This looks like a great idea: Condos with built-in rental suites.
Jane Jacobs’ book “Death and Life of Great American Cities” is often described as a major attack on planning. It is ironic therefore that it was probably this book above all other things that got me into planning…
The problem with urban planners is two fold. First, they work for the wrong people, the government, rather than for the citizens. As local governments have become more corrupt and more beholden to the interests of a small number of developers and other businesses, urban planning has inevitably come to reflect these perverse priorities.
Second, urban planners believe in sweeping physical solutions to social problems. The idea, Richard Sennett has written, goes back to the 1860s design for Paris by Baron Haussmann. Haussmann, Sennett suggests, bequeathed us the notion that we could alter social patterns by changing the physical landscape. This approach was not about urban amenities such as park benches and gas lighting or technological improvements such as indoor plumbing but about what G. K. Chesterton called the huge modern heresy of "altering the human soul to fit its conditions, instead of altering human conditions to fit the human soul."
Smith’s stricture quoted above is probably accurate enough about the UK too, although a major driver here was a concern for public health. Major rebuilding in the Haussmann manner for us waited until the 1960s rather than the 1860s, but with rather less success – certainly aesthetically and almost certainly socially too.
Smith’s post contains at the end a great checklist of ways to do it better. I particularly favour this one:
Get everyone involved. Keep the planning open and welcoming. Plan for everyone and with everyone. Don't just use the best known local civic organizations. Even elementary school children can help plan a community. Seniors and the disabled have perspectives that get easily ignored. And asking alienated adolescents what they would like is a lot smarter than finding out later what they don't.
One of the things I rapidly learnt when I started work in planning was that many planners are indeed rigid and authoritarian- but by no means all. Many know they are not doing a good job but are forced into a procrustean bed of rigid regulation. It is easy to say of course that they should get out – while some do just that, others stay on and fight as best they can from within.
The hardest thing in life is to learn which bridge to cross and which to burn.
It isn’t getting any better or easier though. This government’s increasing centralisation – despite its rhetoric – means that planners in local government have less and less time, less and less freedom to work with people rather than simply duck and run to the next job.
A major problem is that many planners and most of government still see planning as a technocratic process – moreover as a process that can come up with answers. In practice however most problems facing planners – at least in the circumstances that faced Jacobs and that face planners in most big cities today – don’t have solutions or pat answers that can be delivered simply by spending enough money. They are wicked problems [edit: second link updated] that change every time you attack them.
Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them. (Laurence J. Peter again)
Big money generates political kudos (or the converse if you are in opposition) but not answers – something Jacobs told us in 1961 and that Christopher Alexander has told us time and time again since.
Some just released data on Washington DC gives part of the answer. Few places have spent more money and placed more political and psychological emphasis on physical planning as a human solution than the nation's capital. Over the past quarter century or so, billions have been spent on 'economic development' including a massive new subway system, two restorations of Union Station, two convention centers, a major new indoor sports stadium, downtown urban renewal, a redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue, increased tax breaks and financial benefits for developers, as well as numerous smaller projects. Yet according to new figures from the Center for Budget Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute, the income of a typical citizen in the city's lower economic quintile has grown exactly $382 in real dollars since the 1980s while someone in the top quintile now earns $70,382 more. Further, there are fewer jobs for DC residents and sales tax revenue - a reasonable indicator of 'economic development' - has barely kept up with inflation.
This isn’t just a criticism that can be levied against the planning system. I posted some time ago about similar failings in the centralised welfare system:
An excellent book called Urban Renaissance by Dr Dick Atkinson looks at the failures of welfare reform. He estimates that about 30% of the population live in neighbourhoods experiencing problems - poor educational achievment, physical decay, unemployment - usually all at once. Something like £100,000,000 are spent in every neighbourhood of about 15,000 people every year. By any standards that is a huge sum. Despite that some of these communities are still in dire need and have been since the 1960s.
Atkinson offers a real alternative. It depends on politicians giving up the power they have accumulated over the years and trusting local people to decide on what they need. Projects like New Deal for the Community and Neighbourhood Management are supposed to do that of course, but with some honourable exceptions they don't seem to be working. Atkinson proposes not a Welfare State, but a Welfare Society where communities in neighbourhoods organise themselves and take control of their own surroundings.
