Propinquity Cities So Far

post by MakoYass · 2020-11-16T23:12:52.065Z · LW · GW · 48 comments

Contents

  Summary
  Motivation
    pricing provides shockingly few economic functions
  What it is
      That aggregation of the preferences of the residents is the metric that the propinquity city is legally obligated to optimize.
  Longtermist Significance
  Practical Concerns of Deploying it in Reality
    land
      In Case no Rational Citizenries can be Found
    the City's Economy
  What this needs from you
None
48 comments

Finding alternatives to war can save a lot of money

Summary

In any dense city, lots of people will be struggling to occupy the same set of spaces. To function, cities need to have some systematic way of resolving those positioning conflicts, a method for deciding who gets to go where. The methods we use now for resolving positioning conflicts (land markets and rent) have a lot of overhead that is both very obviously overhead and also overlooked as inevitable. I talk about that extensively, and some of its unexamined costs. I present an outline of what looks like a better method, Propinquity Optimization (proq), which resolves positioning conflicts at minimal cost, enabling a much higher maximum quality of life in dense cities.

It feels urgently needed, to me. I am not sure whether it is the most urgently needed thing that I can be working on (I'm also responsible for this humanization of recommender systems/harmonization of global discourses [LW · GW] and.. some other stuff). There's some discussion of its global importance in the Longtermist Significance section.

In the course of this, I also discuss quite a lot of the problems in applied preference aggregation and some potentially novel ways to resolve some of them. Even if you aren't interested in building better cities, you might want to read it just to see an instance of applied utilitarianism as a legal mechanism. I think that aspect of it is really pretty neat.

A Propinquity City assigns services and residents to whatever proposed locations optimize an aggregation of the preference expressions of the residents.

Motivation

In dense cities, even once housing supply has exceeded demand, most city dwellers will still have rent extracted from them to a significant proportion of their income: Dense living means that demand within the urban center doesn't ever drop. You can maybe get arbitrarily cheap housing in some incredibly sparsely populated outskirts, but not in the dense part. There seem to be levels of affordability that are firmly unreachable under the kinds of land allocation methods we use now.
When we notice that there seem to be firm and significant limits on how cheaply a technology can ever come to operate, even at its peak, smart buyers start looking for alternatives.

Price competition happens when competitors with high prices can be, in some way, outrun, by competitors with low prices. That just doesn't happen to land traders in high demand areas. If one land trader offers drastically lower rents that others can't match (maybe because they have entered an already high mortgage), those other land traders still sell all their units and stay in full business. They make their money, same as always. They don't get outcompeted. Cost-efficacy, beyond a point, is not rewarded with any increase in market share. The unfit are not selected out.
The result is, reliably, the costs of operating in dense cities will always be high enough to significantly reduce mean quality of life. As long as most land within the city is privately held, this will not be solvable.

There is also a commons problem in urban economies: When rents are raised on a beloved shared service (a restaurant, a teahouse, a bookstore, anything that provides a lot of value to the locals), forcing it to raise prices and cut quality, the losses in (real) property value in the surrounding neighborhood (which now no longer has that service as it was) exceed the individual gains to the service's owner's owner. The city suffers more than we can know under this dynamic. A participant in this economy - even one who expected a fair chance of getting to be the land owner - would prefer that this dynamic couldn't play out, such is the extent of the value being removed.
There would be no central park under private ownership.
We must imagine the many central parks that never were, and never can be.

You could probably solve part of this problem with a type of city where land is owned and developed by a non-profit, or local government, where land rent goes to improving quality of life in the city (public spaces, libraries, meeting rooms, schools, etc). But, why draw taxes through those wars of rent? Why take taxes in proportion to rent conflict? Is that really a good way to resolve the positioning conflict, or to take taxes? Taxes disincent things, why disincent dense living? If we were designing something explicitly to do those things well, in correct proportion, I don't think it would do it like that.

Land pricing provides shockingly few economic functions

I wasn't expecting to be able to come up with so many points in support of this. Here, I'll be going through a checklist of things that useful market systems generally do, and I find that land markets generally don't do them well, if at all:

In summary, land markets are not very good at what they do. They provide less functionality than we might have imagined.

To completely replicate their functionality, we will need lots of information about the housing stock, and some (perhaps democratic) negotiation tool for deciding who and what gets to go where. Since those things would be useful to have anyway, that's what I'm trying to develop here. That's what proq would be. Tools for pooling information and negotiating with minimal overhead so that we do not need to burn so much money fighting each other for space.

 

What it is

Residents (who have bought shares, funding their part of the construction, who pay rates) in a Propinquity City provide the city with a pretty complete expression of their needs and preferences about their housing and their neighborhood. The city defines a mathematical function that represents how well those expressed desires are being satisfied, given everyone's locations. Solvers try to find ways of positioning residents and services that will make that number go as high as possible. Whichever location solution resolves with the highest number, is instated.

More Concisely: Every month, a Propinquity City positions services and residents according to whatever proposed location solution optimizes an aggregation of the expressed preferences of the residents.

Residents end up in the presence of the people they want and are wanted by. Services are allocated space according to expressed public will for them, rather than how much rent they can pay. We solve the occupancy conflict problem via cheap, efficient, negotiation towards an optimization criterion, instead of through a bedlam of costly bidding wars.
 

The metric (or, the expression language) representing an individual resident's desires, focuses mainly on these features:

Then those measures of the quality of each resident's situation are aggregated in some way (added together, for instance).

That aggregation of the preferences of the residents is the metric that the propinquity city is legally obligated to optimize.

I'm not exactly sure what operation should be used for aggregation. It may need to vary between different proq cities, depending on their population's preferred variant of utilitarianism. Candidates include:

 

Proq resembles utilitarianism, but utilitarianism couldn't really be implemented, even if the political will were there (or if there were some rawlsian veil that evened out the expected payoffs and guaranteed that the deal would be worth it for everyone). We can't read peoples' actual utility functions. We can ask them to describe their utility function for us, but they will not generally answer with the true utility function, we will receive a speech act that has been carefully, strategically shaped to benefit them more than the truth would have.

