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Planning and Social Engineering

Planning gets a lot of stick from some because it is said to be akin to social engineering. In particular there’s a strange bunch of people (mainly in the USA but occasionally in NZ) who are particularly concerned with the elements of planning which are roughly encompassed by the phrase ‘Smart Growth‘. Wendell Cox is a particularly vocal opponent of Smart Growth, saying that it effectively amounts to social engineering. Cox’s book outlines his opinion on planning pretty clearly:

People around the world associate the “universal dream of home ownership” with an unprecedented improvement in quality of life. But there is a war on this dream, the result of policies that seek to control urban sprawl or suburbanization. The proponents and governments that implement such anti-suburban policies do so with little debate and virtually without any serious analysis of the consequences.

Anti-suburban policies outlaw development on large swaths of land, creating scarcity and increasing housing prices. This means less home ownership in the future and less wealth creation. Anti-suburban policies hopelessly seek to force people to use mass transit instead of cars, while failing to build roadway capacity to accommodate rising demand. The result is more intense traffic congestion, air pollution, and less productive urban areas.

Author Wendell Cox takes a closer look at this growing problem in War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life. With most of the world still living in relative poverty, it is clear that neither economic growth nor wealth creation can be taken for granted. Anti-suburban policies must be rejected and repealed. Only by such actions will national economies and their urban areas be positioned to ensure that future generations have a better quality of life.

What has often confused me about this whole position is that most planning rules (particularly the ones that make a big difference like minimum parking requirements) seem to be the opposite – limiting urban densities and therefore ‘forcing’ peripheral growth. Similarly, most transport spending in Auckland has historically been on motorway expansions, which encourage low density urban sprawl. Rules limiting development intensity (through density controls, height limits, yard requirements, parking requirements and so forth) are often justified in terms of preserving the ‘amenity’ of the area or ensuring ‘quality development’ outcomes. Particular rules, like requiring minimum apartment sizes, seem to particularly verge on social engineering, but once again from the perspective that it’s important to limit development intensity.

Of course this doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any planning rules at all. Planning, at its simple level, is necessary to overcome the issue of externalities – that something done in one place can have adverse effects on others which just isn’t fair if there isn’t some sort of mechanism to control them. Think someone setting up a polluting factory next to your house. The other necessity of planning is to enable environmental protection and enhancement, to ensure – as per the Resource Management Act in New Zealand’s situation – that we manage natural and physical resources in a sustainable way. But a lot of planning rules arguably don’t really fit into either of these categeories for their justification. Minimum apartment sizes are a classic example of this – unless there’s justifiable proof that small apartments are really bad for people’s health (and I don’t think that’s the case).

My hypothesis is that we can call planners out for attempting social engineering with respect to some of the rules which end up in District Plans. However, in the complete opposite to Wendell Cox’s hypothesis that planners are forcing people out of the sprawl they’d otherwise prefer, I actually think that the social engineering undertaken remains a fear of intensity and density, a fear of urbanism in many respects – harking back to planning’s roots in 19th century England. There’s still an, almost sub-conscious, instinct that the lower density a development is the better, an assumption that people naturally prefer to live in a large house with a large backyard with two cars in the garage.

I think that many of the planning debates we have – over things like minimum apartment sizes, removing minimum parking requirements, whether places ‘should’ have dedicated outdoor open space and so forth – are somewhat strange arguments, because surely if someone doesn’t like a place then they won’t buy or rent it. And if enough people obviously don’t want to buy or rent a particular type of dwelling, then the developers will stop building them. But just because one person thinks that they prefer a large house with a yard and a double-garage increasingly doesn’t mean that everyone else wants the same thing. And it definitely doesn’t mean that other housing types should be banned, just because they’re “not something I’d like to live in”. That’s like banning Toyotas because they’re not as flash as Ferraris, or assuming that everyone likes SUVs because one person does, then banning other types of cars because they’re not SUVs.

