This guest post comes from Kevin Carson, who blogs at Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism. Kevin's blog is one of my regular reads. He is knowledgeable, widely read and takes nothing for granted. I asked him specifically to consider how the objectives of most planning systems - by which I meant attractive and liveable towns, efficient transport system etc - might be delivered in a mutualist world. This is his post, based on his experience of the US system. Anyone out there want to apply this to the UK?
A Free Market View of Urban Planning
If the title hasn't already scared you off, "free market" doesn't always mean an apologia for the interests of big business and the plutocracy--although it's an easy mistake to make if your main exposure to "free market" ideas is the Adam Smith Institute or Leonard Peikoff's cultists.
Urban sprawl is commonly viewed, on the libertarian right, as a spontaneous outcome of the market. As a corrollary, any suggestion that it should be viewed as a problem is interpreted as a call for government intervention in the market. The attitude toward urban planning in such circles parallels their view of national transportation policy: while they hold Amtrak in contempt as a subsidized dinosaur, they seem utterly surprised at any suggestion that the creation and ongoing expansion of the Interstate Highway system might have involved some (gasp!) government intervention.
In fact, urban sprawl is to a large extent, if not mostly, the result of government action. Let's consider the ways government promotes sprawl:
1) Subsidies to urban freeway systems, going back to Robert Moses in Long Island. Such highways are a massive subsidy to the new subdivisions and big box stores that spring up at every exit. Consider my own area, northwest Arkansas. Twenty years ago, Interstate 471 was opened up as a north-south corridor running outside the western edges of all the major towns in the region. It was intended to "relieve congestion" by drawing through traffic off the old business Highway 71, which ran through the centers of all those towns. Instead, it just generated more congestion. The towns expanded westward to engulf the new highway route, and the entire western strip filled up with the aforementioned subdivisions and big box stores. Now the big shots in local governments and chambers of commerce are calling for a new highway, even further to the west, to "alleviate congestion" on 471. Guess what will happen?
It's a basic principle of economics that when you subsidize the consumption of something, people will consume more of it. Market prices are a homeostatic mechanism, like the thermostat in your house, that inform the buyer of the real cost of what he consumes. When costs are externalized through subsidies, and the price of goods and services does not reflect the real cost of providing them, the effect is exactly the same as if you put a candle under your thermostat and wound up with a freezing house.
When the cost of using urban freeways does not reflect the cost of providing them, they generate demand faster than it can be satisfied. The result: congestion.
2) Zoning prohibitions against mixed use development. After WWII, the liberal technocrats who dominated urban planning viewed the car culture as the wave of the future, and treated old, human scale city layouts as an atavism. As a result, the new design plattes required housing additions to be segregated from commercial activity, and completely free of unsightly neighborhood groceries or drugstores.
Suburban houses, under the new requirements, were built with large setbacks from the street and (and largely useless) enormous front lawns. As just one illustration of this, consider an example from Jim Kunstler's Geography of Nowhere. Houses in the old, prewar neighborhoods of Georgetown, built to a pedestrian-friendly design, were grandfathered in under the new regulations. But when a house burned down, the replacement has to be built to the new standards. So an entire street might consist of nice old frame houses, with screened in porches, set back a cozy distance from the curb and shaded by the old elm trees lining the street--except for one lot, with a split-level ranch house set back twenty or thirty feet further than its neighbors, and with a front lawn like a golf course.
And in the old downtown areas, traditional forms of affordable housing like walkup apartments over stores were prohibited.
3) Subsidized utilities to new developments. Utilities are extended to new subdivisions and shopping centers below cost, with ratepayers in the older parts of town paying higher bills to subsidize them.
4) FHA redlining. Government mortgage guarantee agencies give preferential treatment to buyers of houses in new subdivisions, while discriminating against buyers of existing houses in older neighborhoods.
5) Schools. The city of Fayetteville, here in my area, has closed one old neighborhood school in order to open a new one--guess where?--near the new subdivisions on the western edge of town.
In short, the main force behind urban sprawl is the political power of the automobile-highway complex, and of the urban real estate industry. Harvey Molotch, a sociologist who applied the "power elite" theory of C. Wright Mills to local government, referred to these political coalitions as "growth machines" whose main purpose was to increase real estate values for land speculators.
Jim Bates, of Batesline blog, refers to the Tulsa growth machine as the "cockroach caucus": "the 'Developers, Chamber, and Establishment' party," and a "cluster of special interests which has been trying to run the City of Tulsa without public input, and preferably without public debate." He later elaborated, in the context of a legal dispute with the Tulsa World newspaper:
The World is more than just an observer of the local scene. It is an integral part of the tight social network that has run local politics for as long as anyone can remember. This network... has pursued its own selfish interests under the name of civic progress, with disastrous results for the ordinary citizens of Tulsa and its metropolitan area....
The Cockroach Caucus is most recently infamous for convincing state and local elected officials to pour $47 million in public funds into Great Plains Airlines.... It went bankrupt, leaving local taxpayers liable for millions in loan guarantees. Many leading lights of the Cockroach Caucus, including World Publishing Company, were investors in Great Plains Airlines.
The Cockroach Caucus has wasted tens of millions in public funds on failed economic development strategies...., and has bent and sometimes broken the rules of the land use planning system to favor those with political and financial connections. The same small number of connected insiders circulates from one city authority, board, or commission to another, controlling city policy, but beyond the reach of the democratic process.
