabian peninsula or the Sonoran desert —and elsewhere. But water tables get exhausted and you do what Israel does or, well, there is no alternative.

> You do need to take fill into account to build in an earthquake-safe way, but modern engineering is well up to the task.

That's pretty hand-wavy. I'm sure the guys in 1970 said the same argument. The word modern has been around for thousands of years.

Soil liquefaction is better understood, in the sense that we know better than to use certain soils for fill. A lot of these soils happen to be the ones dredged from water bottoms.

Even Japan doesn't handle earthquakes (according to an NHK special on quakes). They built all these earthquake proof buildings and then the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake came along with new behavior that none of the buildings in Japan are built for. They did come up with new ways to build to handle this new type of quake but of course that's only for buildings since 2016 (probably more like 2018 when they figured out what to do) so slowly new buildings will get build with the new mitigations and we'll cross our fingers the next quake isn't yet another different kind.


Question is, did people get out of those buildings alive?

Yep, you definitely don't want to be building on uniformly graded soils, especially not unconsolidated fine-grained soils.

Which is pretty much why we got "residential red zones"[1] in Kaiapoi and Christchurch in the 2010 Greendale earthquake and subsequent aftershocks - suburban areas built on large unconsolidated deposits of fine alluvial silts left by the Waimakariri River in its long wanderings across the Canterbury Plains[2] suffered massive liquefaction, repeatedly.

IIRC liquefaction has even been observed in uniform gravels.



That’s a pretty big project to propose to protect the “character of neighborhoods” for the benefit of the already wealthy!

How about instead just build densely on the land that already exists in cities? And not pave over the bay?

How's that plan going?

Political feasibility is relevant when deciding what to do. It doesn't matter which solution is best. It matters which solution we can actually make happen is best.

Personally, I doubt the political feasibility of paving over the bay, but it seems like telling rich people to get over their selves isn't working either.

This. Telling that it’s arguably less of a lift to fill in 50 square miles of the bay vs. rewrite zoning with some practical common sense updates.

Getting residents to agree to higher density developments is a hard political problem, but bulldozing a national wildlife refuge? Easy!

Because that plan has not been working so well.

Yeah, but this one surely will real soon now.

> This part of the Bay is primarily industrial salt ponds.

For the record, the industrial salt ponds are actually very beautiful. The fact that they are salt ponds is not actually a refutation to the 'but you're destroying beauty' argument.

No, but it is an argument against that part of the bay being, say, a valuable fishery, or valuable marshland for birds, or anything else people might think they’re protecting. Industrial salt ponds aren’t “nature” in the same sense you’d expect a water body to represent. They’re essentially already a sterile, man-made structure.

They're not sterile; their brilliant colors are produced by halophile archaea and in some cases bacteria and algae that flourish in environments that would kill anything else.

If a piece of industrial environment is so fucked that only extremophile bacteria can live there than it is sterile for all societal purposes.

I don't know what you mean by "sterile for all societal purposes". A salt pond is not a good place to carry out a surgery, even though the archaea (more common than extremophile bacteria, and also more extremophilic) aren't pathogenic. It isn't poisonous, just dry and salty.

If you're interested in reading more about the value of studying halophilic achaeons: https://www.americanscientist.org/article/extreme-microbes

No it's not, the article addresses environmental concerns in a separate paragraph right above that. Whether or not you or I were convinced by the preceeding environmental argument is irrelevant, the quoted excerpt about salt ponds was specifically addressing the issue of percieved beauty (not environmental concerns).

I don't know much about these, but doesn't it mean that if we remove these salt ponds we'll have to relocate the industry or at least the salt ponds somewhere else?

How about stop pretending like we don't have enough land in the Bay Area. The entire population of the bay area could live within the borders of San Jose, with room for a million more, if it were built at the density of Paris. Land Use is the problem, not quantity.

Yea, it’s pretty stupid that filling in 50mi^2 of water bodies with soil, retaining all of that land, and then building on top of it is the smarter thing to do than re-developing current land to fit changing needs.

The Bay Area could also just build taller buildings with more living space on land they already have in a denser area.

Also, I like that the article complains about how bad sprawl is, and then their solution is basically create sprawl from new land.

I suspect you're suffering from status quo bias. Try flipping the situation around: imagine we have this same area as undeveloped land, with a button that magically converts it into the current Bay. Would you prefer to develop the land or not?

Or even allow apartments within existing height limits in the places where only 40' single-family houses are allowed.

