Is Urban & Regional Planning Equal to Central Economic Planning?

Posted: September 23, 2010 in New Urbanism, Planning, Urban Design

People who know me well know that I am conservative on fiscal and economic  issues and moderate to  liberal on social and military issues. One issue where I diverge significantly from the libertarian (and conservative) point of view is on the matter of property rights and land planning.

You see, I am very much in favor of regional and urban planning as a means to improve the built environment and protect individual rights as well as the natural environment. I am an advocate of form based zoning and Complete streets.  This puts me at odds with many of my Libertarian and Conservative friends who see any attempt by the government to tell them what they can and can not do with “their” land as tantamount to central planning and socialism. While I can understand this point of view, for pragmatic reasons, I could not disagree more. Bear with me as I try to explain this apparent contradiction.

As a young lad, I scored high on aptitude tests in two areas and had to choose between two strong career choices: Architecture or  Science. I choose Architecture but never lost my interest in science. I am an avid consumer of science news and books, and a regular subscriber to National Geographic and Scientific American. I am convinced that humans can negatively affect the natural environment in ways that can affect our very survival and prosperity as a species, though I also recognize that  there are natural forces that could destroy us regardless of what we do. And the earth does not care one way or anther if we survive or not.

Science and observation teaches me that there are no property lines, or political borders as far as nature and the biosphere are concerned.  What may seem like a simple decision on how you use your property can affect others by causing flooding or pollution downstream. Thus, your “ownership” of a piece of real property is not an individual action or condition. It is connected to every one and everything on the planet. Thus what you do with “your” land can and does affect, not just your neighbors downstream, but current and future generations as well. We are also becoming painfully aware that the planet is limited. Philosophies that had their roots in a time when the world and its’ resources appeared to be virtually unlimited need to be rethought in light of this reality. I thus conclude that in order not to  infringe on the life and property rights of others, now or in the future, how we use limited land, water and air resources must be regulated, planned for and controlled. Sustainability, while a common buzzword for liberal social planning ideologies that  I strongly disagree with, is not in and of itself a bad idea.

Architecture teaches me that proactive planning can foresee and prevent  problems that once created are hard to correct. Only through a process of planning can one identify the problems and  explore appropriate  options ahead of the commitment of resources, anticipating and understanding the pros and cons of various options. These options can be presented to all stakeholders and a consensus built on the best course of action. The process, if done correctly combines the expertise of specialist with the wisdom and needs of those members of the public who choose to participate, which includes affected land owners as well as other users and stakeholders.

This is not to say that there have not been any failures in Urban Planning. For years, the idea that efficiency and public health is best served by separating land uses and creating a hierarchy of road and transportation networks prevailed and the result is the damaging urban sprawl we see dominating our current built environment. This idea, which grew out the unhealthy juxtaposition of dirty polluting industrial facilities with worker housing was taken to its logical extreme, resulting in shopping separated from workplaces separated from housing, which created a need to travel great distances to get from one to the other. The invention of the automobile made this trend even stronger for those who could afford it.

Ironically, the development of single use zoning has led to more environmental damage to land and water resources at the same time that pollution control laws have led to a clean up of the air that inspired planners to separate housing from industry in the first place.

This is where good planning can help. Planners start by surveying local resources and current land use, and then applying a scientifically valid system of values to determine which resources are  most vulnerable and public input to determine what the public values most that is worth preserving.

Even Libertarians and Conservatives believe that government is needed to make the most of human cooperation and talents. Most agree that anarchy is a bad thing. If good government is defined by creating a level playing field and just enough regulation that individual rights are protected up to the point where they intrude on the rights of others, then private enterprise can thrive.  Since individual land use decisions can do damage to others off site, it is reasonable for government to use land use planning to be proactive, using tools like building roads and infrastructure to direct development where it is least destructive to natural resources, thus protecting us from damaging action by otherwise well meaning individuals. Free enterprise is still free to work, but  in a way that protects resources for posterity. An example would be limiting development on steep hillsides and ridges, maintaining a unique physiology that defines the character of a place like Birmingham. Or, flood way fill regulations that prevent development that increases flooding downstream.

New “Form Based planning codes” as espoused by groups like the Congress for New Urbanism allow even greater economic freedom than current zoning regulations do, which lock in land use resulting in urban decay as economic needs changes. The old way of zoning  limited how you could use your property in ways that often conflicted with market generated needs. Form based zoning controls density rather than use, allowing mixed uses and thus the mix can change in an area in free response to economic need. While density is controlled, these code include procedures to even allow density zones to change over time as need be.

For me, pragmatic considerations take precedence over ideology, and the need for reasonable and proactive land use planning solves the conflict between short term gains and long term sustainability.  One can make well reasoned philosophical arguments as to why urban and regional planning is akin to central economic planning. But to me, it is a matter of degree and a question of who is doing the planning. If planning is directed top down from Washington, that is central planning, and is more likely to be focused on dangerous or misplaced political considerations and priorities. If it is grass roots and local,planning  is more likely to reflect the needs and desires of the people most affected. Some overall national planning and environmental regulation is needed of course, but the national government should be focused on interstate issues  (such as how to share the water from river that flows across several states) and leave it up to various state, county and city governments to direct the details. Some minimal amount of regional and statewide planning is needed, or the result is anarchy in land use, destructive conflicts between municipalities, confusion and uncertainty regarding economic development and investment and  something as simple as traffic gridlock that in their own ways are more destructive to human freedom than anarchy in general.

(Note: Many of the ideas I profess in this blog are not original to me but come from many sources and personal experiences over the years. I encourage anyone reading this to follow my links and do their own research on these matters).


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