I know exactly what he means. We've got a regional airport here that was deliberately railroaded through local government as a fait accompli, with virtually no public input until after the decision was made. The people behind it? That's right: Tyson, Wal-Mart, the J.B. Hunt truck lines, the Jim Lindsey real estate interests, and all their pimps and camp followers in local government.
A member of a Georgist email list I subscribe to once suggested we plaster stickers on every realtor's sign reading "Your taxes make my property more valuable. Thanks a lot, suckers!" Where I live, the Donald Trump wannabe is Jim Lindsey & Associates. Lindsey, the biggest corporate welfare queen in northwest Arkansas (and that's saying a lot, with Tyson and Wal-Mart here) treats our local governments as his showcase properties.
What's needed is to eliminate all these forms of welfare for the rich, and take the real estate interests off the taxpayer tit. That means financing freeways entirely with tolls, legalizing mixed-use development, and extending roads and utilities to new neighborhoods on a full cost basis.
But perhaps the most effective measure would be shifting the property tax off of buildings and improvements onto site value alone. The effect of such a policy, wherever it has been tried, has been to increase the cost of holding land vacant in older parts of town and to encourage in-fill development. When such a tax shift has been implemented, it is immediately followed by mass sales of vacant lots that have been kept out of use for years for speculative purposes, and by an enormous construction boom. Shifting taxes onto land value also encourages efficient and intensive use of land, rather than the giant parking lots and unusable front yards associated with current sprawl development. Such a policy would take taxes off of human labor and ingenuity, and put them instead onto the unearned wealth that pours into the pockets of landlords.
I asked at the head of this post for thoughts on applying these ideas to the UK. In fact, the idea of planning without government is not new.
In 1969 [Rayner] Banham was part of a gang of four — consisting of the professor of planning Peter Hall, the architect Cedric Price, and Paul Barker, the sociologist and editor of Banham’s favorite periodical, New Society — that proposed a radical experiment called Non-plan. ...Non-plan was a reaction to the sophisticated and ubiquitous postwar British planning system, which had stretched a blanket of restrictions over the entire landscape. According to the Non-plan four, it was based on a set of values inherited from a class-based, prewar society, and could no longer accommodate the real dynamics of everyday life in the 1960s and ’70s: “To impose rigid controls, in order to frustrate people in achieving the space standards they require, represents simply the revived personal or class judgments of the people who are making the decision.” In the end this was an attack on overdetermination of space and a plea for the creative powers of unplanned urban processes. The gang proposed to get acquainted with these processes by creating non-plan oases in the desert of planning, and seeing what would happen there. As Banham wrote, “At the least, one would find out what people want; at the most, one might discover the hidden style of mid-20th century Britain.”
Three areas in the southeast of Britain were hypothetically relieved of all planning restrictions; the non-planners then described how they might be expected to develop, given contemporary demographics, economics, technology, and especially consumer culture. For the area north of the new town of Harlow, called Constable country because of the bucolic landscape featured in John Constable’s paintings, the gang hypothesized that strip urbanization might develop between the towns and villages connected by the A11 motorway. Precisely the type of development that most official planning was trying to stop was described by the fab four as positively delectable:
Actually the close-textured, tree-grown, Constable-type country is supposed to be able to absorb practically anything that is not taller than a grown tree, and the buildings which free enterprise would put up in this planning-free situation would not be half that height.. . . So this small scale, rather private landscape might barely reveal its new commercial buildings to the eye. But this would be very bad commercial practice, since an invisible building is no advertisement, and there would certainly have to be a compensatory efflorescence of large and conspicuous advertising signs. The overall result could thus be low commercial buildings set well back from the road behind adequate parking courts, backed by tall trees and fronted by tall signs, with a soft roly-poly countryside appearing behind.
Another scenario was for the Southampton/Isle of Wight area, in which the preservationist lobby permitted only “posh leisure zones.” Non-plan now lets the sexually and automotively liberated working class create their own “pleb leisure zones”: “Large retractable marinas would have sail-in movies and row-in bars. Beach buggies would drive through the heartland. Particular villages, especially on the Isle of Wight, would be got up as showpieces. Britain’s first giant dome would rise on the Isle of Wight coast: the first all-weather, all-public Ile du Levant nudist scene in the country — thermostatically controlled and ten bob a head.” For the region between Sheffield and Nottingham — called Lawrence country, because Lady Chatterly’s Lover was set there — a scattering of suburban clusters was foreseen as developing between stretches of forest. To preserve the much-loved large parklands, the quartet proposed simply that interested parties should acquire them: “Land for these parks would simply be bought in the market by a state Countryside Commission because the social benefits from recreation would outweigh those from development.” They seem to be saying: “if the state wants to forbid things, let ’em do it on their own property!”
I was at university when this article appeared and although I was not entirely sure of the suggested outcomes, I loved the way in which the article got up the noses of the powers that be in government and planning circles - always a good sign in my view!
Peter Hall continues to be an influential and prolific writer on planning matters and is now President of the Town and Country Plannng Association. This may seem to be something of a non sequitur, but the roots of the TCPA go back to people like Peter Kropotkin, whose Fields, Factories and Workshops was a seminal influence on Ebenezer Howard and currently includes as one of its Vice-Presidents, the libertarian and anarchist Colin Ward.