Ken Acks Presents "A Web-Based Land Use Benefit Cost Optimization Tool" at 2018 Annual Conference of the Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis in Washington DC

Kenneth Acks, presented "A Web-Based Land Use Benefit Cost Optimization Tool" at the Tenth Annual Conference and Meeting of the Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis on March 17, 2018.  The talk discussed a superior way to optimize the use and density of scarce land, presenting software under development that can help communities, governments, real estate developers, and others improve decision making.  Current zoning regulations and other  restrictions can result in high housing costs, lower mobility, inequality, delays, sprawl and unjust dispersion of pollution and other undesirable side effects of human activity.

The Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis (SBCA) is an international group of practitioners, academics and others who are working to improve the theory and application of the tools of benefit-cost analysis. The conference featured experts from around the world, including researchers from Harvard, Cornell and Duke Universities; the Universities of Chicago, Pennsylvania, and California Berkeley; representatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), the U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO); Resources for the Future; and speakers from Germany, the Netherlands, France, the UK, Spain, Italy, India, Australia, Chile, Iran, Sudan, Uruguay, Cote d'Ivoire and Canada

The abstract follows:

Currently, zoning and political power dictate land uses and density. This often results in suboptimal outcomes. Negative effects possibly include high housing costs arising from reduced supply and burdensome expenses, lower mobility, inequality, delays, inferior resilience to natural disasters, sprawl, pollution, and unjust dispersion of negative externalities. 

Zoning regulations can play a major role in where and how we live and work, and in the strength of economies. They can determine the size of our homes, what they look like, and where they can be located. Current land use regulations often are too static and difficult to change - many industrial and agricultural parcels are better suited to be improved with more dense residential structures, but can only be developed to their “highest and best use” with great difficulty. Most parcels within a particular zone may be well suited to the restriction placed upon uses in a zone, but some parcels may not be and thus remain vacant or used suboptimally. Zoning maps often force the same restrictions upon a large number of contiguous parcels with differing comparative advantages. Liberals, notably Jason Furman (2015), Orzag and Furman (2015) and Joseph Stiglitz (2015) and conservatives, including the Cato Institute, David Brooks (2017) and Edward Glaeser (2002, 2006 ...) alike have criticized these regulations. 

This paper will discuss the magnitudes of the welfare costs generated by flaws in current land use regulations, and then present a web-based model designed to begin providing superior alternatives by utilizing the tools of benefit-cost analysis. Advances in BCA and a plethora of new geo-locational data sources facilitated model development. 

The model compares the benefits and costs of eight alternative uses in four medium density urban/suburban locations. Four 60,000 square foot (SF) sites with 30,000 SF building footprints are analyzed for development with (1) 24 2-story 2,500 SF single family homes, (2) 20 3-story 4,500 SF 2-family homes, (3) a 10-story 250 unit apartment building containing 300,000 SF, (4) a 1-story neighborhood retail shopping center containing 30,000 SF, (5) 10-story 300,000 SF office building (6) a 10-story 300,000 SF mixed-use retail/office/apartment building, (7) a 1-story industrial building containing 30,000 SF and (8) a 50,000 SF park with several recreational options. 

Benefits are represented by estimated rents, revenues, consumer surpluses and shadow benefits generated. Costs include construction and other development costs and negative externalities. Benefits and costs are affected by neighboring uses and the proposed project. Environmental impacts of land use can include habitat loss, reduction in biodiversity, flooding reduced water quality from proliferation of impervious surfaces, air pollution from heating, cooling, increased driving, and congestion. The environmental impacts can result in health impacts including reduced life expectancy, respiratory infections, ...  In addition, health effects arising from increased driving attendant to sprawl include respiratory diseases and cancers, traffic fatalities, and obesity which increases disease risks. The algorithm maximizes the total value derived from a parcel, which is primarily represented by private value and accrues to the owners and users (possibly renters), but also is a function of how it influences surrounding parcels and people (social value). We find existing processes often don't maximize value.

Mr. Acks has also been selected as a discussant in the “Disastrous CBA” Session from 9:00 AM - 10:30 earlier that day featuring how cost-benefit analyses can be used to mitigate disasters.

The conference, was held at George Washington University; Washington, D.C. 20052 from March 14th through March 16th  2018.  More information about the conference is available at  The slides are at:

This was the seventh time Mr. Acks was invited to make a presentation or chair a session at this prestigious conference. In the past Mr. Acks presented “Economic Rents and Cost-Benefit Analysis-Issues Metrics and Application to Health and Energy Policy”, "The Costs and Benefits of Recycling in New York City"; “A Dynamic Analysis of the Costs and Benefits of a Smart Growth/Sprawl Reduction Program in 1988, 2008 and 2013", “The Costs and Benefits of 1,000 Green Roofs in New York City” and “The Costs and Benefits of a Green Mixed-Use Brownfield Redevelopment Project in NY” at conferences of the Society for Benefit Cost Analysis from 2008 through 2014.