Although I have never worked in the US planning system, over the years I have corresponded with many US planners via USENET and the like. One major difference to the UK system appears to be its focus on rigid zoning and the need to use eminent domain powers (Compulsory Purchase in the UK) to make anything happen. Most of the 1960s disasters in the UK were only possible through CPO too of course! Like the US, the UK system worked for many years on the same idea of separating ‘incompatible uses’ but much less rigidly and because the UK system has much more discretion built into the development control process there are always numerous exceptions and variations. I used to see this a something of a problem because of the loss of consistency, but now I see it as the prime strength of the UK system (even though large sectors of development are still controlled unnecessarily). The typical US outcome of large tracts zoned exclusively for two storey family housing would be pretty much impossible in the UK system - and it should stay that way.
It appears to me that the US zoning system was developed as a way to plan without planning under the guise of avoiding excessive interference in property rights. Paradoxically, it is in practice far more restrictive in its effect than the UK system, which is based on the fundamental idea that development rights belong to the state. (Effectively the right to develop land was nationalised by the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act.)
In the eight years 1943-1951 five major Acts were passed: Town and Country Planning (Interim Development) Act, 1943, which extended planning control to all land and made it effective in the 'interim development' period before schemes became operative; the Town and Country Planning Act, 1944, which enabled local authorities to tackle their war damage; the New Towns Act, 1946, which provided for the creation of New Towns by means of Development Corporations; the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, which established a new and comprehensive planning system; and the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, 1949.
Add to this the impact of community associations I touched on here and the rights of your average US homeowner look pretty restricted compared to the UK position.
This post covers similar ground to the previous one on road privatisation, although it was prepared a while ago. I'm letting it stand separately however since it deals with the issue for a slightly different perspective.
The standard libertarian response to the sorts of issues and problems I described in this post is generally either private property or less government – or both. As you might expect I’m not convinced that the answer is so simple. The main problem on this project was not public ownership or regulation – at least directly - but the large number of organisations with a stake in what was going on. With three different local authorities involved, ownership was relevant but it was a minor issue compared to the problems of securing agreement between all the stakeholders.
If you consider a modern shopping mall like say the MetroCentre in Gateshead or Cribbs Causeway in Bristol these are in single ownership. Shop tenants will have rights and duties set out in tenancy agreements covered by contract law. If the mall needs refurbishment, whether for physical or marketing reasons, services provided within the mall like power and phones will be owned – or at least managed - by the property company.
Making the wider world like a managed shopping mall is however simply not practical. Properties are owned in a complex web of relationships extending in three dimensions. In any one street you are will have water, sewers, telephone, electricity, gas, perhaps cable. There may be ‘trunk’ lines as well as services to individual properties. In addition to the cables or pipes, there will be switch boxes, manholes, inspection covers etc above ground. These will have been altered and changed over the years so that none of them are quite where they are supposed to be. They may be a metre or so to the side of where they are supposed to be and they may be only a few centimetres below ground level instead of the metre or so they are meant to be. All this adds up to a nightmare for anyone doing work. A few weeks ago I was without a landline for about three days because Wessex Water damaged the phone line through the village in the course of replacing some storm drains.
The owners of these utilities have the right to turn up, dig a hole for ‘operational purposes’ and then fill it in and move on. They are supposed to reinstate as it was before but for all sorts of reasons, some of which are even reasonable, this doesn’t always happen. Think of the rows that erupted wherever cable companies were in operation laying cable and you get the idea.
When work in the highway is required there are procedures to follow that allow the organisation involved to check what else might be happening. For example if the highway authority intend to resurface they notify the other companies to make sure that they won’t come along a week after work finishes and dig it up again. That’s important - I recall a job some years ago, where the contractors were still working at one end of a street, when the gas company turned up at the other end and followed them along ripping out what had just been done to replace the gas pipes. If the work is an emergency – water or gas leak for example - then the standard procedures don’t apply.
