Un-Planning, A Manifesto

 

Do you hate city planners? Do you wish the New Urbanists would leave us all alone? Yes and yes? Then beware of reflexively defending the status quo, because the status quo is in no small part the handiwork of old city planners.

As Matty Van recently pointed out, a non-negligible portion of what the New Urbanists call our “over-reliance on cars” is due to former city planners and other central authorities having planned it that way.

It is government that has instituted zoning laws segregating commercial from residential areas. It is government that imposes absurd restrictions on small-scale, home-based industry. It was government that built many of our highways, despite the fact that private highways are totally a thing. It is government that mandates that people build a certain amount of parking on their property, whether they want to or not.

Houston is famous for its lack of zoning. It’s also Texas’s most walkable city. Coincidence? Maybe not.

I don’t mention Houston because I’m in love with walkable cities. When it comes to the tradeoffs between living in a walkable but crowded neighborhood and living a more quiet, suburban – but also more diffuse – life, I would probably choose the suburbs. I mention Houston because it’s evidence against an assumption that many liberals and conservatives apparently share: that the inevitable result of less city planning is less walkability.

Naturally, we conservatives want to defend the free market. But even we are prone to mistaking the aftermath of old regulations for the organic product of private enterprise. For their part, New Urbanists – or anyone else who wishes to make a serious case that over-reliance on cars should be regarded as a nuisance – would do well to remember what Coase said about the tendency of pretty much  everyone to miscategorize old government-backed nuisances as products of the free market:

Legislative sanction makes that lawful which otherwise might be [actionable as] a nuisance. Examples of this are damages to adjacent land arising from smoke, vibration and noise in the operation of a railroad…; … unpleasant odors connected with sewers, oil refining and storage of naphtha….

Most economists seem to be unaware of all this. When they are prevented from sleeping at night by the roar of jet planes overhead (publicly authorized and perhaps publicly operated), are unable to think (or rest) during the day because of the noise and vibration from passing trains (publicly authorized and perhaps publicly operated), find it difficult to breathe because of the odour from the local sewage farm (publicly authorized and perhaps publicly operated), and are unable to escape because their driveways are blocked by a road obstruction (without any doubt, publicly devised), their nerves frayed and mental balance disturbed, they proceed to declaim about the disadvantages of private enterprise and the need for governmental regulation. “

– Section VII of The Problem of Social Cost, p 131 of “The Firm, the Market, and the Law”

I agree with the anti-New-Urbanists: let’s not try a new type of city planning. Instead, let’s get rid of the restrictions imposed by old  city planning. Then people will be free again to build walkable neighborhoods if that’s what they want to do.

Let’s try un-planning for a change.

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  1. MJBubba Inactive
    MJBubba
    @MJBubba

    Some of the best efforts of the New Urbanists have been to roll back some of the planning regulations that were written by planners in the 1960s and 1970s, giving developers more freedom to build the sorts of old-fashioned urban neighborhoods they prize.  There have been a handful of successes in this regard.  Those neighborhoods are more appealing to childless couples, as observed in the conversation at Nathan’s post:
    http://ricochet.com/conservatives-should-live-in-the-city/

    What irks me is when young planners with fresh degrees in planning blame suburban planning failures on the engineers, who were simply designing in conformity with planning regulations that were written by planners who then convinced the politicians of their fabulousness.

    • #1
  2. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    MJBubba:

    Some of the best efforts of the New Urbanists have been to roll back some of the planning regulations that were written by planners in the 1960s and 1970s, giving developers more freedom to build the sorts of old-fashioned urban neighborhoods they prize. There have been a handful of successes in this regard.

    I’ve heard of some attempts New Urbanists have made to roll back planning regulations, and that’s good. Nonetheless, New Urbanists still seem pretty focused on planning others’ neighborhoods for them, or at least that’s the impression one would get from sentences like this:

    We advocate the  restructuring [not repeal] of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities  should be designed  for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns  should be shaped  by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.

    New Urbanists are still city planners, and if they didn’t advocate planning others’ lives, they’d probably be out of a job.

