Sunday, 20 November 2005

Decentralisation, and those who oppose it

[Only one post today: a long one. This post is written as a follow up to two earlier posts, Sprawl is good; regulation is not, and Frank Lloyd Wright: Broadacre City, and to comments made therein.]

Centralisation was the ideal of monarchy . . . the individual unit compelled to revolve around a common center.
Integration is the ideal of democracy . . . many units, free in themselves, functioning together in freedom.
Frank Lloyd Wright, 'New York Times, 1932

Planners have fought the car since the planning profession was invented. The car is the enemy of the planner. The car gives people individual choice, and the freedom to locate oneself where one will; the planner despises individual choice -- the only 'taste' he recognises is his own; taste he thinks should be prescribed from above: "Get with the programme!" he commands.

The car gives people mobility, the freedom to seek out one's own happiness; the planner despises mobility -- he prefers people to seek their happiness in the 'community', in one another, rather than seeking it out in the wilds alone; lone wolves, people who seek their own happiness in their own way, are not the pillars of the community that planners would have us emulate. The car is the enemy of centralisation, and centralisation is the planner's friend -- indeed, it is centralisation that is the planner's goal: a self-anointed elite prescribing the way of living for the lumpen masses they despise.

The planners are fighting reality.

The human spirit refuses to bow to the commands of the self-anointed, and like trying to divert a raging torrent, the flow escapes the planned strangulation of the spirit and breaks free of its bounds. As Frank Lloyd Wright described so presciently back in1932, mobility and technology combined kill the planner's drive to centralisation, and makes a joke of his prohibitions:

Centralization, whether expressed as the city, the factory, the school or the farm, now has the enormous power of the machine-age setting dead against it. It is in the nature of universal or ubiquitous mobilization that the city spreads out far away and thin. It is in the nature of flying that the city disappears. It is in the nature of universal electrification that the city is nowhere or it is everywhere. . . .

By means of the motor car and the inventions that are here with it the horizon of the individual has immeasurably widened. A ride high into the air in any elevator today only shows the man how far he can go on the ground. And a view of the horizon gives him the desire to go. If he has the means, he goes, and his horizon widens as he goes. The physical release is at work upon his character. . . . After all he himself is the city. The city is going where he goes and as he goes. When he goes he will be gone where he may enjoy all that the centralized city ever really gave him, plus the security, freedom and beauty of the ground that is his. That means he is going to the country with his machine by means of the machine, in larger sense, that is opening the way for him. [From Frank Lloyd Wright's 'Disappearing City']
The city's expansion is inevitable -- equally inevitable is it's decentralisation. Technology makes it so. Fighting that is like fighting on the side of Canute, only when one fights this inevitability one fights against the will of individuals seeking their freedom from the city, not against the tides. The city will continue to go out to meet the country, and the planners will seek to bring it back again. 'Containment!' 'Sprawl!' These are their watchwords. Meanwhile, 'lifestyle' properties continue to surround the city -- the planner's compromise between individuals who seek to escape the city and the planner's wish to contain that desire -- and the planner's latest weapon, the mis-named 'Smart Growth!,' seeks again to rein us all in.

The Smart-Growth weapon of choice in Auckland at present is 'Plan Change 6,' about which I've written a few times before. Countryside living according to this thinking is “unsustainable” because it "takes productive land out of production" and “undermines public transport.” How they hate people making choices for themselves! The provisions of Plan Change 6 are in essence a plan to end countryside living and to make rural New Zealand a National Park -- such is the aim of the New Apostles of Smart Growth. Their chief achievement so far is to make Smart Growth-adopting cities severely unaffordable -- houses in New World cities that have adopted the 'urban consolidation' policies of Smart Growth take twice or more a household's income to buy as compared to those cities that have rejected this fashionable nonsense. That's twice as much -- at least -- of your life spent working to pay for your home, if you can afford to, and all due to the planner's desire for control. This is little more than a lifestyle tax, with no beneficiary except the planner's ego.

The planner would like us all reined in. Compliant. Obedient. Living where we're told to, in the way that we're told to, following the tastes we're required to subscribe to. But it can't be done, and the wish to do so impoverishes us all. The human spirit breaks out from the prisons of the soul in which they've been placed by the planners and the meddlers of the welfare state. They break out with violence sometimes: spectacularly in the banlieus and the cités of Paris; quietly and grimly in the inhospitable concrete squalor of East Europe's bourgeois-proofed, planned cities, and in the planned precincts and New Brutalism of housing projects across the US and Western Europe. 'Suburban neurosis' has nothing on the battleship existence of the housing projects, and the atopic suburbs themselves in their present zoned-and-controlled form are just another product of the planner's pen. As I've said before, the planners themselves know they've failed:

As the schemes for worker housing became increasingly uninhabitable, the plans for radiant cities drawn up by planners quietly began to be shelved, but the town planners themselves were harder to get rid of, and they began to look around for other pastures to pollute.

