No profession has done more harm to the American city than urban planners.
An op-ed in Sunday's Denver Post offered up planners as the solution to a host of social problems.
The article pleas for us to ignore the bad old days when:
Planners got a black eye for their role in demolishing inner-city communities during the post-World War II period of urban renewal and freeways slashing through poor neighborhoods — epitomized by New York's heavy-handed Robert Moses. . . . More commonly, though, planners simply looked for paychecks in suburbia, creating communities that carelessly devoured open lands and usually shunned the disadvantaged anyway.
Don't believe the hype from the American Planners Association. Planning is still the problem, not the solution. The problems described in their 100th anniversary report, "Overlooked America" are to a great extent created by the very notion urban planning laws. These laws don't simply need to be tweaked. They need to be repealed wholesale and replaced with very thin regulations closely tied to genuine requirements for providing urban services.
They bemoan the homelessness problem and NIMBY reactions to the construction of shelters for the homeless, and argue that planners "can help enable shelters and transitional shelter for the homeless, fighting off NIMBY voices by influencing zoning and employing conditional-use permits."
Where did this problem come from? Urban planners encouraged the destruction of single occupancy hotels (less charitably known as flop houses) and limited their presence to places where they weren't viable. The zoning laws and conditional-use permits that prevent people from offering services to the homeless, the poor and the mentally ill, among others, are the invention of planners and are the stock in trade of the daily work of planners. Before urban planning established this scheme, there was no democratic community veto on how you used your property. Planning insisted that all new development that alters the status quo be subject to hearings and ultimately the approval of elected officials who are elected by majority vote. Without planning laws, NIMBY concerns are not an impediment to otherwise lawful land uses.
This system has locked in mediocrity, suppressed innovation, and left economically needed but unpopular land uses, like low income housing, without a home.
It is not coincidence that today's most vibrant cities are the ones established before planners secured a strangle hold on property development. The rise of the planners has replaced an ability to identify economic opportunity, financing and innovative ways of using land with savy in handling local politics as the primary qualification for the job.
The APA decries the peril of "the elderly stranded in their homes when they can no longer drive." Why do the elderly live in unwalkable communities? Because planners decreed that residential and commercial land uses needed to be separated into different zones. We don't need planners to focus on "on building more pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use developments." We simply need them to get out of the way. There is no evidence that private developers will not meet the need for this kind of development if freed from the regulations that prevent them from doing so.
Planners decry racial segregation and urge people to make mixed race neighborhoods possible. But one of the main reasons that we don't have mixed race and mixed income neighborhoods is that zoning laws and building codes with aesthetic elements actively discourage these kinds of neighborhoods.
Aesthetic concerns, local tradition, historic preservation concerns, a desire to preserve community character and a desire to protect property values are the code words that neighbors use to defend income and racial segregation through the force of law with zoning requirements. These concerns mask illegitimate claims to control other people's property, to fight change for the sake of fighting change, and to give their prejudices (whether or not articulated) the force of law.
The place for urban planning is narrow. Some decisions are inherently governmental. Governments must decide how to deliver municipal services and manage government property like parks, streets, water and sewer systems and civic buildings, and there is no harm in planning how to make those investments.
Sometimes, the provision of municipal services may require some rules and regulations. It is reasonable to refuse to permit five story buildings when the fire department only has three story ladders, although those who want taller buildings ought to be able to pay to upgrade the fire department in exchange for permission to build a larger building. Since public health requires that someone collect trash, it is reasonable to require that property owners have some place to deposit trash for pickup that is accessible to trash collection trucks. Since cities provide storm sewers, it is reasonable that they impose compatible drainage requirements. Since cities provide street parking, it is reasonable for them to require that properties provide enough off street parking to prevent them from overwhelming the public supply of street parking. Fires and building collapses endanger whole neighborhoods, so it is reasonable to have some basic building codes.
But there is almost never a justifiable reason for preventing property owners from putting structurally sound, fire code compliant multi-family housing in single family neighborhoods, or to prevent property owners from putting non-polluting commercial uses with adequate parking in residential neighborhoods.
Denver's recent vote to prohibit new multi-family housing in Sloan's Lake and West Highland by downzoning it from R-2 to R-1 was a mistake. It stunts the health and gradual transformation of the city. It makes it harder for the Denver Public Schools to fill its empty classrooms, while forcing surban districts to build new schools. It pushes people out of the urban residential neighborhoods where it makes the most economic and enviromental sense to build additional housing into new surburbs that destroy open space. It prevents a neighborhood where high income residents and moderate income residents live side by side from evolving (ironically, in this case, the high income residents would have probably been the multi-family unit residents). It weakens the city's tax base. All of this is basically because they don't like the way new duplexes look next to their existing more modest single family homes. What hogwash!
Downzoning is a leading reason why Englewood has not thrived despite its close proximity to vibrant Denver neighborhoods nearby that were not as restrictive. Downzoning doesn't work. Diversity is what makes urban areas so much more vital than the Levittowns of the world. But diversity can't happen unless we remove property development from majoritarian control based on vague aesthetic sensibilities that often merely hide fear of change of prejudices conscious and unconscious.
The disadvantaged don't come out on top in either the marketplace or in political struggles. If they did, they wouldn't be disadvantaged. But they almost always do better in the marketplace than they do in the political arena. The marketplace allows for compromises that gives everyone part of what they want, while the political arena tends to be all or nothing. In politics, the powerful almost always win, and political power takes a large investment of time and energy (and sometimes money) to acquire. In contrast, meaningful and useful economic power can be secured in smaller chunks.
The more local the government, the more this is the case. Local government officials are elected by a narrower subset of voters than top of the ticket elected officials, in elections where meaningful information is harder to obtain, and are subject to less media supervision of their actions. No level of government is more indifferent to the common man and more prone to incompetence than local government. The only real check against bad local government is that residents of them can move elsewhere if their provision of urban services becomes intolerably bad.
One of the reasons that Denver is doing well now, compared to its suburban neighbors, is that it has only a single layer of government at the county level in a county large enough to force it to professionalize and address issues on a policy level, and whose elections impact enough people to make media coverage more thorough, while the suburbs must contend with county, municipal and special districts governments that become less representative and less competent as they get smaller.
Local governments and their partners in planning crime, neighborhood associations, are bastions of conservative local elites (as in "opposed to change" rather than Republican leaning) who smash promising ideas that someone is willing to risk large sums of their own money to attempt, with little or no regard for the systemic consequences of their actions, and no awareness of the harm that they are doing to their own neighborhoods.
If we want to make our city a better place, we could do far worse than jettisoning the city's byzantine zoning code entirely, and starting over with only the bare minimum of land use limitation and building code requirements necessary to allow the city to do its work.