Anything implementable is always going to be more like a voting system than a metaphysical ideal.

To argue for any voting system, we need to be able to argue that the dishonest individually rational voting strategies that people will inevitably discover and deploy will tend to add up to acceptable outcomes. If we can get people to tell the truth about their preferences, we can just measure the solution in terms of those, but it is difficult to incent people to tell the truth. In many cases, it's provably impossible.

I don't know what strategic voting would look like under proq, I don't think we'll know until the system exists and we can play around with it and see which strategies thrive, but I know that there will be some analogue to strategic voting, there always is.

I'm thinking about making a game version of life in a proq city and getting adversarial economist types to all try to "win" at it.    (though it's important to emphasize here that in a eusocial game, winning doesn't tend to look like domination. It will tend to look like trading beneficially with others as a side effect of pursuing whatever your goal is. One of my projects in game design is addressing the alarming ubiquity of contrived zero sum multiplayer games. Every time I read the rules of an otherwise peaceful eurogame and wind up meeting again the phrase "whoever gets the most victory points Wins The Game" I groan a little louder. Soon you will be able to hear my groan from the mainland. One person's gain should not be presumed to be another's loss. Life isn't like that. Humans aren't like that. Long ago we entered a pact that bound our fates together.)

There, in those games, we'll get a glimpse of this political ecology's future, and we'll see if the system continues optimizing utility under strain.

I thought I'd need a pretty decent prototype propinquity optimizer algorithm for that, but I'm starting to think it might be a lot easier, and maybe a lot more fun to do a thing where every resident is able to submit hand-authored incremental improvements to the position solution.

In the long term, offering a prize to whoever can optimize the allocation solution's aggregate utility the most might elicit near optimal solutions from specialists in location solving, who I'd anticipate would make use of some fancy algorithms, but it's conceivable that a series of incremental improvements from individuals and volunteers might turn out to do well enough in the beginning, as well as fostering enfranchisement.

 

But anyway, in the least, whatever process optimizes the aggregate utility, it does not have to be a ministry of the city. The great thing about defining an objective, easily computable measure of solution quality is that it means we can cheaply consider allocation suggestions from whoever will offer one. If their solution scores the best, then it pretty much must be the best and that is the one we will pay for.

So, one of my current considerations is this: How much could individual people use their understanding of their propinquity locality to incrementally improve the solution for themselves until we arrive at a solution that will be pretty close to ideal. I don't know. But I'd like to experiment. Playing propinquity optimizer seems fun to me. Making an app for editing location solutions and measuring their total propinquity also sounds like a great starting point for designing location optimization algorithms, if those later turn out to be necessary.

If we do let residents submit incremental manual edits, a naive implementation would have some difficulties

Longtermist Significance

I found proq by following the anguished cries of the present. In these cases it's good to step back and remember the endgame and ask if it still makes sense in light of that.

I find that I have more questions than answers.

A Propinquity City would support extents of quality of life that I've argued aren't possible under the current paradigm. It would be nice to have.

Ultimately, though, dense cities will not be as important in the near future, given remote work (which I expect to be irresistable once VR headsets with foveated rendering reach retinal pixel densities) and dirt cheap automated delivery systems. Propinquity is good adjacency, but adjacency wont matter as much.
Proq arose from a concern that a dense city could not ever be made cheap. I do still believe that, but I'm not sure we sorely need dense cities to be cheap. Might we live almost just as well in sparser, broader land markets where not all units sell, where it is theoretically possible for land prices to compete down to negligibility, where there aren't far more buyers than sellers.

Proq offers us a future with at least one dense yet affordable megacity in the western world, a lively intersecting patchwork of emergent communities growing somewhere in the middle of the continent. The future without proq still offers us tesla-quickened land markets, expensive in urban centers but perhaps decent work will be available from any small town grouphouse with an internet connection. We may want to scatter broadly if we want to live on a non-profit's wages, but we will be able to live well enough. It's conceivable that this difference in living situations will have some predictable effects on cultural evolution. Anthropological forecasts on this would be deeply interesting.

Proq will invite anyone who knows about it to contemplate legal systems that constitute from the optimization of a utility function. I wonder if experiencing the results of that might make the alignment problem more broadly obvious. For better, or for worse?

I wish we had a clearer picture.

Practical Concerns of Deploying it in Reality

I really hope we wouldn't need to convert any pre-existing city that already has high land prices. That just looks like an impenetrable, unscalable political wall to me. I am not planning for that.

We might have to kind of start from scratch. This isn't necessarily as depressing as it sounds. There are places in the world where construction progresses very quickly. Perhaps one day those businesses processes will make it to the west.

If it does take a while for a city to grow, oh well. Personally, I think I would love living in a tiny fetal city. Maybe it could be like arcosanti. I can dream, at least.

Acquiring land

I would like if we could make this deal with the regional council: Once the city needs land, it could buy it at triple the price that rural land would have been expected to command had the city never been built.

This prevents land-owners from holding the city's growth hostage with their newfound land wealth that the city, by being adjacent to them, created. It is just. It is profitable for the rural land-owners, their land-value still goes up significantly, and they still benefit from adjacency to the city in other ways. A rational citizenry, knowing that this city could not grow otherwise, would accept the deal.

In Case no Rational Citizenries can be Found

It's conceivable that there are places where the the land owned by the city on its outskirts could be scaled up faster than the city grows, meaning that by the time the region's landowners believe there's a thing of value here to exploit, when the city does start to press up against the edges of its domain, it would have enough residents to vote for fair prices for further expansion.