I read a really interesting article about how Paris was transformed to how it looks today

> Baron Haussmann was the man responsible for the city’s new look. The Paris prefect had no background in architecture or urban planning when he started his project in 1852 under Napoleon III.


”Making more land” requires destruction of relatively rare marine habitats. Sure, there’s a lot of ocean out there, but many species thrive where the land naturally meets the sea. Bays and estuaries are treasures, not just bits of water waiting to be paved.

There seems to be no such thing as a marine habitat that is not rare.

That's simply false. There are many different kinds of marine habitats, and as the above comment points out, this one is rare.

The parent comment self-defined it as "where the land naturally meets the sea." That's called the coast. So all coastline is rare and off limits?

If we create a new island, what about that new coastline? Is it worth preserving for the sake of it's "rarity"?

I'm referring to coastlines, estuaries, river deltas, wetlands, etc. In terms of surface area of the Earth, it seems easy to make the argument that those places are relatively rare.

Development of this land hasn't been off-limits historically, although many of these places in the U.S. are now (rightfully) preserved. Certain types of development are more detrimental to ecosystems than other types.

If something is rare and good, it should probably be preserved, regardless of how natural it is. In this case, we're talking about natural landscapes and living beings that cannot be re-created once they are gone.

>In terms of surface area of the Earth...relatively rare

Using that definition, anything and everything could be justified as rare.

Coastlines are the most dynamic places on Earth. They change, they adapt, they are a constantly shifting equilibrium. Geologically, they are the youngest and most easily replaceable features on Earth. They're not fragile things.

What isn't natural is how static we've tried to keep them.

>If something is rare and good

You're romanticizing things. Coastlines serve an important ecological purpose, and we shouldn't ignore that, but the vast majority isn't irreplaceable.

There's no reason to believe that newly created (ecologically engineered) coast wouldn't be just as, if not more, biologically productive than what is being replaced.

When natural habit is destroyed by human development, it is not replaced by something "better". It is replaced by something different, which benefits some species over others (mainly humans). Coastlines and wetlands are never "moved", they're simply destroyed. The life that was there dies and species go extinct, one after the other.

Sure, it's possible for people to create new and better habitat for endangered species. The problem is that we usually don't. The "make more land" article doesn't even offer that as a suggested environmental offset. I imagine that the cost of doing so in a way that would actually be beneficial to the environment would nullify any gains to the developers.

I agree that coastlines aren't fragile on geologic time scales. The living things which depend on them are. There are millions of species that we haven't even cataloged, so how many are going extinct because of human development? We'll never know.

Are you intentionally missing the point?

Land would still meet the sea. Just in a different location.

It is not equivalent.

Ecosystems take many years to develop and often host unique species that don’t just pack up their bags and move where we want them to. When habitat is lost, extinction occurs— maybe not all at once, and maybe not species that we know of, but habitat loss contributes significantly to extinction.

Industrial salt ponds are not a rare marine habitat

The Seastead Institute promotes that newly created flotillas in the open ocean create habitat that was previously non-existent.

That’s not the topic of the article and not what I’m arguing against, just to be clear.

“... allowing people to live closer in is the most powerful way to address sprawl.”

“ The second biggest is that BART doesn't have enough coverage to make living without a car practical in most of the area. ”

I don’t know about the land, maybe it’s a good idea. However, this really comes down to building better mass transit.

“Closer” doesn’t need to mean distance, it could also mean time. Could Oakland be turned into “Manhattan“ with better mass transit?

Better mass transit needs straight lines to run on more than density. When the bus has to go down every long cul-de-sac nobody will ride because the bus takes so long, when it doesn't few people ride because of the long walk to the bus. If developments has more long straight streets down the middle there wouldn't be a long walk to a bus that runs a reasonable route.

As you said, closer isn't a measure of only distance it is also a measure of time. If the transit system can isn't too far to walk to, runs often enough that people don't worry about when it comes, and doesn't waste time going places the rider don't want to go: people will take it. When transit is inconvenient to get to, doesn't run when/were individuals want to go, or takes too long to get there: people won't take it.

Fixing that isn't easy though. Roads/streets need to be designed for transit. Enough people need to ride that the system isn't mostly empty. It needs to go more or less direct routes to where people want to go, not take long detours to other destinations. Only the middle depends on density at all, if you fail the other two density won't give your transit systems many riders. Pass the other two and you can still get a lot of riders despite not being very dense.