    • #2
  3. user_44643 Inactive
    user_44643
    @MikeLaRoche

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Houston is famous for its lack of zoning. It’s also Texas’s most walkable city. Coincidence? Maybe not.

     Having lived there, I can confirm this is true.

    • #3
  4. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Mike LaRoche:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Houston is famous for its lack of zoning. It’s also Texas’s most walkable city. Coincidence? Maybe not.

    Having lived there, I can confirm this is true.

    Since you’ve been a resident, would you tell me: did you ever find the lack of zoning oppressive?

    • #4
  5. Ryan M Member
    Ryan M
    @RyanM

    As I said on the recent podcast (you’re listening, right, Midge?):  The most walkable city I’ve ever lived in is Lewistown, Montana.  If you walk in any direction for 10 minutes, you’re in open country, but you can walk from one end of town to the other without breaking a sweat.

    • #5
  6. Palaeologus Inactive
    Palaeologus
    @Palaeologus

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: Do you hate city planners? Do you wish the New Urbanists would leave us all alone? Yes and yes? Then beware of reflexively defending the status quo, because the status quo is in no small part the handiwork of old city planners.

    Should I care? I mean, if I mostly like significant swathes of the status quo, then I do, right? The mere fact that it didn’t arise organically -while an interesting bit of history- is seemingly irrelevant to whether or not it is pleasing. I like the American highway system even if gubmint built it.

    That said, I’m sure there are plenty of instances of unnecessarily expansive regulation that we could agree to ditch.

    • #6
  7. user_44643 Inactive
    user_44643
    @MikeLaRoche

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Mike LaRoche:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Houston is famous for its lack of zoning. It’s also Texas’s most walkable city. Coincidence? Maybe not.

    Having lived there, I can confirm this is true.

    Since you’ve been a resident, would you tell me: did you ever find the lack of zoning oppressive?

     Not one bit.

    • #7
  8. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Palaeologus:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: Do you hate city planners? Do you wish the New Urbanists would leave us all alone? Yes and yes? Then beware of reflexively defending the status quo, because the status quo is in no small part the handiwork of old city planners.

    Should I care?

    No, you don’t have to care.

    But there seemed to be an unspoken assumption throughout Nathan’s “Conservatives Should Live in the City” conversation that un-planning and unwalkability must go hand-in-hand, so that unwalkability is evidence of freedom while walkability is evidence of central planning. And people who  do  care about the issue (which might include several Ricochetoise, as Nathan’s thread has over 150 comments) might want to know whether that assumption is wrong.

    I myself find an uncrowded highway (or deserted ravine) the most pleasant place to drive, and I’d be ungrateful if I didn’t appreciate what it is we have, no matter the origins. Nonetheless, I think knowing what in our history was centrally planned (public highways) and what wasn’t (for example, the reciprocal social services once provided by fraternal organizations) helps us understand how (in)effective central planning is.

    • #8
  9. user_337201 Inactive
    user_337201
    @EricWallace

    First, how do you pronounce “Ricochetoise”?

    Second, thanks for this post. The “topic of the day” (considering we’ve got three threads going simultaneously now) has really made me think of this more as an opportunity for promoting freedom at the local level. I always regarded local politics as soul-crushingly petty and annoying. And maybe it still is, but now this is interesting!

    • #9
  10. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Eric Wallace: First, how do you pronounce “Ricochetoise”?

    RICK-o-shay-twah. 

    • #10
  11. user_337201 Inactive
    user_337201
    @EricWallace

    Percival:

    Eric Wallace: First, how do you pronounce “Ricochetoise”?

    RICK-o-shay-twah.

     When you say it like that, it sounds like it should be a double entendre. Not that there’s anything wrong with that . . .

    • #11
  12. Mike H Coolidge
    Mike H
    @MikeH

    Not to mention, removing zoning would allow affordable housing to be built for the urban poor. But then the rich wouldn’t be able to regulate them out of sight.

    • #12
  13. Palaeologus Inactive
    Palaeologus
    @Palaeologus

    Mike H:

    Not to mention, removing zoning would allow affordable housing to be built for the urban poor. But then the rich wouldn’t be able to regulate them out of sight.