Libertarians are usually dismissive of the activities of public bodies, arguing that they are attempts to interfere with the smooth operation of the market. In the case I described would transferring the ownership of the streets to private companies reduce complexity? I don’t think so - in fact it seems highly likely that there would be an increase.
Perhaps we shall have to go further, and conclude that the producers of space have always acted in accordance with a representation, while the ‘users’ passively experienced whatever was imposed upon them inasmuch as it was more or less thoroughly inserted into, or justified by, their representational space. How such manipulation might occur is a matter for our analysis to determine. If architects (and urban planners) do indeed have a representation of space, whence does it derive? Whose interests are served when it becomes ‘operational’?
From: The Production of Space, pp43-44, Henri Lefebvre (trans Donald Nicholson-Smith), Blackwell (1991)
I had a meeting
yesterday earlier today with a former colleague and some of his associates to talk about a project I was involved in a few years ago (when I was still a wage slave) to improve the Market Place in a small country town. In reviewing with them what had been involved in getting to a scheme on the ground I was amazed at the complexity of the process and at the number of ‘actor’s involved.
For the area in question the County, District and Town Councils all owned land, for different purposes. On top of them are the numerous other agencies with rights over our streets – utilities like phone, gas, water, cable; bus companies, taxis, organisations like English Heritage, the list seems endless. This ignores the many departments within large organisations, some of which can paradoxically now be outside the organisation. My local County Council for example has out-sourced all its highway design and maintenance to a commercial company, who took on former council staff, rent space in County Hall and operate in many ways as if still a Council Department – causing much confusion in the process. Unfortunately many of these departments still have the ‘silo’ mentality that prevailed when they were organised as professional departments. and thus have a very proprietorial attitude to ‘their’ patch. There are also many other non-statutory bodies – conservation and environmental pressure groups, bodies representing the disabled etc.
This makes simple things like redesigning the paving and lighting in public spaces, enormously complex and time consuming. We estimated that this particular job took something like nine years to completion – and that takes no account of earlier abortive attempts. Some of the problems we were trying to deal with had been highlighted in the 1960s and 1970s by John Betjeman and Alec Clifton-Taylor, but were still there in the 1990s.
Some but not all of this difficulty can be ascribed to the need to meet regulatory standards of one sort or another although sometimes these alleged standards are not standards at all, but have acquired de facto status as such. Fear of litigation is one driver but also at work is I suppose a tendency to do what worked before without thinking about it too much so that ‘what worked before’ acquires a standing that it doesn’t really have.
Ownership was another factor, in this case complicated even further by the relationship of the land owned to the statutory function being delivered. In some cases the ‘silo’ manager gave a higher priority to the function in isolation and failed to recognise the wider context in which it was being delivered – in this case a multi-purpose urban space. It took a lot of effort to get these people to see that their proprietory objectives were actually better met by working with others in collaboration.
There are probably around 2–3000 market towns in the UK – at least – and many of these will have centres that are not so attractive as they could be. This has real economic consequences, especially as big box retailers move into towns they wouldn’t have looked at twice 10 years ago. There is an urgent need to look at ways in which these complexities can be reduced to the minimum.
EDIT - this got posted by BlogJet rather than being saved as a draft. I've left it up however and will come back to the conclusions later - looking I hope at ownership of the street as well as at regulation.
An astute observation from Michael Jennings in a post at Samizdata
Cities and countries develop a certain character based on what is "modern" at the moment a certain bulk of the built environment is built. (London is defined by the Victorian era. New York is defined by the years between the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building. One of my favourite European cities, Porto, is defined by the Art Deco era). China's moment has been the last ten years, and it is full of cityscapes like this. At the moment, western movies and television programs filmed or set in China are focused on the modernistically glam parts of the country or of some vision of the bast. The mundane has not yet become the Chinese mundane in non-Chinese popular consciousness, but it will. And this is the mundane. India's built environment has not yet reached that crucial moment. When it does what is modern will have changed, and India will have a quite different look from China. What it will be remains to be seen.
Over at Samizdata, Perry de Havilland (no, not that Perry!) has just caught on to a debate that has been running in highway and urban design circles for some time now. I last referred to it here. This tardiness is of course not surprising since expecting Perry and his associates at Samizdata to take anything emanating from government seriously is like expecting Ian Paisley to take part in a Black Mass.