Seeding the City's Economy

A delightful puzzle. Finding a series of productive yet crazy organizations, each wanting to be near some of the ones before them, progressively becoming less and less crazy, until reasonable people start to get it. I can see some pieces of the solution; first businesses that don't mind solitude, then businesses that can operate with just an internet connection, and by then we will have more pieces to work with that I can't anticipate right now from here.

What this needs from you

We need to get generally better at designing less costly ways to credibly signal will: Develop voting theory, maybe develop some auction theory for cases where cost-free outcomes are not possible, but where very low-cost outcomes might be possible:

Expressions of interest in buying a share - a permanent entitlement to a propinquitously located apartment in a Propinquity City, cost of about 40,000USD plus a yearly rates fee (covering maintenance and governance) - would be pleasant to receive, though not actionable at this stage.

I may develop a small game for examining and maybe demonstrating propinquity optimization. If anyone else would be interested in developing a game about propinquity optimization, I'd contribute heavily. I really do feel like there's a fun game to be found in there.
Designing a proq game with a score criterion that accurately reflects of a propinquity city's optimization criterion would be a really cool challenge. There is a chance, small, that it would help billions of people by helping to speed proq into reality. So for a game designer, it's very much worth thinking about.

If anything here seems insufficiently well justified, or questionable, I encourage you to please ask about it. Chances are decent that I will have thought pretty deeply about it and I will have lots to say about why it was unavoidable, and I just wasn't able to fit it in anywhere.

48 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Timothy Johnson (timothy-johnson) · 2020-11-17T09:41:53.844Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
  1. One of the main drawbacks I see in this system is that it provides little incentive for anyone to improve the value of their own property, or even to maintain it. The benefit of a market system is that it does provide this incentive, which I think is much more important than you admit here.

    High housing costs at least lead to "skin in the game." Without that, you probably need regulations to ensure that everyone maintains their property at a certain minimum level, and regular inspections to enforce it. I don't see anything like that mentioned here - do you have any thoughts on how it would work, and how much the overhead costs would be?
  2. Besides that, I'm also concerned about the effects on commercial property. You commented below that being assigned a store location would look more like winning a local election than signing a lease.

    That sounds like another large source of overhead. I believe the amount that people actually spend at a store is a better measure of the value they derive from it than their voting could be. You could try to redesign your system to use store revenue as propinquity votes - but why? The free market already does that efficiently with no extra effort required.
comment by Viliam · 2020-11-17T19:44:52.201Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I believe the amount that people actually spend at a store is a better measure of the value they derive from it than their voting could be.

The amount of money I spend in a shop is not necessarily proportional to how close I want to live to it. If I make 100 small purchases at $10 each, I probably want it closer to my home than the one where I make 1 purchase at $1000.

comment by Ben Smith (ben-smith) · 2020-11-25T04:04:34.133Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

But just this point is a rabbit hole of questions in itself.

If we equipped every store with tracking devices that measured the amount of time spent by people visiting (!!!!), that might incentivize making products really hard to find in the store, or making really long lines, so people spend more time there.

If it's the raw number of times people spend visiting the store, I am sure there are ways to game that too ("visit us 10 times this week for 10% off your next purchase!"). There could be laws against that, but..

comment by MikkW (mikkel-wilson) · 2020-11-17T17:31:03.905Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One of the main drawbacks I see in this system is that it provides little incentive for anyone to improve the value of their own property

Indeed. I would like to highlight a particular example of this failure, namely the construction of multi-story buildings. In the modern market, the landowner builds tall buildings (which is a very difficult, and hence expensive procedure) because the owner profits from the rent gained from the extra real estate area. Mako in the main post suggests "we don't need land markets to help us to decide when and where taller buildings are needed, it's not that hard to get it pretty much right", but 1) in practice, similar proposals (that have actually been implemented, both in communist and nominally capitalist countries) have vastly underestimated the difficulty of this problem, leading to large problems that have made life harder for many people, and 2) if the landowner doesn't have a profit incentive to build higher, who will pay the cost of building higher? The local government? I'd rather the local government's limited resources be used to do something that can't already be done by the free market.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-11-17T22:04:15.269Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

1) in practice, similar proposals (that have actually been implemented, both in communist and nominally capitalist countries) have vastly underestimated the difficulty of this problem

Can you point to examples?

comment by MikkW (mikkel-wilson) · 2020-11-17T22:49:11.306Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The USSR and pre-1978 Communist China are notable examples which are highlighted in Alain Bertaud's Design without Order, but also modern zoning laws in the US and other first-world countries suffer from smaller, but still significant versions of this failure.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-11-17T23:18:33.656Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems like the US and other first-world countries have problem with the government making laws limiting density. I would expect the same for pre-1978 Communist China as Mao wasn't a fan of cities and wanted to move production to the country-side. 

From what I understand the USSR actually did manage to build high-story buildings under Khrushchev. 

comment by Ben Smith (ben-smith) · 2020-11-25T04:08:54.277Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

in practice, similar proposals (that have actually been implemented, both in communist and nominally capitalist countries) have vastly underestimated the difficulty of this problem, leading to large problems that have made life harder for many people

 

Singapore and Hong Kong are two generally-capitalist cities that have employed largely government housing development of very dense, tall housing.

It worked REALLY well in capitalist, uber-wealthy Singapore (GDP per capita substantially higher than the USA). ~78% of Singaporeans live in housing developed by the Singapore Government's Housing and Development Board (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Housing_and_Development_Board). It works a bit less well in Hong Kong, but still remarkably well considering how many people are housed in the very small area available.

comment by MakoYass · 2020-11-18T01:52:11.525Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
  1. I have known too many landlords who say, "ah, but, I have a responsibility to my tenants to maintain their house and provide improvements, which I fulfill, so I deserve the money", while failing to maintain the house and while forbidding the tenants from doing it themselves. You'll forgive me if I'm a bit skeptical about this framing. I'm not sure it should be the market's job to improve the value of the property. Where I'm from, the market habitually failed to install adequate insulation, this ended up needing to be legislated on.