It's hard when American culture seems obsessed with houses rather than flats. You can build in straight lines, but if each 4 people dwelling takes up 400 square metres of horizontal space, there is no way distances will ever be walkable- often not even those between two bus or tram stops.

That just limits how many people can get on in a given distance. If the transit is useful enough people will walk. There are farms in Europe with better bus service than Suburbs in the US, even though farms are much less dense.

You won't be running a bus every 5 minutes through the suburbs, but you can support one 30 minutes, which is the minimum frequency to be useful, and allows 1/6th the destiny to have the same riders.

There are areas of the US nearly as dense as Paris, but because the geometry is so transit hostile there will never be transit despite the density seeming to support it. Los Vagas for example has inward facing apartments that make getting to any through street from the door hard.

I lived in an older suburb near Detroit that was a mix of single family houses and duplexes. It was fairly walkable, but that's because the houses were built on small lots with very little space between the houses. I had 2 bus lines within walking distance from my house, and I took it into work every day. In fact, I used my car so infrequently that somebody thought it was abandoned and called the city who promptly came out and issued me a move it ticket.

No one said it would be easy.

Yes, it will require urban planning. Personally, I’d prefer trains/subways to buses.

The future of mass transit should arrive within a decade or so as China finishes developing low-speed maglevs that travel around 100 mph. Oakland out 50 miles should become commutable.

For now, what’s the subway situation from Oakland to downtown San Francisco? Getting people to commute in that direction would be a good start. As well as getting companies to build in Oakland.

Technology is not important. The reasons to prefer trains and subways are not the technology so much as most buses are running in the same lane as cars and so they have the same limitations. A bus in a truly dedicated lane would work just as well for most purposes, if only we cared about them.

There are a couple advantages to trains/subways over buses, but for the most part they don't apply.

They can be longer: have more riders, which is only important when they come every 5 minutes. When the bus isn't coming every 5 minutes you should address overcrowding by adding more buses which makes the whole system more convenient for the riders.

They run steel on steel which is more energy efficient. While this is a factor, a bus is so much more better than cars we shouldn't count it.

Even with a dedicated lane, there will still be more delays than with a grade separation (subway). Intersections are a bottleneck.

Not when buses get signal priority.

Signal priority over pedestrians too?

A bus every 5 minutes carries enough people to be worth that, and leaves plenty of space in between for pedestrians to cross. (Assuming a dedicated lane). For various reasons you should get a bus to come more than once every 5 minutes, upgrade to a train. (with great dispatch you can get down to every 3 minutes, but it is better to put in a non-grade level train at that point)

Intersections aren't as much of a factor when the majority of travel is on a freeway.

Are you thinking of dedicated on-ramps and off-ramps as well? Otherwise, I think stops will take a long time due to lane changes.

Oakland is San Francisco's Brooklyn

There are people who dream of terraforming Mars, and there are people who object to filling in the southern end of San Francisco bay. And I wouldn't be surprised if there is some overlap between the two groups.

Okay, so what if we abandon the idea of making first stages reusable, and just make sure they all splash down in the south-east bay, until it's sufficiently filled up to build on? I mean, worst case, you hit Fremont, right?

That's not really a fair comparison.

Isn't it?

When the US surveyed (PLSS) its lands for the express purpose of selling it to citizens and immigrants, they didn't even bother to survey most wetlands, because they were thought to be entirely worthless and of no value. Certainly not anything worth saving or preserving.

It sounds a lot like the attitude people currently have for the existing environment on Mars.

This should take 5 years and cost a few tens of billions.

In California, it would take several generations and ultimately bankrupt the state.

Makes too much sense to work in California. If something so sensical could be accomplished, SF would have built more housing by now.

Wetlands are some of the most ecologically valuable land around, not just for local wildlife but for humans too, since they keep the surrounding water and ground healthy, and act as a buffer against flooding. So you can't build condos on it, but the condos surrounding it are in a much better spot overall with the wetland than without it.

Any modern land management solution needs to include wetlands. We should be building more of them, not less.

I was once with a map of areas that, in the absence of dikes, would get flooded by rising sea levels. Outside places in Florida / Louisiana / Southeast Texas, the only major city I saw that would experience significant flooding was Boston. Now I know why. Of course, as the author mentions, dikes work perfectly fine (especially in an area like the Bay Area that isn't prone to hurricanes).

Dikes would also work much better in the Bay than in Boston because the perimeter to area is better.

New York is a decent sized town.