Highway design is in essence a blend of psychology and engineering. For years engineers have been using visual clues to guide us into particular forms of behaviour and to drive at the appropriate speed. This approach has however been negated by improvements in vehicle design, also in the name of safety. The unintended consequence is that bends designed even 30 years ago to be taken at 30mph can now be safely taken at 50 or even 60 – at least in terms of the cornering capacity of the vehicles.
I’ve seen it suggested that vehicle design similarly gives us a false sense of security, insulating us from road noise, and from the ‘feel’ of the road. Driving by the seat of your pants originally meant just that – you could feel the changes in surface and alignment through your seat.
This new approach to the management of traffic in towns involves the removal of almost all the paraphernalia associated with road traffic; signs, barriers, kerbs, changes in materials, road markings – everything goes. According to Hans Monderman, the Dutch engineer who is credited with the development of this approach, the idea is not to make people safer, but to increase their sense of insecurity and by playing on that feeling, traffic speeds are reduced and drivers take greater care - in the end making the streets safer for all. I recall that a similar approach was adopted in the construction of Runcorn New Town in the 1960/70s, but so far as I know its application by Monderman to existing areas is relatively recent.
Perry predictably presents this in political terms as Libertarian Traffic Planning, but so far as I can tell Monderman has no such agenda – his concern is for safety and for reducing the garbage that litters our roads and streets.
Whenever even minimal versions of this approach have been suggested for the UK, the usual response is ‘it won’t work here’. This is equivalent to saying that British drivers are too stupid for it to work – which may be true, I don’t know. However, if it is then we have a much greater problem on our hands than road safety and street signs…
Some of the arguments against are based on fear of litigation. “If we don’t put a sign up then we might be sued if something goes wrong.” So far as I can tell however, except in certain specifically defined circumstances, there is no legal requirement for signs or road markings to be littered around our streets in the way they are. The crucial case appears to be Gorringe v Calderdale which established that once on the roads it is up to us to drive safely in accordance with the conditions that prevail.
People must accept responsibility for their own actions and take the necessary care to avoid injuring themselves or others. And a highway authority is not of course the occupier of the highway and does not owe the common duty of care.
…the public had to take the highway as they found it.
Some anecdotes might illustrate the difference of approach – not legislation -between the UK and the Netherlands. The first I have now heard twice from different sources.
In a street intended only for buses, car drivers were abusing restrictions. Monderman installed, without prior notice, a concrete block in the carriageway. This was low enough to be cleared by buses, but too high for cars and liable to rip in to the underside of any vehicle that tried. Problem solved.
The second relates to a scheme in the UK in my area. The County Council established a 20mph Zone. Speed limits are indicated at the entrances to the zone but nowhere else. They are enforced by a mixture of what engineers called vertical and horizontal changes in road alignment – in other words bumps and chicanes. The bumps give sufficient clearance for vehicles passing over them at the appropriate speed, while buses straddle them and are unaffected. These generated the predictable outcry in local press including a letter from one fool complaining of damage to his “custom lowered motorcycle”.
The same County Council also experimented on some rural roads, removing white lines down the centre and at the road edge. Checks showed a reduction in vehicle speeds through these stretches although it is too early to see what the long impact might be on accident rates. Given that speeds are reduced, even if accident numbers are unchanged, the severity should however be reduced. Again this produced a predictable response, this time from a local councillor who wrote, frothing at the mouth, to a local newspaper to the effect that this was dangerous because “every one had white lines”.
Monderman’s approach works by talking away all the clues to behaviour given by such road markings. A driver entering an area without any signs, barriers, or road markings to work from, slows down instinctively because of that feeling of insecurity. So far as I can tell, familiarity does not then lead to an increase in speeds in a sort of reverse “Hawthorn effect” because, in urban areas at least, the ‘freed up’ road space is colonised by people on foot, creating a constant pressure on drivers. Paradoxically, in some cases this leads to an increase in the vehicular capacity of the junction.