    Why wouldn’t “the rich” simply buy them out of sight?

    • #13
  14. Palaeologus Inactive
    Palaeologus
    @Palaeologus

    Midge, certainly the topic (and your post on it, like all your others) is interesting. I apologize if it seemed that I implied otherwise.

    What I don’t (necessarily) think matters is whether or not one favors old plans. If they don’t work particularly well let’s dump ’em. If they do, we should keep ’em.

    I don’t understand why it would matter if, say, I cordially despise New Urbanism and simultaneously like American Highways. That just seemed like an “ideological hyper-consistency is the ultimate good” gotcha bit… to me, anyhow.

    • #14
  15. Mike H Coolidge
    Mike H
    @MikeH

    Palaeologus:

    Mike H:

    Not to mention, removing zoning would allow affordable housing to be built for the urban poor. But then the rich wouldn’t be able to regulate them out of sight.

    Why wouldn’t “the rich” simply buy them out of sight?

      That would be the ethical way to do it, but it’s much more expensive.

    • #15
  16. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: Naturally, we conservatives want to defend the free market. But even we are prone to mistaking the aftermath of old regulations for the organic product of private enterprise.

     Like!

    Also, that’s a great quotation from Coase.

    • #16
  17. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Palaeologus:

    Mike H:

    Not to mention, removing zoning would allow affordable housing to be built for the urban poor. But then the rich wouldn’t be able to regulate them out of sight.

    Why wouldn’t “the rich” simply buy them out of sight?

    Rich people buying up land currently owned by poor people in order to form an enclave for themselves would compensate the poor people for what they’re losing, giving them capital to relocate elsewhere, and needn’t be citywide.  On the other hand, regulating the poor out of sight is both a citywide (or countywide or statewide or nationwide, depending on the level of regulation we’re talking about) phenomenon and doesn’t compensate the poor for what they’ve lost.

    It is not impossible for a large city to contain both ritzy neighborhoods as well as very affordable housing. Houston is known for being a very affordable city even though it also has luxury enclaves. New York and Chicago, on the other hand, are not so affordable.

    • #17
  18. Palaeologus Inactive
    Palaeologus
    @Palaeologus

    Mike H:

    Palaeologus:

    Mike H:

    Not to mention, removing zoning would allow affordable housing to be built for the urban poor. But then the rich wouldn’t be able to regulate them out of sight.

    Why wouldn’t “the rich” simply buy them out of sight?

    That would be the ethical way to do it, but it’s much more expensive.

     I doubt that, Mike. As you know, “the rich” carry an awfully big portion of public costs.

    Maybe, maybe… it would cost more for “them” to shut out the plebes (and worse, those awful proles!) via purchases as opposed to regulations… but y’all haven’t given a lick of evidence supporting those claims.

    • #18
  19. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Palaeologus:

    I don’t understand why it would matter if, say, I cordially despise New Urbanism and simultaneously like American Highways. That just seemed like an “ideological hyper-consistency is the ultimate good” gotcha bit… to me, anyhow.

    It’s not about ideological consistency being the ultimate good for ordering our preferences. We can all like one thing and dislike another without requiring an ideological justification for it.

    It’s just that, if you  claim  to have an ideological justification for your preferences,  then  it matters if the ideology is consistent. There is, after all, something laughable about people who parade around with signs saying, “Get the government out of health care! Hands off my Medicare.”

    Likewise, if someone objects to the New Urbanists on the grounds that they’re central planners and central planning is evil, but also says, “Hands off my precious existing zoning arrangements!” that’s a bit weird.

    If you like some kinds of central planning and not others, then you’re in a good position to argue about which kind of central planning to have. You’re in a less-good position to argue against central planning you dislike simply because it’s central planning.

    • #19
  20. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    We can all like one thing and dislike another without requiring an ideological justification for it.

    I’ll also add that people who believe they have – and must have – an ideological or abstract justification for every last preference that they have are incredibly annoying and often wrong. 