Cheaper solutions;

- High speed rail through the mountains to places like Modesto, Keyes etc.

- More building up in Oakland, Richmond

- Allow more remote work

- Second headquarters in other major cities

Or build things on anchored floating barges?

That will at least be earthquake proof (assuming we are still discussing SF bay)

This isn't a bad idea and I would vote for it, but I can't imagine the political battle to build this would be any less hard than the one to fix density and transit issues with the land already there.

Americans don't love to hear this but the political battle here is fundamentally a class war between the people that own property in California and the people that don't. The haves will also fight this proposal for the same reasons they are financially incentivized to fight the proposals to improve the existing land. You can technology your way out of some political problems but probably not this one.

Maybe we could start by not incentivizing-vordering-on-requiring single family homes everywhere in the US. US city density is so much less than nearly every other city on the planet. You don't need more land to build up.

We've already been doing that since Dodd-Frank was passed. It's part of the reason we're having housing crisis' at all.

The Dutch made about 1400 km^2 of new land in the previous century:


Not only flevoland, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wieringermeer. But we also have to give back some land for nature: https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hertogin_Hedwigepolder#cite_no... (only dutch though)

For reference, almost 10% of the Netherlands consists of polders (reclaimed land)

Singapore grew by 22% since independence in 1965 thanks to land reclamation. And they started reclaiming before that already.


The more pressing question: Can we actually still do such projects in western democracies? How long would it take until the last judge has dismissed the plea to save the nearly extinct Californian Pink Stink Beetle that by circumstance breeds in that area? How much more expensive would the project become over its ever longer runtime? What will happen when the seemingly inevitable corruption scandals are brought to daylight?

That attitude drives me crazy. Each new high rise built in San Francisco prevents a few several blocks of nature being paved over for suburbs somewhere else.

I had this debate with an environmentalist who supported urban farming. Sure, urban farming is cool and a nice hobby, but it would be far more environmentally friendly to build a high rise. New high rises drive down the costs of urban living, more people move to the city, and whole tracts of nature are saved from destruction.

> but it would be far more environmentally friendly to build a high rise.

Absolutely Right! And, it would decrease pollution and global warming because people's commutes would be much much shorter, as they wouldn't be forced to commute from 80 miles away, like it currently is in the Bay Area.

Food and building material would still need to commute, and the amount of energy it represents probably can't be decreased enough to make dense cities a good thing for climate change.

Food needs to be transported either way. Dense cities are better because the trucks need to make less stops on the delivery end.

The number of stops is probably less important than the distance traveled by food. Towns or small cities can have food produces locally. In large cities, food has to travel across the city, and on top of that it has to travel across the space required for farming.

This is a non-concern now of course, but in a world where we want to reduce transportation at scales serious enough to fight climate change, large cities will be a liability.

Only if everybody is a subsistence farmer. If you want a modern lifestyle a large dense city is best: all the things you want from modern life are close and produced locally. The exceptions are food (food needs a lot of area to produce), and raw materials. These two are small enough that if they were our only use of transport (meaning you walk everywhere) they wouldn't affect climate change.

Building material "commuting" is a one time thing, not every day for the rest of your life like getting to work.

What we can observe in large cities is that there is a constant stream of new buildings and construction works. The "build once" model works for one building and over one lifetime, but at the scale of a large city, construction work is a constant process.

Dense cities are not envoronmentally friendly. You have to go get food further, you have to use building materials that are a major cause of pollution, etc. Any large city needs tremendous amounts of energy to work, and we have not found clean and efficient sources of energy so far.

Vertical farming could help big cities rely on less energy, but so far I don't see it being scaled to the extent we need.

How much energy does it take to actually transport food into the cities from farmland? I remember reading that the amount of resources it takes is laughably small, especially when your lettuce is coming from the other side of the country anyway.

But if you don't build in the city, you have to build outside of the city. Does it really take more resources to build a large housing complex than it takes to build an entire suburban neighborhood?

A quick search gives me numbers around 10-15% of the total food energy. But if you remove processing, some of the packaging and some of the retail energy consumption, that are in large part consequences of not having access to fresh food, this number is much larger.

The benefit of building smaller cities is that you can afford to have lettuce that comes from a couple kilometers away. If you build small cities, but still keep a distribution network that spans across continents, things will indeed not improve.

Also you compare dense cities to (american?) suburbs. Dense cities are indeed better. My point is that they are a local optimum, and one that is not good enough to offset the effects of climate change.