Jane Jacobs pointed out in ‘The Death and Life of American Cities’ that some of the places so hated by Corbu and the planning fraternity actually worked very well. The ‘mixed use’ of streets of terraced housing and brownstones in places like Manhattan she pointed out are very good places to live, with private houses often cheek by jowl with shops, cafes, and the like all an easy walk away. People choose to live in such places because they like them.

So too with the explosion of the suburbs – people everywhere including NZ like living in their own house in the suburbs. But planners hate suburbs. Too bourgeois! And they never really understood Jane Jacobs. They drew up plans that zoned the hell out of everything, ensuring that ‘mixed-use’ became a dirty word, and restricted the density of suburban subdivisions, thus ensuring more of the sprawl they are so against.

Planners hated suburbs all the more for the sprawl they themselves created. American suburbs are “a chaotic and depressing agglomeration of building covering enormous stretches of land,’ said, not a planner, but a book titled ‘The New Communist City’ produced by Moscow State University, whose graduates had designed Halle-Neustadt and the other concrete wastelands of Eastern Europe. Western planners agreed with those graduates, and bought into their “search for a future kind of residential building leading logically to high-density, mixed-use housing.”

Thus was born a new movement called ‘Smart Growth’ that eager young planners have subscribed to in droves. Portland, Oregon is the home of this drivel, and as an eager young Portland planner told a reporter in the late sixties, "We got tired of protesting the Vietnam War, read Jane Jacobs, and decided to take over Portland." They did, and the city is only now beginning to recover.

With the zeal of those for which there is only ‘one true way,’ smart-growth advocates gloss over Jacobs’s’ key point that choice is the key to what makes some places work and other places just suck, and they declared that everyone must live in the One True Way prescribed by the planning profession.

Asked when speaking in London many years ago about the desirability of the lower class's high-density 'battleship existence' for providing sturdy yeomen to fight the causes of Empire, Wright admonished the questioner and recoiled at the sentiment behind it. What sort of person would want to keep human beings in squalor, he responded? Why indeed, especially just to please the planner's own sense of taste and esthetics?

Of course, there is nothing inherently or necessarily wrong with high-density living any more than there is with low-density living -- San Tropez in summer enjoys one of the highest population densities anywhere, and you don't see anyone complaining. The crime comes when either is forced upon people by the impositions of the planning profession, and the misdirections of the architectural profession. The twentieth-century mass-production of squalor began when the Brave New World of architectural modernism joined hands with central planners and Soviets-in-spirit to knock up their Radiant Cities and shining cities of the plains; their "row after Mies van der row of glass houses," the "worker housing" that has spread over our land like the elm blight," as Tom Wolfe described in his ebullient 'From Bauhaus to Our House.' It continued with the blight of zoning and other meddling mandating the mediocrity of uniformity.

Forget this mass production of standardised misery. "There should be as many kinds of houses as there are kinds of people and as many differentiations as there are different individuals," said Wright. And why not? One man's buzzing inner-city enclave is another's high-density rabbit warren; one man's suburban paradise is another's soulless sprawl; one family's lifestyle block pastorale is another's blot on a pristine landscape. Let them all be! Why impose?

What's wrong with choice, and letting people exercise it? What's wrong with a cornucopia of choices, an abundance of options, a profusion of possible housing choices? Why can't you leave people alone to choose for themselves their own manner of living? For when you strip away the veneer of buzzwords surrounding the planners' latest fads -- for which we're all required to pay -- when you burrow beneath the latest fashionable gibberish of 'sustainability' and 'smart growth,' of 'environmental responsibility' and 'urban redevelopment,' of 'alternative transport options' and 'urban decay' and the 'new urbanism,' when you see what's underneath all the fashionable verbal clothing worn by the apostles of control, here's the raw reality you're left with: these people don't like the choices you make about how to live, and they will make you pay any price to avoid letting you do so.

Don't let them get away with it.


  1. Well said Peter.
    Only in recent months have I come across such arguments from yourself and Owen McShane.
    I am in full agreement with you both.
    I can understand an argument for some controls if open space is in short supply, like it is in say England, where I am from.
    But in New Zealand there is heaps of land, plenty of room for us all to breathe.
    When I first came here, I imagined I would have a lifestyle block, somewhere out of the city with peace and privacy, like I grew up on.
    Alas, that is way too expensive and the congestion of Auckland prevents reasonable commuting from long distance locations.
    Thus, I am in an inner city shoebox. It is all I can afford.
    It is close to work, yes, ten minutes by bus. I do not own a car as a car park in the block at $60pw makes car ownership uneconomic.
    But what do I want deep down, I still want a house and a piece of land. I want the freedom that a car gives me.
    I am not happy with my current arrangements. It is not the quality of life I came to NZ for.
    Thus I am planning to leave Auckland. Sydney seems to have the same planning issues as Auckland, which is why property is prohibitively expensive there too.
    How does Perth sound? $200K buys a reasonable brick and tile bungalow in suburbia. Which is all a humble journo can afford. Better than a shoebox, though and I expect I will be happier there.

  2. More proof (if more is needed) of the adage: "While their 'plans' may differ - the 'planners' are all alike."


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