Market Urbanism: Towards a Free-Market Urban Form

A Nascent Movement Asks How Cities Would Function Without So Much Government Interference

Last Fall, the Independent Institute launched this Catalyst website to educate Millennials on the key political issues of our time. They hired me as one of their first fellows, since I’m a Millennial who covers urban policy, which is a key issue indeed. I thought now is a good time to introduce myself to readers, and specify the focus of my column. The column will tap into a concept that’s growing in popularity and becoming a larger movement: Market Urbanism.

Market Urbanism is the cross between free-market policy and urban issues. On one hand, it’s a theoretical inquiry into how cities would work if they grew organically on consumer demand, rather than being planned and zoned by the government. On the other, it’s a set of market-based policies that are not theoretical, but can actually be applied in our current political context.

The two main Market Urbanist policy agendas are for housing and transportation. With housing, Market Urbanists call for the deregulation of land-use laws that make housing and other real estate more expensive. With transportation, we call for market-based pricing of public right-of-way, and the right for private transport companies to bid for use of that space. 

As those who study cities—or even who read articles by me and other Catalyst writers—already know, this free-market model is far different than our current one. Nowadays, there’s a litany of regulations and incentives that distort the market, making city cores expensive and difficult to live in. Restrictive zoning raises home prices; lack of road pricing worsens congestion; government-run transit blocks competition (while performing poorly in its own right); and harsh tax and regulatory climates make cities uncompetitive. Suburban areas, by contrast, generally have looser housing regulations, better governance and benefit from infrastructure subsidies, thereby dispersing development and curbing agglomeration. Market Urbanism aims to correct this, arguing that in an open market, cities would likely be denser, but more to the point, would be freer. Without all the regulations, people would have a greater ability to live where and move around how they want.  

I’m not the first person to cover Market Urbanism; in fact it’s a nascent movement. In 2007, a New York City developer named Adam Hengels had grown frustrated with the city’s over-regulated, crony land-use climate. He launched MarketUrbanism.com as his personal sounding board. In the twelve years since, other writers working in land use and economics, including myself, have written for the blog, and it has an active Twitter handle. 

In 2017, I launched another Market Urbanism platform—MarketUrbanismReport.com—that finds additional ways to publicize the concept. It has a regular article and podcast schedule, and I’ve extended the Market Urbanist coverage to Facebook and Instagram, where I’ve found a similar critical mass of people interested in these ideas. 

Along with those two main platforms, Michael Lewyn, a law professor at Touro College, wrote the book “Government Intervention and Suburban Sprawl: The Case for Market Urbanism.” He shows how post-WWII suburbia was not a market outcome but an act of government engineering. John Morris, a Pittsburgh-based artist, runs a Market Urbanism Facebook group that focuses on the “flyover country” between America’s East and West coasts. There is even now, respectively, a Facebook and Twitter account designed to mock Market Urbanists. Maybe that shows we’re making progress. 

On the positive end, mainstream publications have begun to mention Market Urbanism as a subset within the larger urbanist dialogue. These include The New York Times, Atlantic, National Review, and Fast Company. An academic paper was even published describing the movement.

My goal is for Market Urbanism to get more of this press. There are already numerous organizations and ideologies that have carved their niche within the urbanist vortex. New Urbanism focuses on bringing back traditional urban design. Tactical Urbanism wants to reimagine streets and public spaces. Urban Land Institute, CityLab, Strong Towns, Streetsblog, and the YIMBY movement all have their respective message, and generally do good work. But none of them—nor seemingly anyone past or present—touts an explicitly free-market city vision at broad organizational level. That’s what I aim to do through Market Urbanism Report and my other platforms, including this Catalyst column, where I’ll flesh out my ideas in a new article published every Wednesday morning. I hope you enjoy reading them.