The model I would promote is cities small enough to rely on a short-distance farm network for most of their needs.

Dense cities are energy-dense, for sure. But in energy used per person, they do very well. Apartments touching others on all sides are efficient to heat. Elevators are much more efficient transport than cars.

>The more pressing question: Can we actually still do such projects in western democracies?

I sure hope not. Two sentences by the author dismissing environmental concerns isn't sufficient.

They also list Boston as an example, but Boston's land creation projects ran over cost back in the 1800's, which most people seem to think is only a modern day issue for some reason. The Back Bay was filled-in because the city had already created an environmental disaster out of it. A dam was built which caused the bay to stagnate, and fill with sewage. Maybe a judge should've ordered an environmental impact study be done before the dam was built, which would've caught this. https://historyofmassachusetts.org/how-boston-lost-its-hills...

You don't need to create land in order to have a functioning public transit system, which would address several of the problems the author brings up, without introducing a plethora of new issues.

>> The more pressing question: Can we actually still do such projects in western democracies?

> I sure hope not. Two sentences by the author dismissing environmental concerns isn't sufficient.

That's typifies a problem I have with internet pseudo-"rationality." The world is messy and and composed of lots of legitimate, competing political interests. The only way you can hope to offer a simple, "rational" solution in a pithy blog post is by ignoring or handwaving away a huge amount alternate perspectives and history, which actually isn't rational at all.

[1] The reason I bring this up is because the article is a blog post on LessWrong, which describes itself as "a place to 1) develop and train rationality, and 2) apply one’s rationality to real-world problems."

how do you have a transit system to get people 80 miles to work? The imbalance of where work and residential areas are in the bay area is so horrendous, there's 1 residential place to live for every 4 jobs on the peninsula. The only way to balance it out is either get rid of the jobs or build lots lots more residential

I would not want to take a wager on whether this sort of project could be done in San Francisco. China, I am certain, could do it. If it were an Army Corps of Engineers project on the Mississippi or the deep South, I'd give it 50-50 odds.

We do seem to have no ability to do any sort of large scale projects. They built the Empire State Building in under a year in the 1930s, and meanwhile it's taken ten and counting to replace a bridge where I live today. The technical ability is there, there's just no will to get anything done.

I agree with your general point, but it's worth mentioning 2 points on the Empire State Building example: 1) Depending on where you draw the line for starting the ESB, it was 16 months. 2) Look at building sites in NYC today (which can still build skyscrapers effectively), and compare them with pictures from the 30s. MUCH better health and safety, both for workers and nearby pedestrians. At least 5, and as many as 14, people died during construction.

Some of the reasons things take longer today are actually good!

I seriously doubt any substantial part of the slowdowns are caused by improved worker safety. Yes there is a correlation between those two trends, but as we all know, that doesn't prove causation.

We have enormously better technology today than in the 30s, and should be able to put of a skyscraper in 1/4 of the time. I understand that's more or less what China does.

But sometimes China has things like this happen: https://failedarchitecture.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/22...

It's actually quite impressive that it managed to stay in one piece. It implies a scary-dangerous brittle failure mode for the structure, and horrible engineering, but still impressive.

Hundreds of thousands of highrises were built there, one collapse doesn't mean much.

Is the situation actually much better today?

> 21% / 991 of 4693 Work Deaths In The US Were In Construction (2016) http://www.imectechnologies.com/2018/07/30/construction-safe...

Yes. Tens of thousands of people died per year in construction and industrial deaths in the 1910s, 20s, and 30s, with a much smaller population. Yes, construction is still disproportionately risky, but...

Two deaths to build 1 WTC, vs 60 deaths to build the Twin Towers (4x the square footage), vs 5-14 deaths to build the Empire State Building (80% the square footage). Most ordinary skyscrapers have zero, which wasn't the case 100 years ago.

Fourteen people dying to lay ten and a quarter million bricks and thousands of tons of steel is not much of a butcher's bill.

I'd bet that more people would die in car accidents getting to the work site over the extended construction time today.

Even if that were true, perhaps the answer is to reduce vehicle deaths rather than increase construction deaths. Just so you can get your bridge sooner.

I think we still do these projects all the time, in cities of a certain development level, for the same reason we always did them: industry lobbying. This land was, almost always, reclaimed by heavy industry, for industrial use; and only later, once that industry no longer had need of it (and was being gentrified out of the area entirely) was the land re-zoned for other uses and “finished off” as a public works project.