    The person who most has an incentive to maintain the property is the person who lives in it. They may be less competent at this, but the land-owners aren't always competent either. Removing barriers to their doing this might be helpful.

    Ah. Apparently I removed the section about maintaining detailed, easily queriable information about every apartment (the system that maintains the data that the "requirements about the housing" field in preference expressions is about). I think that might have been the answer to your question of how inspections would be done. I removed it because I thought it was boring, but I suppose it might have been important.

    So I'll propose a process. Residents would be expected to report on a long list of qualities of their house before moving out (or to pay to have someone else do it). They ought to mostly know these qualities as a result of having lived there. If the resident who then moves into that location disputes their reports (the system asks them whether it's all okay), they have the choice between receiving a fine, or having an inspector come, and if the inspector confirms the disputation, a greater fine. Qualities being tracked are likely to include things like "generally clean", "mold-free", or "no terrible smell" (I suppose that one will have to be a bit subjective and the process might need to be complicated a bit. Lol what if residents got a quality like "haunted" or "bad vibes" added to the checklist. I don't want to think about that right now.).
    If there has been a great degradation in quality over the course of the resident's stay, they will be fined.
  2. I agree that if store adjacency preference expressions were implemented in the most obvious way it might end up kinda sucking in a lot of ways. Leading to services having to spend some small but not insignificant fraction of what they previously spent on rent on advertising and campaigning.

    I would want to design additional systems for streamlining this. The decisions of these systems should, in a sense, answer to residents, they should predict resident preferences, in the same way that our low-cost auction designs would predict the outcomes of a regular auction without requiring it to be carried out.
    Individual residents should not ever be expected to look through an unfiltered list of service proposals, and judge them without having been exposed to a lot of good information about whether their proposers are credible or likely to be serious.

    There remains a lot of work to be done on this part of the design.

    You somewhat misquoted me. Aside from likening it to local elections, I also mention a qualification system. The qualification concept would be one little step toward completing the design. Residents would not need to say very specific things like "I want this wallgreens proposal to be within one KM of me", but instead, "I want some decent pharmacy". Perhaps we could have prediction markets decide what qualifies as a decent pharmacy (whose bettors are then rewarded or punished based on reports that come later on).
    Alternately, I think I can see a system for maintaining an open set of qualification marks and associated qualification authorities. Marks would be more or less prominent depending on whether they are promoted by services who have those marks that are genuinely found to be beloved. The mark authority would be paid a reasonable wage, proportional to their adoption (so that they can hire more when they need to), but nothing crazy, most of what they do would be simply honestly reporting quality/price quotients and product categories. They get work in proportion to whether their mark is found to be actually meaningful. Their work is fulfilling and the mark promotion system would try to make sure that corruption would be met quickly with replacement.
    More development is probably needed. Hmm and I feel like a simpler process may be possible in most cases.
    Conceivably... the customers of a service are generally capable of providing information about whether the service made the mark (oh), so something much cheaper than that might be possible. Imagine a review site that isn't kind of a joke.

    I suppose the information systems like this would be one of the many dimensions of quality over which propinquity cities would vary. Some would have better, more meritocratic ways of gathering and pooling information and maintaining designations and score gradients. Hopefully the first one does a decent enough job.

    > I believe the amount that people actually spend at a store is a better measure of the value they derive from it than their voting could be

    If you use that as your optimization metric, as our cities currently do, you get overpriced services. The drawbacks of that as a mechanism are incredibly obvious, significant in size, but broadly overlooked as inevitable. I again invite you to question their inevitability and look for a mechanism that will produce better quality/price quotients than that.

    I don't think I emphasize this clearly enough or often enough: A system that forces stores to increase their prices, decreases their quality. Those features are on the same continuum.

    There isn't very much about burning money as a way of signalling desire that that could be said to be efficient.
comment by Timothy Johnson (timothy-johnson) · 2020-11-19T09:34:53.038Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

1. Thanks, I've had much better experiences with my landlord, but your experience might be more typical. Lack of adequate insulation is a clear problem, and one that's potentially worsened by the current system in which landlords pay for installing insulation but tenants generally pay for electricity. It's also the kind of issue that wouldn't become known to the tenants until after they've already moved in. So it makes sense to me that this would require legislation.

The process you propose for maintaining quality sounds reasonable enough. It might even be less susceptible to abuse than the current system of requiring security deposits, which the landlord can decide whether or not to refund. I've never experienced abuse of that type, but it wouldn't surprise me if it's relatively common.

2. I agree there's a lot more design work to do here. But before diving into that, I'm not entirely convinced by this point:

If you use [the amount that people actually spend] as your optimization metric, as our cities currently do, you get overpriced services.

When I think about which services are overpriced, the first ones that come to mind are college tuition and healthcare. But the primary cost drivers there are not rent, so I don't think your proposal would affect them very much.

If we limit our discussion to services that are overpriced due to high rent costs, the only one I can think of is restaurants. I've never seen an actual restaurant's budget, but I've heard that their costs are generally split evenly into rent, salaries, and the cost of the food itself. And it makes sense that rent would be a major cost, since table space at restaurants is clearly inefficient - even in the pre-pandemic world, restaurants often operated at capacity for only a few hours each weekend. So I'll grant that there's likely room for improvement there.

Is there something else I'm missing?

comment by MakoYass · 2020-11-20T00:50:58.979Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

2. This turns out to be interesting I think. I do think almost everything in the city is obviously overpriced, but it becomes devilishly hard to identify it as overpriced because it has incorporated its high prices into its defining functionality.

Luxury clothes stores say "it's a good thing that we charge six or seven times the cost of production because it makes us a positional good", cafes say "It's a good thing we charge so much because it keeps people from loitering", nightclubs say "it keeps out the riff-raff".

There's a sense in which, the thing that they are is "supposed to be that way", they truly couldn't be better priced and so it's hard to call them overpriced. We end up with services like that because that's all that survives.

