Wednesday, 17 March 2010

The weasel words of “planning” power-lust

What do town planners mean when they talk about things like “affordable housing” and “community”? 

What they don’t mean is making houses affordable, or about anyone other than themselves.

The terms that planners use, and the way that planners use them, are nothing more than euphemisms for control. What they mean is nothing more than fog used to “transfer many of the most important decisions about the use of private property from the rightful owners to the political process, dominated by planners and the … most powerful and vocal special-interest groups.”

Michael Sanera of North Carolina’s John Locke Foundation has done us a favour by translating a few of the more arcane terms used by planners, all of which are used “to cover the reality that their recommendations reduce basic individual freedom.” Some of my favourites:

  • affordable housing: An extortion scheme to force homebuilders to sell their houses at below market prices.
    The political demand for affordable housing is created by restrictive land-use policies, such
    as those recommended by town planners.
  • auto-dependent: People who prefer to drive automobiles, and communities that fit their preferences.
  • best practice: Whatever are the latest planning fads.
  • compact development: Congested, crowed housing conditions.
  • growth: City development the satifies to the whims of planners and special interests.
  • incentives: Legal extortion systems operated by the city.
  • mixed use: A combination of commercial, residential and other uses in the same area.
    An example of mixed use would be retail shops on ground floor and apartments or condos
    on upper floors. For most of the last century, this practice was prohibited by zoning “best
  • open space: A requirement that homebuilders provide more land than homebuyers desire.
  • public realm: Anything that can be seen from a street.
  • stakeholders:  Special-interest groups consulted in the development of land-use plans and
  • subdivisions: The revealed consumer preferences in neighbourhoods, which planners therefore dislike intensely.
  • sustainability: Absurd idea that without government planning, builders would create developments that fail to meet people’s needs.
  • trees: A valuable natural resource that planners (1) assume benefits everyone, (2)
    want planted and protected for everyone’s benefit, and (3) want the costs of
    the forced planting and protecting borne solely by the affected landowners.
  • walkability: Designed to discourage driving.

_RodneyHood-Scum Read them all here: A Planners' Glossary: Understanding Raleigh's New Development Code, the Diagnostics & Approach Report .

And bear in mind that town planners everywhere use these euphemisms for control—including here in Auckland, where Rodney Hide is about to give the scum more power over your property.

Sanera’s sign-off line from author C.S. Lewis is apposite:

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

The nannying never ends.


  1. Argh! The hyperbole!

    Contrary to what PC would have you believe, urban planning is a vital discipline within the building sphere, without which our cities would be practically unlivable.

    Furthermore, the supposition that 'affordable housing' is a weapon against the rich invented by a cabal of planners is ridiculous, and that 'walkability' as a concept is based primarily on dicouraging driving is plain wrong, and heinously uninformed.

    That said, a discussion of libertarian town planning ideals would be both interesting and informative, PC?


    (PS Warms my heart to see architectural topics back in focus ;)

  2. "You assume Israel's interests are always US interests. They are not."

    Argh! The bullshit!

    Does it ever stop with you Den?


  3. Whoops. Cut and paste went wrong there. Post should have read:

    "urban planning is a vital discipline within the building sphere, without which our cities would be practically unlivable."

    Argh! The bullshit!

    Does it ever stop with you Den?


  4. @DenMT

    In my experience, the most livable places are invariably unplanned.

    Unplanned in the sense they were largely developed prior to the advent of central planning.

    But on another level, very much planned - as what you see is a complex amalgalm of the 'plans' of every individual who lives there, and how that has evolved throughout history.

    Without restrictive zoning regulations, you typically get a mixture of residential, commercial and retail functions that makes sense - and has a real vive about it. Leave it to planners, and you usually get sterility and inefficiency.

    It's not just that the planners need to be better. The best planner in the world cannot emulate the natural, organic process that produces the best result. For precisiely the same reason that a dictator cannot run a modern economy.

    Also what works at one point in history may not work 10 years later, as the economies and lifestyles change.

    An example: In inner Christchurch suburbs, many of the old corner shops are getting converted to cafes. It reflects what people want, and a changing economic reality. The shopping is better in the malls, but people want a coffee close to where they live.

    However 'best practice' central planning would never allow this. Try to set up a cafe on land zoned residential and you'll be battling planners for years. It's only an historical fluke (where the corner stores happened to be - hence the right zoning) that now that allows it.

