14 May

Why Can’t North America Have Cities Like Barcelona?

Amanda and I have really enjoyed the start of our “3 Months in Europe” trip. We loved our time in Lisbon and now we’ve just had the wonderful pleasure of spending two weeks in Barcelona. This being my first time to Europe, I can’t help being truly wowed by how well designed the cities are. My overall experience in Barcelona left me wondering: Dang, why can’t American cities be this delightfully livable!?

Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

Beautiful buildings, wide sidewalks, housing on top and retail on the bottom floors with tree-lined streets, bike lanes everywhere and a sweet sweet metro system. Really, the Barcelona metro is simply marvelous. A T-10 pass costs €10 and gives you 10 metro rides (including transfers from train to bus). Which North American cities have dense enough housing to support great metro systems like this? Let’s see, maybe: New York, Mexico City, Chicago, and if we’re being really generous, DC and Montreal. That’s kinda it. Seems like a short list, what the heck’s going on here?

Check out this subway map for Barcelona, most of the system is underground and they’re constantly expanding it:

How did Barcelona end up being such a wonderfully designed city? Our deepest gratitude is owed to a guy named Ildefons Cerdà, a civil engineer who quit his job and ran for public office with a passion in his heart for smart urban design back in 1859.

This is back when Barcelona was planning to tear down its old city walls and expand with gusto – Mr. Cerdà pioneered the conditional plan for how the city should grow. He was a leader in urban design and drafted a wonderful concept of exactly how the city blocks should be developed. The result is a huge city district called Eixample which has a grid-system street layout with beautiful five-story apartment buildings, wonderfully wide tree-lined sidewalks, retail shopping on the bottom floors of every building and these days, bike lanes are everywhere. He faced fierce political opposition against his plans, but he overcame – Thank you, Ildefons!

The Eixample District, including the unfinished Sagrada Familia (designed by Gaudi)

Comparing to a North American City

For the sake of an interesting discussion, let’s compare Barcelona to a North American city. How about the shining diamond of economic success: San Francisco, California!

Area size and population counts:

San Francisco: 900,000 people in 600 km2
Barcelona: 1,600,000 people in 100 km2

Here is an aerial look at San Francisco’s Sunset district, filled with endless tiny single family homes built about 100 years ago. Can you find a single apartment building in this picture? WOW – what an impressively inefficient use of city space!

Some may read this and shrug: “Whoop-dee-doo. I like single family homes!” Well, the problem here is that higher density housing in Barcelona is a really important aspect of what makes the city great: it facilitates a high number of awesome restaurants, cafes, shops and grocery stores on every block. Surprisingly, there were three different well-stocked grocery stores within a single block of our Airbnb apartment in Barcelona.

Most important of all – the high density of Barcelona facilitates a metro system that kicks serious ass. The metro goes everywhere and the trains are frequent. Owning a car is simply not a necessity of life. Walking around Barcelona, vehicle traffic was actually low-key and a healthy mix of motor scooters and city buses. What kind of paradise is this!?

San Francisco… not so much. Transit has less coverage, less frequency, and relies more on buses. The city itself is serviced by the transit system MUNI and it also has a commuter transit system called BART that connects some of the cities in the Bay Area together. Sadly, BART doesn’t go into Silicon Valley or Marin County, both areas that are plagued with commuter traffic.

Ok, let’s get down to brass tacks:

Why, exactly, hasn’t the Bay Area developed into a utopian paradise like Barcelona?

Super Quick (TL;DR) Answer: Essentially, local governments have too much power and they often end up blocking smart development, also: Prop 13.

For decades now – with all the money, jobs, and smart people pouring into the San Francisco Bay Area – why hasn’t the area grown into a super-paradise following the essentials of smart urban planning: high density development with metro infrastructure?

The answer is mainly because of a something called Nimbyism – it’s something which San Francisco is now infamous for. Property owners in the Bay Area have sabotaged development of their city for a variety of reasons:

  • When BART plans were being put together back in the 1950’s, individual Counties were allowed to opt-out of the master plan. San Mateo, Marin and Santa Clara Counties, sadly, said “No”. They wanted to protect their existing communities from change.
  • Many citizens in the Bay Area like the way their neighborhood was when they first moved to the city. Some residents don’t like the idea of having larger apartment buildings being built in their neighborhoods. More people, more noise, less peace. They want things to stay exactly the same as they have been, blocking development (I like to call this attitude “I got mine!“)
  • Many property owners recognize the physical limitations to development in the Bay Area (which is surrounded by water and hills) and aim to further boost the value of their property by blocking new development through regulations (in economics this is called rent-seeking behavior, and it certainly doesn’t benefit society!)
  • Most cities in the Bay Area have rent-control laws which, pretty much all economists agree, reduces the quantity and quality of housing available – reducing new property development and helping rental prices to go UP!

Well, this list isn’t too bad… is that all? Wait! There’s one more Big Kahuna!

The Ultimate “I Got Mine” Law

A law called Proposition 13 is the ultimate “I Got Mine”. Passed back in 1978, it limits the property tax rate from increasing greater than 2% year over year. Sounds innocent enough, right? Well, California real estate has appreciated much much faster than 2% over the last 40 years, and now the results are appalling:

Prop 13 Dog

When we lived in Oakland, Amanda and I rented a home owned by a small group of lawyers who purchased it in the 1970’s. I just checked the latest records, and these lawyers currently pay $3,600 in property taxes. The immediate next door house was recently purchased and these new owners pay $18,000 in property taxes. Simply ridiculous.

The situation is, quite frankly, out of control – and I’m now glad to be in North Carolina away from such an insane tax system.

As you can imagine, the negative effects of Prop 13 are numerous. The main result is that old property owners stay in their homes to preserve their low tax situation, which results in less property turnover, less development, and higher real estate prices.

Enough Already: No Need to Kick A Dead Cat

A Barcelona city block

For the sake an an interesting discussion, I’ve picked on San Francisco as the quintessential North American city that clearly falls short of Barcelona in terms of density and public transportation.

Can California rise above the “I Got Mine” mentality and work towards policies that deliver the greatest good for all Californians? Can they undo the abominable Prop 13, reverse harmful rent control laws, and embrace a “Yes In My Back Yard” (YIMBY)” attitude towards high density housing? Yes, maybe! Especially if more YIMBY people get involved in local and state politics.

In addition to the above hopeful improvements, perhaps someday we may even see a Land Value Tax implemented, which economists believe would discourage unhealthy “rent seeking” behavior and encourage better development in cities.

If you’re a cynic of progress or simply impatient, Barcelona might be calling your name. Tech jobs are lower paying but if you have a remote job, Spain has a visa that is attainable and you can become a permanent resident within 5 years (Spanish citizenship is even attainable within 10 years, if you’re eventually willing to renounce all other passports).

Otherwise, if you want to make your North American city a better place to live, consider getting involved in your community and let your YIMBY voice be heard!

Barcelona from above