A solution here wouldn't look like cheaper versions of these things, because those things wouldn't work if they were cheaper. A really livable megacity would mostly have different things instead of them, things that only start to become economical at the lower price ranges. Instead of assorting by class, social clubs would select on more targeted personal characteristics. Instead of luxury there would be genuine finery included under the craft designation, to an extent that couldn't have been funded before. Instead of cafes there would be mostly unstaffed bookable spaces where you could meet people, that are quiet enough to have conversations in, because lingering is the point of them. They all earn little money but increase the total value of the city far beyond their opportunity cost.

 

Related observation: Nothing can be said to be overpriced if you submit deeply to the necessity of the overhead. Gold-plated audio cables can't be called overpriced if you believe that you need them to be gold-plated. They're only overpriced if you can accept the possibility of having audio cables that don't need to be gold-plated. So, a lot of people will say things like, "bitcoin's proof of work mechanisms aren't wasteful because they're necessary to making bitcoin work", whether you accept that depends on whether you think there's an alternative to proof of work (many projects do).
And some people who weren't in the mood to entertain the possibility of an alternative to rent would say this about rent, that it's not overhead because it's an irreplaceable part of the mechanism.

comment by Logan Zoellner (logan-zoellner) · 2020-11-17T02:02:21.891Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Don't basically all cities control density pretty tightly? I know that a lot of density restriction is just nimbies defending housing scarcity, but it can't all be that, can it?

 

I think this is where the whole post goes off the rails.

In the real world there are massive economic inefficiencies created by government restrictions on density.  Suggesting that we can fix these with a more complex government system is like suggesting we can solve the "wolves eat sheep" problem with bigger wolves.

comment by MakoYass · 2020-11-17T03:21:49.003Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

To clarify, the city wouldn't generally build anything shorter than 5 stories. The project has no interest in building anything in the category of SF's suburbs.

Additionally, I was asking a question there. I don't know much about the history of construction and cities. I was wondering whether unregulated land markets reliably overproduce density once an urban center has been established. Are cities with extreme density actually decent to live in? Doesn't ventilation (pollution) or access to sunlight start to become a problem over a certain size?  Isn't there going to be an appropriate limit that absolute deregulation will always exceed?

What happens when there are no restrictions at all on density/height? Can you refer me to some historical examples of that?

comment by afeller08 · 2020-11-17T21:04:09.238Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I haven't studied this in general, but I have read a decent amount about the history of a couple cities, and based on those examples, can say with confidence that no modern city comes remotely close to the density that people would choose absent regulations keeping density down.

Tokyo today is less densely populated per square meter ground than late medieval Edo was, and late medieval Edo had no plumbing and basically no buildings taller than three stories. (I don't think there are historical examples of cities with no height restrictions and no density restrictions because until 1885, nobody knew how to build a skyscraper, so height restrictions existed indirectly through limitations of engineering -- technically, they still do.)

All of the evidence I'm familiar with suggests that people would choose to be very densely concentrated if it wasn't for regulations limiting their density.

The favelas of Brazil are generally considered a stepping stone towards urban living by their residents. Most of their residents don't live there because they need to; they live there because they would prefer to leave the places they came from (generally the countryside). There's pretty strong evidence globally and historically that, when given the option, people deliberately choose urban poverty over rural poverty. People migrate from villages to slums, and they don't move back. This is happening in Brazil, Kenya, Tibet, and India today. It happened historically in the United States and the U.K. This exhausts my knowledge of the history of human migration patterns, but I assume that the cases I don't know anything about are roughly consistent with the places I do know something about.

Air pollution from density of residency is unlikely to ever be self-limiting. 19th century London had way worse air pollution than any modern city, caused by coal-burning urban factories being everywhere, not to mention that everyone also burned coal for heat in the winter. (They lacked the technology to track air pollution back then, but it was bad enough that it effectively limited life expectancy to 30, so pretty bad. Incidentally, high polluting urban factories were priced out of existing in urban settings more than they were regulated out of existing in them.) Most cities also end up having a high percentage of their residents primarily travel by not-car, because traffic gets to be horrendous in everywhere but the nimbyest of cities. Outside the U.S., most cities are also designed around encouraging people to get around by not-car.

Asian countries generally permit much higher urban density than Western countries, and this seems to greatly increase the percentage of people who prefer to live in urban settings, and more or less prevent suburbs from developing. (I assume this happens because people are much less likely to be priced out of being able to live in a city, and that the preference for living outside of a city mainly comes from costs.) 

Population density and price per square foot of livable space are highly correlated. I strongly suspect the density causes the increase in price; pretty sure the increase in price doesn't cause the increase in density. 

 

 

By the way, Bloomberg News has a section called "Citylab" that is primarily focused on urban planning. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-11-17T22:07:12.447Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

strongly suspect the density causes the increase in price; pretty sure the increase in price doesn't cause the increase in density. 

That seems doubtful to me. It's my impression that when people can only afford smaller flats because prices are high they are going to rent flats with less floorspace/inhabitant. 

It's likely both that high density produces economic opportunities that make it desireable to move to high density and the high price getting people to live more dense.

comment by MikkW (mikkel-wilson) · 2020-11-17T22:54:40.084Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

To add to this, building taller buildings is expensive, so it's only justified when the land it's built on is also expensive (since otherwise it'd be easier to just expand horizontally, and consumers are already willing to pay a high price to live there)

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-11-18T13:38:59.746Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Building developers however often build buildings that are even larger then what you get if you optimize for price/m2. We can discuss how good decisions to build skyscrapers happen to be, but saying that there's no justifications for building skyscrapers seems strange when private developers do build skyscrappers.

comment by MikkW (mikkel-wilson) · 2020-11-18T20:07:29.242Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Huh? I'm not saying building skyscrapers doesn't make sense. I'm saying it only makes sense in places where land is expensive, which is exactly what we see.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-11-19T10:31:11.315Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Land cost alone isn't what justifies skyscrapers. Living in Trump tower costs more per square meter then living in nearby apartments that are located in smaller buildings. 

