There are a lot of ways to theorise about what urban planning is, what planning is there to achieve, and the tools and medium planning uses to achieve those goals. You could write endless, pretentious, and densely referenced pages, and plenty1 have. But you can overcomplicate yourself easily this way. The desire for planning comes from looking around ourselves, taking stock, and saying, “this mess could be done so much better”.
What is “better”, though? There are definitely some universal and often reasonably objective answers to get started with. Cholera is bad, so let’s not dump our sewage in the street. Having warm and dry homes is good, so let’s make sure everyone can get in one of those. Achieving these can be hard, but conceptually they’re relatively simple.
We rapidly run out of clear-cut goods and bads, however. There can be bads that are inevitable: sewage has to go somewhere, and there’s a limit to our ability to treat it. There can be bads that are necessary for other goods: you may not like the effect that wind turbines have on the view, but we all like electricity and we’ve got to get it from somewhere. There can also be goods that conflict: should our park have a softball pitch or a rugby field2? Most dramatically, we can disagree entirely about whether things are good or not - stadium concerts, or landmark towers.
There’s tradeoffs to be made, with no right-or-wrong answer, but by the nature of the conflict, we have to collectively come down on one side or another. Generally these decisions are made through the democratic process, and sometimes the democratic process effectively delegates the decision to a market mechanism. We vote with votes, or with dollars.
To each his own?
Some of these conflicts, obviously, are not inevitable, because we don’t need a single solution. Some people like living in a dense, bustling neighbourhood, other people want quiet and space. They don’t need to fight, because for the most part everyone can choose whether they want to live in an inner city apartment, a townhouse, a sprawling bungalow on a quarter acre, a lifestyle block an hour and a half out of town, or a little cottage in a forest.
This framing of freedom of choice is probably the majority view in planning today, although not universal3, and it’s recent. From the nineteen century to as late as about the 1970s, planners thought they’d invented the Right Way for everyone to live, whether they liked it or not. At the peak of planning’s power, in the immediate post-war years, it was this view that informed “slum” clearances, tracts of suburban state housing, and the rapid expansion of the motorways. Even then, though, planners didn’t even agree with each other on the details, or with their colleagues in other countries. New Zealand ended up with relatively few of the Corbusian towers-in-a-park public housing projects common in the US and many European countries.
Even where planners didn’t think that they, personally, knew best, many subscribe to a view of “participatory” planning, which suggests that there are still generally single right answers, but just that the public collectively should come up with them.
This we-know-best view does still exist, among some professional planners, politicians, and sections of the public: Auckland’s recent rezoning effort featured long debates on the amenities that apartment buildings would have to have: high ceilings, balconies, covered parking spaces. Not because of the effect that this would have on non-residents, or even because apartment dwellers wanted them and they weren’t available: but because people who would never live in an apartment themselves thought they were things apartments should have. Other cities generally require most or all of their housing stock to be in low-density car-dependent subdivisions. But these are generally relics of past thinking, on their way out.
The we-know-best view was not unopposed by the public, though, and we have a cultural memory of that, often taken to extremes. For the (relatively small) slice of the public who take an interest in planning, every decision they dislike is Robert Moses trying to bulldoze the East Village - even if the decision is simply allowing a private property owner to erect an apartment building. Or conversely, the council is “forcing us out of our cars” if it doesn’t provide subsidies for driving that are as hefty as that speaker would like.
We don’t have a good conception of the differences between conflicts that inherently have to be decided at a society-wide level (or at least at a city-wide level), and conflicts that genuinely can be personal choices. And to be fair, it can be deeply difficult to tell.
Freedom of choice
So, must every issue result either in a single planned solution for everyone, or the emergent results of everyone deciding for himself or herself?
I don’t think so. There’s a third category of issue which requires neither of these things, and it is in my view an under-appreciated category of issue that city planners deal with. The previous section suggested that people were free to choose between a dense neighbourhood and sleepy suburbia, for example. This isn’t quite the whole picture.
A neighbourhood, by definition, is something that no one person controls. In order to have a sleepy suburban neighbourhood, you need to be reasonably sure your street won’t fill up with nightclubs and panelbeaters. A dense neighbourhood doesn’t come from you yourself living in an apartment: you need thousands of other people to do likewise, providing the customers and members of the businesses, services, clubs, and social opportunities that make a dense neighbourhood worthwhile.
The density itself tends to happen somewhat naturally, for pure financial reasons: apartments stack up better when land values are higher, people who value a big back yard tend to seek out somewhere with lower land values, and the pattern reinforces itself4.
But other issues do not sort themselves out so neatly.