    Often, we don’t know why we like what we like, and we don’t have to know. Spurious ideological justifications for our preferences are probably worse than just saying, “I don’t know why I like this, I just do.”

    • #20
  21. Whiskey Sam Inactive
    Whiskey Sam
    @WhiskeySam

    The federal involvement in public highways is an explicit power granted by the Constitution to create post roads.  The idea that this is due to cars is laughable.  

    No zoning is one of those ideas that everyone gets excited about until they realize it means a porn shop could open for business next door to your house or a strip club could operate next door to a pre-school.  Not everything government does is bad or illegitimate.

    • #21
  22. MJBubba Inactive
    MJBubba
    @MJBubba

    MFR: 
    “Rich people buying up land currently owned by poor people in order to form an enclave for themselves would compensate the poor people for what they’re losing, giving them capital to relocate elsewhere, and needn’t be citywide.”

    No; it does not work like that.  The poor are renters.  When poor peoples’ housing is bought up for New Urbanist gentrified enclaves, it is the slumlords who get the money, and the poor who get the shaft.

    The planners are of two minds on this score.  They love to see gentrification because they are all about urban living (like Nathan H. and Matty V.), but, at least in my city, there are advocates for the poor who will make sure to howl and call attention to the folk who got dislocated in the process, and the planners can usually be counted on to sympathize.

    • #22
  23. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Whiskey Sam:

    The federal involvement in public highways is an explicit power granted by the Constitution to create post roads. The idea that this is due to cars is laughable.

    We’ve had the Constitution since 1787. We’ve only had the Federal Highway Act since 1956. The highways cutting through neighborhoods that Matty was referring to – and which, by extension, I was referring to – were the highways created by that act. Perhaps I could have been more clear.

    Also, just because the Constitution authorizes post roads doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have had roads without that authorization. I don’t lie awake at night thinking, “Damn you, Constitution, why did you have to authorize post roads?” Nonetheless, I’m optimistic that private roads would have worked.

    • #23
  24. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Whiskey Sam:

    No zoning is one of those ideas that everyone gets excited about until they realize it means a porn shop could open for business next door to your house or a strip club could operate next door to a pre-school. Not everything government does is bad or illegitimate.

    Zoning regulation, though, isn’t the only way this could work. The common law of nuisance can allow neighborhoods to evolve into different districts over time if it’s allowed to work.

    For example, if someone intrudes on a largely residential area with a smelly industry, that smell is a nuisance and the neighbors can either bring action to halt the smelly activity or buy out the producer of the smells, whichever is cheaper. Over time, people discover which districts are amenable to what, and a sort of “informal zoning” occurs (even though calling it zoning at all is pretty inaccurate). 

    I don’t know how it would work with sex shops. It would depend on which kind of nuisance they’re producing, I suppose, but I’m not a lawyer. I just know there’s a history of organic districting that works for smells, noises, and the like.

    • #24
  25. Whiskey Sam Inactive
    Whiskey Sam
    @WhiskeySam

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

     

    We’ve had the Constitution since 1787. We’ve only had the Federal Highway Act since 1956. The highways cutting through neighborhoods that Matty was referring to – and which, by extension, I was referring to – were the highways created by that act. Perhaps I could have been more clear.

    Also, just because the Constitution authorizes post roads doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have had roads without that authorization. I don’t lie awake at night thinking, “Damn you, Constitution, why did you have to authorize post roads?” Nonetheless, I’m optimistic that private roads would have worked.

     Federal involvement in road creation did not begin in 1956.  It was already well-established by 1833 when Joseph Story wrote his Commentaries on the Constitution defending the practice as an unremarkable express power of Congress against critics saying it was overreach.  

    Highways cutting through neighborhoods is a matter of eminent domain which is completely separate from whether government involvement (at any level) is a proper role of government.  The latter has long been uncontroversial and historically goes back well beyond the history of the US.  Matty’s unhinged rants about Carworld are unpersuasive.