Residential or commercial developers have never been given authorization to reclaim coastline, AFAIK. And governments very rarely do it themselves, save for when they’re essentially serving the role of an infrastructure provider to some later industry (e.g. an airport.)

New Orleans lakefront and parts of New Orleans East were massive land building projects, specifically for neighborhoods. Lakefront Airport (KNEW) was also included in these projects. The land was sold to finance the levees before federal law put the Army Corps of Engineers in charge of levee building, ~1965.




Edit: I can't find the source, but the levee board still has title and standing permission from the state to fill-in something like an additional 2 miles out into Lake Pontchartrain.

Singapore does it. But they are special in so many other regards, too.

(Oh, and the Dutch of course.)

The parallel with Mauna Kea is too tempting to not be mentioned!

But apparently not tempting enough to give details or show how it is in fact parallel.

Fun fact, the seaport district regularly floods in storms, and the flood waters are salty.

If you mean in Boston, they actually built all the new buildings in the Seaport on the assumption of floods. Everything on the first floor can be full of salt water and the building will be OK.

that will come as a surprise to all the first floor restaurants i have lunch at in those buildings.

Its a good think Clark Kerr helped prevent this from happening in the 60's. https://bcdc.ca.gov/planning/reports/TheSavingOfSFBay_1972.p...

This idea is dumb, we can build more tech hubs in other spaces, we don't need to destroy the gorgeous wetlands of the South Bay.


Seems easier to move companies elsewhere no?

Both moving companies elsewhere and increasing remote work are highly practical approaches!

Is it perhaps possible that there may be reasons that public policy has not favored these approaches, and neither has the labor pool as a whole? For my own part, I find the benefits of living in a major point of economic agglomeration to be quite nice and not something that can be replicated by remote links.

How, concretely, would you do this "easy" thing?

Or increase remote work.

This is unfortunately an ongoing struggle, as outlined in this article.


Or you could incentivize building up? That'd be a lot easier and wouldn't create more hideous sprawl.

(author here)

Building up is already strongly incentivised: new units would sell for far above the costs of construction. But NIMYS use zoning and other restrictions to prevent it. I'm strongly in favor of fixing this, but building dense housing in places with no neighbors is another way to approach the problem.

This is mostly tangential, but the (I pressume) owner of the site, Eliezer Yudkowski, is the author of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, which is a great book about rationality, cognitive biases and the scientific method as applied in day to day life. It’s free to read on the web and has a podcast version as well!

I’m not affiliated in any way, just a big fan of the book.

How about instead of trying to create land, use the land we already have in a less wasteful manner? Most of the bay area is horizontal and refuses to build vertical. And most of bay area also refuses to participate in public transit reform. Just those two items can fix most of the problems with a much less economical and ecological cost.

No way the thing that works literally in every other country on Earth will work (or is possible) in the Bay Area.

No, we should fill the Bay, build more single-family units, and hope that whatever reasons we have for not having functional transit magically won't apply in the newly-minted suburb.

I'm very much not proposing building single-family units. See the discussion about density starting at "Wait, how many people are you saying would live there?"

Alright! We can't build multi-story, multi-use, walkable neighborhoods in San Jose now.

Is the proposition then to create more land to work around these restrictions? Why wouldn't the same forces apply on the new land?

What I am saying is that there's enough land already for the vision you have for the infilled areas. Your post is implicitly saying that it's easier to literally create land than change zoning laws.

And it might be, but let's be clear on what the problem actually is -- and the lack of land it is not.

EDIT: just to emphasize: Brooklyn has 2.5x population on (1/2.5)x area, and is growing -- all within the confines of an island.

I wonder sometimes, is selling existing land that just happens to fall within a certain "political" border so out of the question?

Example: It feels like Japan is trapped and can't grow where it is anymore. Is it so out of line for them to offer to Russia or Brazil like $10B over 10 years for like 1000 sq KM?

Seems like certain pieces of land are valued low enough that they get sold between different countries repeatedly. Greenland, for example. I wonder what the buy-price would be for one of the small pacific islands currently owned by the US/Britain/France? I wonder if their lack of a price is just because nobody has offered who these countries would be okay with owning them? (And Japan is probably such a country, given their arrangements with the US military.)

Make fewer people

I don't think the problem trying to be solved is: allow more people to exist. Rather: cluster more people in one geographic location.

The way to avoid the problem would be to not require everyone move to the bay area to be economically prosperous.

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