So is this approach workable in the UK – or are we too stupid to respond to the world around us? Is taking away road signs going to make any difference to the occasional suicidal nutter who drives at 80 down a residential street? (Another real case that I came across.) Since these last are, thankfully, rare creatures anyway, should we be designing our streets around controlling them or should we be designing for the more normal risks we face?
“We shape our buildings and afterwards they shape us”
Winston Churchill addressing the Commons in the chamber of the House of Lords on October 28, 1943.
I have always been interested in how we affect our physical surroundings – not just the appearance but the processes at work. Some of that explains I suppose my fascination with the work of Christopher Alexander.
The world in the 21st century is overwhelmingly urban and it behoves us to make that world one in which our children and grandchildren will want to live. On 17th October I went to a conference at the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment. The topic was “The Politics of Place” – more particularly why even when there is agreement about the sorts of places we like to see, we are apparently still incapable of building them. Of course the answer to this one will depend on where you start. The ‘right libertarian’ will argue it is all because we have too much interference in private property rights by the planning system. Get rid of that and all will be well.
One of the speakers on the day, Benjamin Barber, had some interesting things to say on that theme, in the context of an analysis of the spatial implications of democracy – and vice versa. His analysis is much more than a nuanced version of the simplistic cause and effect link espoused by the likes of Alice Coleman and Oscar Newman. He sees public space as an indispensable requirement of democracy, going back to the agora of the Greeks. According to Barber, the corruption of public space can be linked to the deterioration of democratic process and to the growing restrictions we can see on free speech itself.
He identifies five forces/trends at work – suburbanisation, commercialisation, privatisation, bureaucratisation and simulation. Of course references to commercialisation and privatisation will give those who believe the answer always lies in private property rights apoplexy, but bear with me.
Barber’s arguments about suburbanisation are I think the weakest – at least in a UK context. The US suburb is more likely to be totally dominated by private car use, many will have no footway/sidewalk and very few will have any amenities. Any sense of neighbourhood in the historic sense is lost and since all journeys are by car, the chances of random encounters are much reduced. The idea that people fled the city at least in part because of its isolation is belied by the fact that in most of the suburban US, the same isolation now exists but without the city amenities.
These characteristics do exist in UK suburbs, but not to the same extent and probably developed over a more limited time period. Places like Swindon, which grew rapidly on the back of appeal decisions that allowed massive housing without associated amenities are not typical of British suburban housing. In London for example most prewar suburbs were built around the railway and the tube system – Betjeman’s beloved Metroland. Even so there are still large areas of housing in the UK, often built by the public sector rather than the private, where the same lack of economic and cultural diversity prevails.
Barber also cites what he calls commercialisation. To an extent this seems to fall from the US system of zoning which very precisely delineates the nature of the uses allowed in a given area, but without attempting as the UK system does to allocate numbers or control growth levels. As a consequence, US cities and metropolitan areas a surrounded by vast tracts of housing zoned purely for a single house type on given plot sizes, usually much bigger than would prevail in the UK. The zoning system segregates uses much more comprehensively than the UK system does with the outcome a dispersal of uses across geographically large areas. Where people do come together it is largely in malls which are private and where the owners often seek to limit access by those commercially undesirable. Teenagers and the elderly have been excluded or moved on by mall owners since they simply don’t spend money and take up valuable space that could be given over to consumers.
Where cafes exist, they are in vast food courts, with false variety and set up for rapid turnover. Lingering over a cup of coffee while chatting up the local girls/boys is positively discouraged in such places. Commercialisation of the public space on this scale destroys the opportunity for public life. The paseo or promenade, the Sunday stroll, isn’t allowed to happen in a private mall since it serves no commercial purpose. Indeed many of the activities in Christopher Alexander’s ‘A Pattern Language‘ that he places at the centre of living in neighbourhoods, would be impossible or likely to be prohibited. In some malls even sitting is prohibited except in approved spaces.
