Junk Yards and Successful Neighborhoods: A Directional Problem

“Successful city districts are never dotted with junk yards, but that is not why these districts are successful.  It is the other way around.  They lack junk yards because they are successful.” ~ Death & Life, pg. 301

I think we sometimes have a directional problem when we think about economics.  Do economies go into recession because people stop spending, or do people stop spending because economies go into recessions?  It could be argued either way.  The two causes and results feed on each other until one of them reverses course.  Does a new product come to market because it is demanded, or does the product drive demand?  We tend to think (and standard economics tells us) it is the former, but when it comes to innovations which are very dissimilar anything that has existed beforehand, it is often the case that people don’t know they demand them until they are already on the shelves.

Jacobs points out the directional problem we tend to have when we think about why a place is lively and successful.  Is it because there is a lack of deadening land uses, or is it the other way around, thus prompting us to search for other reasons for its success?  Is Rittenhouse Square’s absence of a junk yard a cause or a symptom?  Let’s imagine the scenario both ways.  Can the presence of a junk yard prevent a neighborhood from being successful?  Absolutely.  What lively land uses will voluntarily locate adjacent to a large pile of trash?  None.  Conversely, can the success of a neighborhood prevent the presence of a junk yard?  Of course.  Successful neighborhoods breed high-rent and compatible uses, and what junk yard operator, if even allowed entry, can afford to open business in a high-rent area?

Perhaps it is not as simple as saying it is one or the other.  Both scenarios are obviously correct.  Can we say that one is more likely than the other?  I don’t think so.  A successful neighborhood is just as likely to preclude a junk yard as an area with a junk yard is to preclude the development of a successful neighborhood.  I don’t see any way around that.  But can we say that one is more likely to come sequentially before the other?  I think maybe we can come to a conclusion on this one if we look at the economic decisions through the eyes of the different actors involved.

An entrepreneur sees a market for a junk yard.  When considering the economics and constraints of such an operation, where will he likely choose?  High-rent, incompatible land in a successful district, or low-rent, open land on the edge of the city?  No junk yard owner would open his business in the middle of a successful area.  The overhead, to speak of nothing else, would be too high.  The same goes if the city or county owns and operates the junk yard.  They are not going to use prime land for its location.  They get very few tax dollars from a low-intensity land use such as a junk yard, so, at least for economic reasons, they would not locate the junk yard in an area that can command higher rents (and thus higher taxes).

Then there are the residents and business owners who already exist in a successful district.  Who among them in their right minds would want a dump located in their neighborhood?  It would not only affect their property values, but it would likely lead to social and physical decline of the neighborhood they care so much about.  This is why zoning codes exist.  Even if the junk yard operator can somehow afford the rent, the political will of the people in the successful district would not allow it.

So, I think we can say for certain that it is more likely that a successful neighborhood deters the existence of a junk yard first, and then, once the junk yard is established in the low-rent location, its existence at that location then deters the growth of a successful neighborhood surrounding it.  We cannot make sense of it the other way around, because we cannot say that the lack of success of the district surrounding the junk yard somehow leads to the success of some other neighborhood.  Ergo, by reason of what makes sense sequentially and causally, I can agree with Jacobs’ argument.

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