Paul Krugman: Hurricane Harvey Can't Be Called a Natural Disaster Alone

Hurricane Harvey is an unmitigated disaster, one whose impact Houston, and America, will be dealing with for years. Climate change clearly made it worse, but as Paul Krugman points out in his Monday column, so did a legacy of terrible city planning and an addiction to unregulated development which left the city extra vulnerable to flooding. 


"Greater Houston," Krugman explains, "still has less than a third as many people as greater New York, but it covers roughly the same area, and probably has a smaller percentage of land that hasn’t been paved or built on." Before the Hurricane, this sprawl caused rampant traffic and extensive pollution. After the storm, the flood water had nowhere to go.

To many observers, this is an obvious lesson in the dangers of overdevelopment and real estate deregulation. Not so fast, warns Krugman. Consider San Francisco, where NIMBY-ism (aka Not in My Backyard) reigns supreme. The economy of the Bay Area has skyrocketed in recent years, but there's not enough housing to keep up with the demand from all those Silicon Valley workers streaming into the area. That means dramatic increases in rent. In fact, "The median monthly rent on a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is more than $3,000, the highest in the nation and roughly triple the rent in Houston; the median price of a single-family home is more than $800,000." 

Krugman believes the solution to this crisis is building more and taller buildings. But as he writes, "politics has blocked that kind of construction, and the result is housing that’s out of reach for ordinary working families. In response, some workers engage in extreme commuting from affordable locations, spending as much as four hours each way."

Houston and San Francisco are unique, but many metropolitan areas fall into one of two groups: Sunbelt cities where anything goes development-wise, and East and West Coast cities with extensive regulations on building height and density. It's a rare situation in which Krugman believes both sides are wrong. He continues: "NIMBYism is bad for working families and the U.S. economy as a whole, strangling growth precisely where workers are most productive. But unrestricted development imposes large costs in the form of traffic congestion, pollution, and, as we’ve just seen, vulnerability to disaster." 

Krugman wants to balance these competing urban development philosophies through better environmental regulations and taller constructions: "We should have regulation that prevents clear hazards, like exploding chemical plants in the middle of residential neighborhoods, preserves a fair amount of open land, but allows housing construction. In particular, we should encourage construction that takes advantage of the most effective mass transit technology yet devised: the elevator." 

It's hard to say whether our cities can compromise. But as the devastation from Hurricane Harvey has proven, Americans lives (and livelihoods) are on the line. 

Read the entire column here

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