This leads to Barber’s third trend, that of privatisation. The growth in gated communities in the US is spreading to the UK[i]. Where access is not directly closed, housing is often designed to exclude not include the casual visitor. Gated communities make real our secession from the public space that begins with the use of mobile phones/iPods/Blackberries. These tools, valuable in themselves, encourage us to treat public spaces as if they were private, impoverishing public life in the process. There is the story, probably apocryphal but describing an essential truth, of a group of teenagers chattering happily as they sit on a wall in the street. It is only when drawing closer that we can see they are all talking not to each other but on their mobiles. Commercialisation and privatisation also privatise us – we begin to see ourselves not as citizens, as inhabitants of a polis, but as consumers.
The process of bureaucratisation is I suppose self explanatory – professional judgment begins to cut into democratic life. Health and Safety concerns are for example entirely professionalised. As a consequence the citizen again becomes a consumer – this time of professional services - not someone exercising judgement on their own behalf and in their own right.
Finally Barber described a process he called simulation largely arising from frustrated attempts to counter the other trends, but leading for example in the urban environment to the faux variety seen at places like the Disney Corporation’s Celebration and in much new housing development, where perceived variety is no more than wallpaper.
According to Barber the outcome is that the idea of a democratic public realm vanishes; the very idea of being a citizen vanishes; replaced by consumers and consumerism. These forces may operate in the name of liberty but in the end are destroying it by destroying the important distinction between public and private liberty.
Commercialism, supported it must be said by tax breaks and concessions from government, may give us an almost unlimited choice of car for example but cannot give us the same choice - often any choice - of public transport. Our choices when we have them are often themselves destructive – ‘Sophie’s Choice’. We don’t have a chance to set agendas; they are handed down by the political or the corporate state. Nor do we have the chance to open up lateral communication. While talking to each other is after all the stuff of civic life, the limits placed on speech and communication by these trends make this increasingly difficult. The exercise of free speech and the opportunities for dissent are closed down. Free speech is only possible in public spaces and when space is privatised free speech is thereby diminished and damaged. In the US judges have already decided that the local neighbourhood mall is not a public space and allowed mall owners to prohibit distribution of literature, protest or other forms of behaviour they decide they do not want to allow. As Barber put it “there is no Speakers’ Corner in the Malls of America”.
This link between the growth in private spaces and the declining opportunities for dissent that creates is not often so explicitly stated. It seems obvious of course but so long as opponents of state power limit their opposition to a simplistic call for more private ownership – don’t reclaim the streets, sell them – it seems unlikely to be properly recognised. In any event even the public spaces are being closed down. State ‘ownership’ of the street is being used as a device to prevent and suppress public dissent – and not just about the war in Iraq. Under section 132 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 it is an offence to organise or take part in a demonstration in a public place within the “designated area” (up to 1 km around Parliament) if authorisation has not been given by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. When so-called public ownership still leads to the suppression of dissent, it become that much more difficult to argue against the alternatives. Even so we must find ways to do so.
(As far as I can tell much of Barber’s argument was drawn from his new book ‘Consumed’.)
[i] It would appear that gated communities are not self-evidently attractive places to live. Existing research showed that motivations for living in a gated community are primarily driven by the need for security and a more generalised fear of crime. Importantly there was no apparent desire to come into contact with the ‘community’ within the gated or walled area. With regard to the specific impacts on crime only two studies could be identified. However, these indicate that sense of community is lower in gated ‘communities’ but perceived sense of safety is higher. While property crime went down violent crime was not affected. In some gated communities there was a greater fear of crime and outsiders more generally. – from Gated Communities: A Systematic Review of the Research Evidence
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.
In a post on his Neighborhoods blog, Kevin Harris refers to an interesting side effect of neighbourhood design.
Eric Klinenberg noticed that some areas of the city had considerably higher death rates than other areas. He found that in two comparable districts, one (South Lawndale) had four fatalities per 100,000 whereas adjacent North Lawndale had a death rate ten times higher.
'In North Lawndale... elderly people were not accustomed to walking in their district because there was almost nothing for them to walk to. It was a commercial and social desert, almost devoid of stores and other gathering places... They feared strangers who came to check on them.'
In South Lawndale, by contrast, elderly residents had air-conditioned local stores and knew their local storekeepers, they had plenty of places to go to and were accustomed to going there. They were also more likely to trust those who came to visit.
See Jane Jacobs, Dark age ahead, 2004, p81-87.