    • #25
  26. Whiskey Sam Inactive
    Whiskey Sam
    @WhiskeySam

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

     

    I don’t know how it would work with sex shops. It would depend on which kind of nuisance they’re producing, I suppose, but I’m not a lawyer. I just know there’s a history of organic districting that works for smells, noises, and the like.

    If there is no zoning regulation, it doesn’t matter if the neighborhood doesn’t like it or not.  If I buy a lot and turn it into a garbage dump, you have to live with it, move, or buy me out.  What your describing is the whole reason zoning regulations came into being.  If they aren’t working, that’s a reason for reform not to scrap them.  The reason is still there: protecting existing property holders’ rights from new externalities imposed on them by changes in land use adjacent to their property.

    • #26
  27. Whiskey Sam Inactive
    Whiskey Sam
    @WhiskeySam

    We’re dealing with this right now in the neighborhood that butts up against mine.  It has three total entry points from major roads.  Due to the terrain and waterways in the area, the roads are very windy with numerous blind turns as they weave through the neighborhood.  The neighborhood was built roughly 55 years ago and has long been a quiet neighborhood with little traffic outside of the one main road connecting to the entrances on the two major roads.  

    One of those main roads long had a small house with a large meadow behind it lined by a small patch of woods that separated it from the neighborhood.  Over time the main road has built up restaurants and businesses, and now the owner of the house is the only remaining residence on the street for at least a mile in either direction.  He has sold his house and the land behind it to a developer who wants to turn the property into rental homes and strip malls extending back off the main road, butting up to the neighborhood, and joining up the property with road access into the neighborhood. (cont)

    • #27
  28. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Whiskey Sam:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    I don’t know how it would work with sex shops. It would depend on which kind of nuisance they’re producing, I suppose, but I’m not a lawyer. I just know there’s a history of organic districting that works for smells, noises, and the like.

     

    If there is no zoning regulation, it doesn’t matter if the neighborhood doesn’t like it or not. If I buy a lot and turn it into a garbage dump, you have to live with it, move, or buy me out.

    No. There are other alternatives. For years, the common law of nuisance handled these problems fairly well. Until, that is, it became common practice for statues and regulations to override the common law of nuisance in order to favor certain constituencies who wished to impose their nuisances on their neighbors without having to pay for it. That’s what the whole “Legislative sanction makes that lawful which otherwise might be [actionable as] a nuisance” quote is actually about.

    • #28
  29. Whiskey Sam Inactive
    Whiskey Sam
    @WhiskeySam

    This will not only change life for those whose property will now abut parking lots, businesses, and rental units (with all the headaches that come with them), but the increased traffic flow through the neighborhood imposes a cost on those who have lived for decades in a low-traffic neighborhood as well as on the city having to make changes to existing roadways to handle the expected increase in traffic (which brings up the eminent domain issue again).  The city had no problem with the property becoming commercial because it means increased tax revenues, but the zoning hearings gave the neighborhood a voice in saying how this change would negatively impact them.  That led to concessions from the developer who wanted to be on good terms with the community.  The zoning process worked for us in this instance exactly as it was designed to do.  If a community chooses not to have zoning, that’s great; it’s within their right to determine how they are governed.  All zoning though is not undesirable, nor is it an abuse of governmental power.

    • #29
  30. Whiskey Sam Inactive
    Whiskey Sam
    @WhiskeySam

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

     

    No, that’s simply not true. For years, the common law of nuisance worked to handle these problems. Until, that is, it became common practice for statues and regulations to override the common law of nuisance in order to favor certain constituencies who wished to impose their nuisances on their neighbors without having to pay for it. That’s what the whole “Legislative sanction makes that lawful which otherwise might be [actionable as] a nuisance” quote is actually about.

    The need to codify it arises from the need to define what is and isn’t a nuisance.  What is a nuisance to you is not necessarily a nuisance to me.  My pig farm is not a nuisance to me because it makes me money; it is a nuisance to you because it stinks.  Does your right to not smell it trump my right to make a living?  Zoning laws come about so we don’t have to retry this on a case by case basis.  Instead, we establish codified standards so it’s clear to everyone what is and isn’t permissible.

    • #30

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