Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

To What Extent and in What Ways Should Governmental Bodies Regulate Urban Planning? A Response to Charles C. Bohl

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

To What Extent and in What Ways Should Governmental Bodies Regulate Urban Planning? A Response to Charles C. Bohl

Article excerpt


Charles Bohl has presented a thoroughgoing critique of authors who portray the New Urbanism as part of an anti-market coalition seeking to impose its favored development pattern on an unwitting public. In doing so, Bohl has made an important contribution to the contemporary debate on planning and land use that should encourage the targets of his critique to refine their case. There is much in Bohl's analysis with which I agree. The following remarks, therefore, will concentrate on the aspects of his essay that I find wanting. These fall into three broad areas. First, Bohl misrepresents the practical emphases of those he seeks to criticize. Second, Bohl is far too enamored with the results from survey analyses, which he offers in defence of New Urbanism. Finally, Bohl misconstrues the theoretical arguments for "free markets" and hence, fails to outline a clear set of principles within which the role of New Urbanism in a market-driven approach to land use could properly be specified.

Defending the Critics of New Urbanism

In the opening section of his essay Bohl takes pains to distinguish the New Urbanism from the so-called "smart growth" movement. The former is a largely private sector phenomenon derived from attempts by a minority of developers to offer alternative urban designs to the low-density "strips" characteristic of American cities. The latter, by contrast, is a political movement made up of environmentalists and city planners who seek to use governmental zoning laws to prevent development that they pejoratively dub as "sprawl." While political campaigns for smart growth can be placed firmly in the "anti-market" camp, as Bohl points out, the attempts by New Urbanist architects to recreate the character of old town centers is simply a part of the process of market competition itself. New Urbanism is no more "anti-market" than are attempts by the growing organic food industry to wean consumers off factory-produced hamburgers--they are just a part of the competitive market process that helps to alert people to new ideas for better modes of living.

Strictly speaking, Bohl is right to criticize authors such as Gordon and Richardson when they lump together the ideas of the New Urbanism with the proponents of "smart growth." That said, Bohl overstates his case considerably. While the New Urbanism is indeed a private sector phenomena, there is no shortage of New Urbanist developers and sympathizers who have resorted to political activism on behalf of their favored urban form. Indeed, Bohl himself cites a pertinent example when referring to the response of the architect Andres Duany to the experience of smart growth in Portland. Duany praises Portland's efforts to control sprawl but complains that in the ever-decreasing number of locations where growth of any sort is allowed to proceed this growth is still predominantly of the "sprawling" variety. One must assume from these remarks that any growth that does not conform to New Urbanist principles is, according to Duany, a legitimate target for political action.

The latter point is of particular significance, for it is political activism on behalf of the New Urbanism that irks critics who are concerned primarily with the effect of governmental controls on the price of new housing. (1) Seen in this light, New Urbanist proponents frequently align themselves with the supporters of smart growth in order to slow down, if not prevent outright, forms of urban design that do not conform to their particular principles. Bohl counters this argument with data showing that New Urbanist settlements account for a mere 0.21 percent of new build, from which he concludes that New Urbanism does not constitute a significant political threat to lower density settlement patterns. Such data are, however, not sufficient to counter the thrust of the critics' concerns. The principal effect of activism against "sprawl" is not so much on the proportion of "sprawling" to "nonsprawling" development but on the total level of new build that is allowed to proceed. …

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