Skyscrapers provide prestige and features like a reception on the ground-floor.

comment by Rudi C (rudi-c) · 2020-11-17T09:13:32.387Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have not looked into this either, but I am pretty sure most people prefer having extra density (if that is even a thing) than not living where they want/giving half their income to housing. Sunlight is not that valuable to people. (And suburbs are always an option.) Ventilation will not be a problem based on my own (admittedly very limited) time in dense mega-apartments, but pollution will be. Of course, the solution to pollution is not about housing; We need, e.g., electric cars.

comment by MakoYass · 2020-11-18T02:38:13.844Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think people underestimate the value of sunlight. They sell their access to sunlight then they get mood disorders and wonder what's causing it. But yeah, I'm not sure. Vitamin D can be supplemented. Large rooms with high ceilings can exist.

I do believe we will get electric cars, so yeah maybe that's not going to be an issue in the future.

comment by Ben Smith (ben-smith) · 2020-11-25T04:13:22.893Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Two examples come to mind:

comment by MakoYass · 2020-11-17T03:51:58.812Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

An aside, the story you link doesn't seem like a good example of anything. SF's housing shortage was never going to be solved by building weirdly luxurious, two story dwellings in the middle of courtyard gardens of three story dwellings. That's not a class of building we should really care about. That you're pointing at this weird marginal kind of incident makes me wonder things.

comment by Logan Zoellner (logan-zoellner) · 2020-11-18T06:07:02.447Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I picked an extreme example of over regulation as a caricature, not to prove the general case.  But needless to say California has also rejected well-reasoned proposals with an ability to make a real impact.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-11-17T00:47:24.303Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We can imagine multi-story cities like the shimizu megacity pyramid, which do effectively create more land, but no non-governmental process has ever created one of those, nor perhaps ever will.

Given that governmental process are used in all European and US cities to decide via zoning laws what can be build where, it's no big constraint that the government is involved. 

Your view seems to be very focused to the needs of individuals. It's my impression that real world city planning is a lot about looking at interests of various businesses and institutions. It might be worthwhile to look into how city planning is done in cities where new building happens.

comment by MakoYass · 2020-11-17T01:10:15.868Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do wish I had more insight into the needs of services, restaurants and stores and that kind of thing. Getting a location in a proq city would be a lot more like getting a qualification or winning a local election than the usual leasing of a storefront. It would help a lot if the project knew how to introduce itself to competent merchants. The city would not die without them, but it would have difficulty becoming wonderful.

Additionally, it would be good to know a bit about job creators. I wonder how far we could get by focusing on residents with remote work, though, maybe it could work without any physical offices, but having some on board would only be helpful.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-11-17T21:57:09.359Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

After Jane Jakobs, a key difference between a city and a town is that cities manage to create new work. If I want to be a dog psychotherapist and there are people willing to buy my services I can start that career in a normal city. It seems to me that in your city you would only get a location for established economic activity.

I personally might not want to buy dog psychotherapist services but I want to go to Radical Honesty workshops.

In both cases money is a good proxy for deciding how much people value the service and thus whether or not whether a city should provide the space for it to happen. 

comment by Kevin Lacker (kevin-lacker) · 2020-11-17T07:52:57.858Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Isn't this what real estate developers do? You buy up some land somewhere that is a combination of inexpensive and desirable, like Dallas or Jacksonville. Then you attract people by building housing there. The land is cheap, you just have to move to the exurbs in a red state. You can set up a homeowners association with a wide variety of rules, although I suspect that the optimal ones may be closer to the way homeowners associations currently operate, rather than the decisionmaking procedures you propose here. But it has been a flexible enough process to build things like carless cities or cities aimed at the needs of senior citizens.

comment by romeostevensit · 2020-11-17T05:47:32.493Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A game based on this sounds fun. I always liked the game Islands for similar reasons.

I'm not exactly sure what operation should be used for aggregation.

My understanding is that one of the most difficult constraints in preference aggregation is that most possible systems are subject to strategic/adversarial optimization, thus favoring those who have the means to spend more time and resources on such adversarial optimization and discouraging people from signaling their true preference.

Practical Concerns of Deploying it in Reality

Most kinds of non price discrimination are illegal. If it weren't you could build a community cheaply and then only let in the people you want. Colleges are valuable in part because they're one of the few places you can still do this.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-11-18T13:59:27.495Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Expressions of interest in buying a share - a permanent entitlement to a propinquitously located apartment in a Propinquity City, cost of about 40,000USD plus a yearly rates fee (covering maintenance and governance) 

That seems like a pretty small apartment. https://www.fixr.com/costs/build-apartment  suggests that from 5 to 10 floors (which you want for density) you pay between $175 and $250 per sq.ft. That means you pay at least ~$1900 per m2. 

If all $40,000 get used for the apartment it gets you a 21 m2 small one-room apartment. In reality you would also have to build roads and a lot of other infrastructure when creating a new city from scratch. 

Big building projects also often face cost overruns. 

comment by MikkW (mikkel-wilson) · 2020-11-17T17:17:42.832Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Would anyone argue that the city's architects couldn't set density levels well enough themselves? It seems to me like that's a pretty simple problem and that urban planners are mostly already solving correctly?

Alain Bertaud, author of "Order without Design", would very much like to argue that. If you haven't read the book, I'd recommend looking at it.

I can't summarize a book in a single comment, but I think the gist of his argument is that while it might seem like an easy enough problem, in practice, when central allocation has been tried, it has been even less responsive to changes in demand than the existing market mechanism, and tends to create obviously suboptimal uses of land.

comment by MakoYass · 2020-11-18T03:01:58.916Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This book sounds very relevant, thanks for the recommendation.

comment by Dagon · 2020-11-16T23:53:05.339Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not exactly sure what operation should be used for aggregation.

