First thing we do, let’s retrain all the planners

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As a group of rebels bantered about the possibilities of an England with a new king in William Shakespeare’s “Henry The VI,” Dick the Butcher suggests “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Though the (likely sarcastic) comment resonates with many, we need to keep lawyers around. They’re essential to a civilized society. Government urban planners, not so much.


In all seriousness, no one wishes them ill will. But if we’re going to keep planners around, we need to remind them that the world’s most vibrant and interesting cities came about more from the bottom-up decisions of residents and less from the top-down impositions of the professionals.


As the great urban thinker, Jane Jacobs, wrote in her seminal Death and Life of Great American Cities: “There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.” Too often, planners are fixated on pretended order.


Urban planning, like central economic planning, is antithetical to free markets and free men (and free cities). While it frequently involves highly technical tasks, it is always a deeply political process, and “has ruined neighborhoods, devastated communities, and undermined economies,” writes Mitchell Sipus, himself an urban planner. “​​What we as urban planners believe to be true and good in ideology can just as likely wield a terribly destructive power.”


In a real sense, urban planners are social engineers, designing spaces, traffic patterns, and mass transit to shape cities in ways designed to marshal human behavior so that it fits an organizing principle favored by the planners. Their goals are almost invariably misaligned with the inclinations of residents. Meanwhile, zoning is typically “​​a maze of rules and regulations with little rhyme or reason,” says the Pacific Research Institute’s fellow M. Nolan Gray, and its effects all too often put the urban poor and the landowners at a disadvantage.


Fueled by “buzzwords such as livability, sustainability, mixed use and walkability,” planners “pretend that a city is a complex object that must be designed in advance by brilliant specialists,” says Alain Bertraud, an urbanist, senior researcher at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management, and former ​​principal urban planner at the World Bank. “They would then impose their design on the city’s inhabitants who lack vision and genius.”


Wendell Cox, an urban policy and transportation analyst (and occasional columnist for the Free Cities Center), notes that, “for years, much of the planning community has exhibited an inestimable contempt for the lifestyles that have been chosen by most households.” He calls urban-life architects, “planning Puritans,” who take great “satisfaction from telling people how to live.”


In fairness, there’s nothing inherently wrong with planning. Under the proper conditions, a planned private community can be open and livable in ways that please residents across the board. But an element whose presence is more necessary than any other is manageable size.


Seaside, Florida, located on the Panhandle’s white-sand beaches, is one of those examples. It’s privately planned, privately developed and privately owned, the dream-come-true of one man whose wish was to recreate on his 80 Gulf-front acres the beach towns he had known growing up.


The bulk of planning, however, is done through government edict. According to Samuel Stein, his professional planning colleagues “often describe the force underlying their work as ‘police power.’” Of course, someone has to plan where public infrastructure projects will go – but planners often have a wrongheaded view of their ultimate role.


Note how often transportation plans are more about social engineering (prodding people out of their cars) than helping transport them to the places people want to go. And so it goes. But government plans often are plagued by unforeseen consequences.


Consider the plan hatched in ​​Portland, Oreg., in 1979. Its smart-growth objective was to restrain sprawl by confining development within an urban ring around the metro area. Its impact, however, was self-defeating. One, it created an artificial housing shortage that boosted home prices.


“In less than a decade, Portland has transformed itself from one of the most affordable to one of the least affordable housing markets on the West Coast,” say the authors of a Reason policy study. “While inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index increased by 52.5 percent from 1990 to 1995, lot prices in Portland more than doubled.”


Two, it failed to stop the spread. Driven out by a thicket of regulations, a profoundly distorted housing market, and “parochial NIMBY battles,” people simply jumped over what is effectively a no-build zone to property beyond the Portland Metropolitan Council’s sphere of authority.


They urbanized and suburbanized the previously open countryside of “free Oregon” outside the boundary, and now have longer commutes to work and other destinations in Portland’s metro region than they would have if they settled in the green zone that had been made off-limits to development. That’s been the result of every urban-growth boundary – note the sprawl in California’s Central Valley as wannabe homebuyers fled the Bay Area and became stuck in marathon commutes.Planning often fails because planners are disposed to treat cities as simple machines rather than the complex organisms that they are. A planner, says Gray, is like Adam Smith’s “man of system,” who is “apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.”So if intervention through planning backfires, then what? How do cities evolve into more suitable places for human habitation if there is no central committee to impose design and organize others’ lives? The advocates of market urbanism see the answer in “market forces and respect for property rights,” which “enable complex, yet vibrant and economically robust communities and regions to emerge through the ‘spontaneous order’ of the land use and transportation marketplace.”


In a market framework, “land-use patterns and transportation systems better reflect the diverse needs and desires of individuals in society. Such a society would be economically and environmentally more efficient and just than when imposed in a top-down fashion by government.” The real world is nothing like the latest version of SimCity.


Gray reminds us that Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek said the question of economics “should not be whether or not to plan, but rather who should plan?” Should it be individuals or government officials? So while we should never actually get rid of all the planners, we would teach them to follow Gray’s advice and spend less time concocting master plans and more time trying to foster “the spontaneous orders that make urban life work.”


Kerry Jackson is an independent journalist and opinion writer and a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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