Is Urban Planning "Creeping Socialism"?

By O'toole, Randal | Independent Review, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview
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Is Urban Planning "Creeping Socialism"?


O'toole, Randal, Independent Review


Socialism is commonly defined as government ownership of the means of production. With the exception of a number of services that are viewed as natural monopolies, such as sewer and water supplies, socialism in the form of government ownership has never achieved prominence in the United States. Instead, governments here have relied on regulation as a way of obtaining the same goals that socialists claim to seek: efficiency, equality, and control of externalities. If this approach is socialism, then urban planning has represented creeping socialism since around 1920. But it has recently accelerated and is now running rather than creeping. Moreover, it has such a head start that lovers of freedom may not be able to halt it, much less turn it around.

Urban planning rests on the ideas that urban residents impose numerous externalities on one another and that planning and regulation can minimize such externalities. Despite their claim of scientific expertise, planners often have little idea what they are doing: cities are simply too complex to understand or control. As a result, the history of urban planning is the story of a series of fads, most of which have turned into disasters. Urban renewal and public housing are two obvious examples.

Ironically, the failure of past planning is the premise for the latest planning fad, variously called new urbanism, neotraditionalism, or smart growth. Smart-growth planners see numerous problems in our urban areas, including congestion, air pollution, sprawl, unaffordable housing, disappearing open space, and costly urban services. These problems they blame on past generations of planners who, say smart-growth planners, got it all wrong. The solution, of course, is to give the current generation of planners more power than ever before because this time they claim to have it right.

Smart-Growth Prescriptions

Smart-growth prescriptions include variations on the following themes:

* Metropolitan areas should be denser than they are today. In growing regions this objective is achieved by limiting or forbidding new construction on land outside the urban fringe and instead increasing the density of existing developed areas.

* Transportation should emphasize mass transit, walking, and bicycling instead of automobiles. This strategy means few or no new investments in road capacity, combined with considerable investments in transit, preferably rail transit. Investments in roads are often aimed at reducing their capacity, a concept known as traffic calming.

* Land-use planning should focus on making areas more suitable for transit, walking, and bicycling. A major way of achieving this goal is through transit-oriented developments, meaning high-density, mixed-use developments located near rail stations or along transit corridors.

* Developments also should be pedestrian friendly, meaning (among other things) narrow streets, wide sidewalks, and stores fronting on the sidewalk rather than set back behind a parking lot.

Smart growth received a public boost in January 1999, when it was endorsed by Vice President Al Gore. Metropolitan planning agencies across the nation are considering or adopting these or similar smart-growth policies. The Environmental Protection Agency has threatened to deny transportation dollars and other federal funds to many cities that do not adopt such programs.

Smart growth is attempting to reverse two strong trends of the twentieth century. First is the increasing use of personal motorized transportation. As incomes have risen, people who once walked or rode transit have chosen to purchase and drive automobiles instead. Second, and related to the first, is an increasing demand for personal living space, in the form of both house size and lot size. As autos have made transportation less expensive, people have moved beyond central cities and purchased large lots for their homes.

These trends are most obvious in the United States, but they are not uniquely American.

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Is Urban Planning "Creeping Socialism"?
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