That's pretty much the killer of the idea.  Market solutions suck, but they decisively answer the question of whose preference prevails.  Figuring out an aggregation that can acceptably (the main criterion, I think, is acceptance by those who do less well than under the traditional cities they're trading for this proposal) weigh the preferences of the varying productiveness, pleasantness, and newcomer-ness members of the selectorate is not necessarily possible.

comment by Measure · 2020-11-17T01:25:23.701Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What happens if there's a market for "shares" and each resident's preferences are weighted by their number of shares?

comment by MakoYass · 2020-11-17T01:46:48.215Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think people will accept, for instance, that a person who pays more in shares should be allowed a bigger, nicer apartment, because those shares paid for the creation of that apartment, and because people can't see how the creation of that apartment takes anything away from them (the density decreases of allowing larger apartments actually do mildly harm the city at large, density is a public good, but this is mild and easy to miss). If, however, you make it so that people with more share are more able to push and pull the rest of the city around them, I think that will make the political challenges of launching prohibitively difficult, at least for the first city. It will be hard for ordinary people to look forward to being a small fish in that sort of system. The simulated demos would have to be pretty damn good to convince them.

In most of the variants of this I can imagine easily, this would also risk re-enabling those costly economic wars that proq was designed to limit, that harm everyone subject to them. A loudness war of wills. One person might like to be able to exert more control over their neighborhood by buying extra shares, but allowing that would mean their competitors (who want their favored stores or favored people in their part of the city instead, or who want to fill the part of the city that they share with other sorts of things) could do that too, which would mean that to get what they want they would have to buy even more shares in an escalation that could cost them a lot of their wealth. It might not turn out to be desirable for anyone, that this sort of escalation be allowed.

comment by MakoYass · 2020-11-17T00:47:52.960Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, I don't think it's particularly likely that this kills the idea.

those who do less well than under the traditional cities

I think the social scenes that emerge here would be rich enough that even the very rich would be interested in buying a share. I think for most of the VCs you'd want around... the difference between the average apartment in a proq city and whatever they live in normally wouldn't really be great enough to matter to them, if it is though, I'm wondering if larger or more luxurious shares should be available ("penthouse shares"?) if the standard variations are insufficient in some way.
I could imagine this devolving/evolving into basically everyone just paying the full amount to buy into what're essentially stacks of family-sized homes. That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing.

Note that high rents make hiring more expensive for employers. They don't particularly like them either. I don't know what great thing you imagine traditional cities have that would counterbalance that.

That last part, are you saying you anticipate that the transitivity of expressed adjacency preferences wouldn't select for a more agreeable neighborhood than the current system would? When the current system pretty much consists of sorting by class then randomizing a bit? That's weird man. I don't get the impression you really thought on this.

comment by Rudi C (rudi-c) · 2020-11-17T09:00:04.514Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This system doesn’t seem to weigh in money. We use money as a general stand-in for societal debt/value, and so richer people should be given some preference in resource allocation schemes, otherwise the whole concept of money will become meaningless and people will just start accruing political power instead of a defanged currency.

It also looks impossible for our current competence. You should probably think of much smaller markets for which this strategy might work first. We have nothing currently like this. The nearest things are democratic elections which suck, and we use them because we have nothing better. Heck, the current housing market is strongly limited by government regulation; What makes you think the political institutions wouldn’t mess up this voting system even worse? (E.g., they can give preference to certain needs, such as medical facilities. This will allow the system to essentially change the allocations at will by micromanaging the priorities.)

comment by Pattern · 2020-11-20T15:50:28.728Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
but low-cost outcomes might be

This thought isn't completed.

comment by MakoYass · 2020-11-20T21:27:31.108Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It pretty much was but I can see why it would read that way. Changed to "but where very low-cost outcomes might be possible:"

comment by ckai · 2020-11-19T15:41:51.351Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you're underestimating the utility of living in the same place for periods longer than a month.  Most real places have some problems that are annoying at first but easy (or at least possible) to work around once you've had a chance to figure out what the work arounds are.

You should probably also consider that some people will want to keep their preferences private, so giving everyone access to all preferences for the purposes of distributed optimization doesn't seem reasonable.

comment by MakoYass · 2020-11-20T01:19:47.580Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Then just increase the number in the utility function that I mentioned represents the utility of living in the same place for periods longer than a month.
Are you asking about periods longer than that? I guess there's no reason the system couldn't look even further back. A move penalty that changes the longer they've been in that position.

I've considered that, yeah, public incremental improvement processes wouldn't work for everyone. Likely it would have to go away after the initial stages.
I'd originally planned for a process where the preference expression data would never leave city hardware, where solvers would instead send their optimization programs into city hardware, which would pass the data to the program, run for an hour or whatever, pass out the resultant solution, then reset.

comment by ckai · 2020-11-20T03:54:20.911Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I don't feel like that really covers it.  Maybe what I meant wasn't really utility per se, but rather an intuition about people ragequitting this system not just because of the moving issue but because of a lot of little unpredictable annoyances adding up, with moving into a new space being one example of how this could happen.  It seems like the more things change, the more unexpected annoyances are likely to pop up, whether within a living space, a neighborhood, the whole city, or whatever.

Like, a lot of people move one month (it could even be moves that optimize the expected utility of genuinely everyone in terms of things like proximity to friends and what kind of living space they're assigned and so on) but suddenly after the move there are traffic jams or public transport is suddenly overwhelmed at certain times or from certain locations because when change happens at a normal rate people adapt and maybe change their route when it starts to get a little crowded or change what time they go to work or whatever, but when there's a sudden change, there's no time to adapt, you just have to deal with yourself and everyone else having habits and practices that may suddenly no longer make sense.

(This is just an example.  I feel like there are all kinds of things that can go wrong when people change their habits suddenly.  See also: covid + toilet paper.)

Maybe some sort of generally applicable habits and practices could develop, but maybe not.  It seems unlikely that generally applicable habits would be as efficient as habits and practices that have had time to get optimized through use.