    Livability comes from leaving individuals to construct a space that works for *them*, and leaving them free to adapt to changing circumstances.

  5. @Den MT: You appear to believe that without "town planners" being employed by councils that no planning of towns and cities would take place--that no planning would take place at all.

    One wonders how we all surived, and all those marvellous urban landscapes were built arund the globe before the invention of the town planner virus in the early twentieth-century.

    One might even say that the towns and urban spaces that have ben planned since that date have overwhelmingly been less liveable rather than more (think Milton Keynes, Halle Neustadt and Pruitt-Igoe).

    Can I suggest you explore the concept of spotaneous order--in Hayek's words, "the result of human action not human design"--the glorious results of many individuals in a framework of property rights making their own choices based on their own context and their own values.

    Bernard Siegan's book 'Land Use Without Zoning' is a good place to start. Colin Ward's book 'Housing: An Anarchist Approach' is another.

    Failing that, if you can't get hold of them, have a look at Owen McShane's short article 'Houston – the well-planned City without a Plan' and Brian Phillips; 'Houston-We Have a (Zoning) Problem.'

    They should help you shake of your devotion to state planning, and get a handle on "libertarian town planning ideals."

  6. PC: Am headed to the excellent Gothenburg Library tonight for a bit so will see how I go tracking down your sources and have a read.

    There is presumably a distinction you make between the diabolical, anti-human practices of the town planner and the general concept of urban planning. To put a finer point on it, take Jane Jacobs for example (who is name-dropped in your source article). While she was certainly arguing against centralised (rigidly rational) planning, do you think she was scornful of framework strategies for cities? Consider the outgrowth of her work into Plater-Zyberk's 'New Urbanism' - which is undoubtably a planning strategy, albeit one which deviates from a centralised approach.

    So again, urban planning is an absolutely vital tool in the way we map out and develop our cities.


    PS: I don't have 'Death And Life...' to hand but I suggest Jacobs would be spinning in her grave at the offhand approach to concepts like affordable housing and walkability, which from memory were important to her conception of succesful neighbourhoods.

  7. @Den MT: "Am headed to the excellent Gothenburg Library tonight for a bit so will see how I go tracking down your sources and have a read."

    Excellent. Good hunting. :)

    "...take Jane Jacobs for example...
    It's taken nearly a century to re-learn the lessons that we knew before the town-planner-virus was released into the wild-- to re-learn among other things, all those things Jane Jacobs celebrated as having happened as a result of "spontaneous order," but which town planners now wish to impose, as if to make some kind of Potemkin City.

    "So again, urban planning is an absolutely vital tool in the way we map out and develop our cities... "

    Who's this "we," white man?

    You, and your planners, always seem to forget that your planning steps allover other people's property, and their own plans for it.

    To paraphrase some Yeats from last night's post, your planners need to learn from the 'Cloths of Heaven': to tread softly, because they tread on people's dreams.

    PS: I'd suggest that the idea of making compulsory what Jane Jacobs observed had happened spontaneously is what would be having her spinning in her grave.

  8. Den

    You just can't help yourself- expropriating that which belongs to others. For example, "urban planning is an absolutely vital tool in the way we map out and develop our cities."

    Gotta love the collective ownership there (our cities) and how that immediately gets translated into a special right for a bureaucrcy to start planning everyone else.

    Our cities? They aint yours. They aint yours to map out and plan.

    What exists is the property of individuals and it is they who have the exclusive right to deal with that property.


  9. LGM what countries have you been to? I mean and seen other examples of cities and towns which have not had any planning at all.

    There is no question that it is impinging on the property rights of some people.

    But to argue that urban planning is no good....reeks of someone who has never actually been to a city or town WITHOUT any. They are hideous, gross disgusting messes where you can hardly get around and there is nowhere for anyone to relax except indoors.

    That doesn't mean planning should go overboard but to argue that it cannot enhance a city or town is ludicrous.

  10. Alas PC, I was inveigled into another house of learning (the beer-selling type) last night so never made it to the library. However will have a hunt on the weekend.

    This topic did start a fairly passionate discussion between our little architect gang at the pub last night over where the distinctions are drawn between urban design and urban planning, and if you can have one without the other. Good stuff - look forward to seeing if any of the books you recommended have convincing arguments on a total separation of the two.



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