One common refrain from the planning-interested public is that denser housing is all well and good, but should only be permitted if it’s “well-designed”. Often this is genuinely meant in a utilitarian sense, including things like access to daylight, adequately-sized rooms and so on. But just as often it’s meant as an aesthetic criticism. This is particularly true for multi-unit residential or commercial buildings.
It’s entirely possible to develop planning controls to make our buildings more beautiful. I think it’s fair to say there’s a rough social consensus on what buildings are beautiful. The usual method is a combination of prescriptive rules (which typically don’t work), and design panels (which typically do result in good-looking, if safe, designs).
While eccentrics exist, the objections to design standards normally relate less to people with eccentric tastes, and more about people’s worries that aesthetics drives up costs.
Whether the benefits are worth the costs is up to you (or rather, up to the voting public). But there’s not actually any need to have a single city-wide approach. A city can provide options: higher design standards in commercial centres, tourist areas, and historic districts, and a lasseiz-faire, cheap-and-cheerful approach in others. This still requires restrictions - but just limited to certain areas.
This is our third category: issues where we use planning restrictions of different kinds in different areas. You must follow the rules of your area, but you’re free to choose between different areas with different rules. You also gain a new freedom: being able to live in an area with a benefit that wouldn’t work if everyone did their own thing, such as a quiet neighbourhood.
Collective planning vs individual freedom
So truly, central planning vs individual freedom isn’t in direct opposition. At its best, the restrictions imposed by city planning actually widens the ranges of choices you have, not narrows them.
This is not an original thought. It’s the justification for zoning, the king of planning tools worldwide. Zoning is often used badly, and that deserves criticism. But zoning even in theory often gets criticised, and more often still simply goes unremarked. But used well, it’s a great tool, and there are more uses yet that it could be put to but often isn’t. For example:
Many cities have “character” or “historic” districts, which require fitting into a historic style. But why not districts that encourage eclecticism, and require that your building be different to its neighbours, not similar? Or zones for specific contemporary styles? I’d be on board with a district for post-modern ironic brutalism, or some kitsch imitation Cinque Terre villages.
Love them or hate them, you’ve got to live with the people who hate them or love them, respectively. But it needn’t be so. Some districts could be designated as car-free, and others allowing car access right to the front door - the latter being the default and only option at the moment.
This pattern emerges somewhat naturally anyway, why not make it official? You could have your suburb be a party suburb, where you don’t feel bad about your house party raging until dawn. Or if you’re a nana, have a quiet suburb where it’s lights out at 10 and you’re not a killjoy for calling noise control at 10.05.
This is really the big one. It’s one that many if not most cities already use zoning for. But almost universally, it’s done badly, in result to a backlash by a small minority with an unfair concentration of wealth and political power5.
One mistake Auckland has made, and it’s not alone, is the doughnut city. Older inner-ring low-density neighbourhoods are preserved largely as-is, while new suburbs on the fringe are built at a higher density. This tends to produce neighbourhoods where density produces only disadvantages, since they’re so badly located and dependent on driving. Meanwhile, the inner neighbourhoods, being kept at low density, have massive shortages of housing and prices and rents go through the roof.
Planning different neighbourhoods of different densities is not just justifiable, but good. But it needs to reinforce those natural patterns of land value and demand, not fight them. More central areas, areas with better current and potential public transport, areas with better natural amenities, and so on, need to be the dense ones. The neighbourhoods that should be preserved as low-density should be only those ones where the low density is a good thing in itself: more remote, difficult to access areas which naturally have lower land values, allowing ordinary people to afford to spread out.
It also needs to integrate with public transport planning, another thing that traditionally has been done poorly, particularly in places like Australia and the United States where land use and public transport are handled by different levels of government, covering different scales, and that fight with each other.
Putting it all together
Planning has struggled to justify itself in the last half century. Planners themselves need to think more in terms of expanding people’s options, not picking what’s best for them. And that includes participatory planning, which typically still means picking a single best solution - it’s just been outsourced from planners to the random members of the public who choose to get involved.
But well-chosen restrictions on what we can do can have the power to make our lives better, and even paradoxically to expand our choices.
You can look with despair at situations like Auckland Council refusing permission for a development by… Auckland Council. On the other hand, it does illustrate that there still are very real disagreements in planning and that for all its many, many faults, there’s probably not a problem with groupthink. ↩
In most cities with strong planning systems, this process doesn’t occur fully naturally, but in plenty of cities the tightly-planned result does actually somewhat approximate what you might expect the natural result to be. ↩
The post I reference in that Twitter thread is http://slatestarcodex.com/2018/10/01/steelmanning-the-nimbys/ ↩