(Also, lots of people moving at the same time once a month is not a great way to utilize moving companies.  But if they don't move at the same time...how far from optimal can it get because of moving delays?)

I feel like this idea needs a Bill of Rights to assure residents that there is some maximum to the ways that they can be badly treated for the sake of others (only required to move once a year against their will, for example), and maybe some way to make sure that change happens somewhat incrementally, at a rate that doesn't overcome the ability of the residents to adapt.

comment by MakoYass · 2020-11-20T21:12:51.014Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe some sort of generally applicable habits and practices could develop, but maybe not.  It seems unlikely that generally applicable habits would be as efficient as habits and practices that have had time to get optimized through use.

The word "Antifragile" springs annoyingly to mind. Constant weak shocks with lots of survivors. Maybe congestion prediction systems will tend to emerge? (Maybe those responses could be incorporated back into the utility function!?)

Also, lots of people moving at the same time once a month is not a great way to utilize moving companies. But if they don't move at the same time...how far from optimal can it get because of moving delays?

Good thoughts. I think I can see a resolution. Moves could planned to take place throughout the month after the solution is proposed.

It occurs to me now that the optimizers are going to be a bit more complex than I'd imagined. They can't just produce a mapping from residents to locations. Moves have to be ordered. The chains have to start at an unoccupied location and end before the month is out.

Move plans could take the capacity of the moving contracters into account, if those are known quantities.

Bill of Rights

Yeah. While this project is making me realize that going without firm guarantees is sometimes really useful (saying, "I don't know how good it will be" enables it to become unexpectedly good. Giving it broad latitude lets it compromise on things that turn out to be more costly than was anticipated.), and I think the optimizer might end up being pretty reliable, I think there will need to be quite a few firm guarantees.

comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2020-11-17T13:20:32.435Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This seems like a plan which, if it works, will start to pay off at least a decade from now, probably two or three. Does this assessment seem right to you?

comment by MakoYass · 2020-11-18T02:47:18.711Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes. It will be a long project. It will have to start as something different from the thing it will become.

comment by Ben Smith (ben-smith) · 2020-11-25T02:49:12.814Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hi Mako,

First, a quick empirical quibble:

Cost-efficacy, beyond a point, is not rewarded with any increase in market share. The unfit are not selected out.

Not true, I don’t think. I have personally noticed rental rates decline in Auckland City Centre during the covid-19 period because of the abnormally low demand here, and in a Downtown LA housing boom several years ago, it was common for landlords to give away free months' rent. If the amount of supply exceeds demand by a sufficient amount, you will see market forces work. Why wouldn’t you?

I think I have two key objections, not necessarily an exhaustive list but two fairly key objections that come to mind quickly:

(1) Is there any mechanism here for actually increasing the sum total amount of high-demand property? If not, there are still going to be a large amount of people who didn't get to be located in high-demand areas. If so, is that mechanism intrinsic to the Propinquity City model or could it be implemented just as well within our current system of property ownership? For instance, I imagine this system would include rules about land use that would legally permit density where many people want to live. But there is no technical reason we couldn't implement the same rules within our current system. As one can observe in areas of cities where density is in demand and is allowed, over time, density is actually developed by the market according to demand. And that's a hell of a lot easier than developing an entirely new economic system, particularly if it also involves switching to a modular housing system.

(2) And largely as a result of my previous comment, I suspect that the increase in well-being through the implementation of this system would not be particularly large compared to more limited increases that could be obtained with more incremental land use liberalisation plans. That would limit its potential as an "effective cause area" because it would be much less tractable than other reform proposals that accomplish most of the same value as this system.

As you said, it would be very difficult to implement this in existing cities so this is limited to designing in new cities. Initially I thought this was a limitation, but then I reconsidered: in the next few decades there will be billions of people across the developing world moving into new urban areas, so there is plenty of scope for implementation if developers wanted to implement it. 

It would be worth doing an analysis. I recommend, if you proceed to further develop the idea, you do an impact estimate via spreadsheet or other software. Consider the number of people likely to be impacted, the increase in well-being that would result (using QALYs or other empirical measure; be sure to consider anxiety arising from the lack of stability that people may be asked to move at any time), and the amount of political energy that would be need to be invested to achieve the calculated impact. And calculate this relative to the next best solution (maybe a classical Georgist Land Value Tax combined with liberalisation of land use would be a good baseline).

comment by Jake Heiser (jake-heiser) · 2020-11-17T03:23:11.823Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I fail to see what this system fixes for people who don't already have enough money to make their preferences actionable

Lower rent is what I'm hearing, which you can already relocate to if you have the luxury of remote work

How does paying lost bids disincentivize overbidding? You are literally wasting money to concede. I have to be reading that incorrectly

comment by MakoYass · 2020-11-17T05:50:25.444Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You might have to explain your position a bit more.

Lower rent is what I'm hearing, which you can already relocate to if you have the luxury of remote work

If I gather what you're trying to say (I'm not sure I do) I touch on that in the longtermist significance section. If you're happy to move away and live outside of a dense city, you might not need proq very much, as rent/mortgages far away from the city center can potentially maybe in some circumstances compete down to a tiny proportion of mean income. If you care about mean QoL in city centers, though, there may be no alternative to proq, as rent cannot ever compete down to a tiny proportion of mean income in city centers due to the abundance of demand.

Do you care about mean QoL in the city centers?

How does paying lost bids disincentivize overbidding?

I like that one the least. The other two are more promising aren't they?
But the rationale is that it would incent people to hesitate and consider and negotiate with the other buyers a lot more before bidding, and that bids would generally decrease to account for unpredictable expected losses (causing them to decrease further in response to decreased expected competition?). Whether you should bid would depend a lot more on whether and how much others are going to bid, everyone would be induced to develop a clearer sense of that crucial information, and then in the end the item still gets allocated to someone.