All Planning is Planning


There’s some good stuff in this Fast Company article on spraw, new urbanism, and the downturn but this is a head-scratcher of a paragraph:

Maybe the New Urbanists’ greatest innovation is “SmartCode,” their rigorous zoning manual for guaranteeing the integrity of a newly-built neighborhood. But its existence only underscores the fact that left to their own devices, market forces and their instruments–the developers–would never follow these precepts on their own. And why would they, when the system is aligned against it? Tax codes, zoning, community boards, and financing are a straitjacket on new types of development–they created a product that works, and they’re preconditioned to produce more of it.

I think this captures the slightly pathological incoherence of our discourse around these issues. It’s true that if we keep policy on auto-pilot that we’ll get endless reproduction of car-dependent sprawl. But that’s not the same as saying that car-dependent sprawl is the result of “market forces” that are “left to their own devices.” Rather, the issue is “tax codes, zoning, community boards” and a system of “financing” in which the government (through the FHA, Fannie Freddie, etc.) is deeply involved.

The issue isn’t whether we should do what New Urbanists want or else let the market decide. The issue is what kind of planning/infrastructure regime we want. Insofar as some people want to live in detached single-family homes on large patches of land then some people should do so. But a policy environment that specifically pushes people to live in detached single-family homes on large patches of land leads to very inefficient use of energy. That’s bad for the environment, and it also diverts energy resources away from more valuable commercial/industrial uses.