I’m sorry Wendell Cox, but I think you’re the biggest social engineer of the lot.

15 comments to Planning and Social Engineering

  • Greg N

    “… And if enough people obviously don’t want to buy or rent a particular type of dwelling, then the developers will stop building them”
    Eventually that will happen.

    And then those houses/dwellings whether stand alone of part of a larger block cost a lot to build.
    So if the market decides it doesn’t want them, then you’ll still have a surplus of no longer desirable dwellings, which due to the cost of constructions won’t be demolished anytime soon, and if their too new won’t be worthwhile spending more money making them more desireable (assuming the developer is still around that is to even do that).

    To draw an comparison with cars, if a particular car (say Hummer SUV) doesn’t sell, then the maker stops making them, and tries to sell the old stock.
    But cars have a much shorter life than dwellings, and they can be scrapped and recycled easily, so by say 10 years or so, that car doesn’t exist in the marketplace.

    Not true with houses – they have a life span of 20 plus years minimum, usually more like 30-50 years, they cost a lost to build, and cost a lot to demolish when they are finished with.

    So that crap stuff being put up now, won’t be demolished/remodelled anytime soon, no matter what the market decides it wants or doesn’t want.

    So, planning has to, to some degree try and predict the future so that crap buildings won’t be constructed.
    So, it is needed at some level.
    Seems to me that the discussion is around the level of planning, and who gets to decide the rules and thus who benefits.

    Reminds me of a saying I read years ago that goes like this:

    “Many are called, few are chosen, even fewer get to do the choosing”.

    So, all this is about is Cox and others are arguing about is in essence those who “get to do the choosing”.

    • RHarris

      Yes true and also agree with James Millar below every policy is social engineering. Planning is predicting the future and guiding the society we want. Their are countless examples of planners getting things wrong and their effects like building tower blocks on the edge of cities when people want to live in the city. Some of those buildings are now being torn down after 30 years after the societal damage is done.

      • Luke C

        Paraphrasing a little “Their are countless examples of market led developers getting things wrong and their effects like building McMansions on the edge of cities when people want to live in the city. Some of those buildings are now being torn down after 3 years after the environmental damage is done.”

        Many ‘McMansion’ houses built in fringe suburbs in the USA are being torn down after only a couple of years, as there is no one to live in them, and no chance of selling them, Think this avoids property taxes. This is incredibly wastefully in Environmental terms.

        Most of the towers you speak of (eg Pruitt–Igoe, St Louis being most famous) were built for social housing which makes things much more complicated, and failure was often due to crime and social issues, the same issue that can be seen in NZ’s very low density state housing suburbs.

        • Also the ‘social engineering’ examples that the sprawlers always use are well out of date: no urbanist or ‘smart growther’ is advocating massive badly built towers to ghettoise the poor. This is a classic case of them clinging to a previous lesson when there is a new reality pressing in on us.

          Poverty is now increasingly suburban and a big part of that disconnection caused by those planning regs outlined above and, of course, transport poverty, the result of the ever rising costs of being forced into multiple vehicle ownership per household just to keep a job.

          As they now say in the US: “No (public) Transit: No Job”

          Robert Moses built the infamous ‘projects’ in NY: They came from the same thinking as his neighbourhood shattering urban motorways. Both these ideas are done and Cox and sadly deluded acolytes in NZ are increasingly irrelevant.

          By the way, this extreme Nanny State government is planning to completely destroy the RMA, and replace it with a place ruiners’ charter. It’s going to take quite some time to undo the damage that these vandals are wrecking all across NZ society and Inststutions.

    • Max

      > So that crap stuff being put up now, won’t be demolished/remodelled anytime soon, no matter what the market decides it wants or doesn’t want.

      We don’t build it all in one go, so the change is always rather gradual – and would be even if we had almost no controls. The problem is that we have such strict controls in some respects that NO change occurs. Our planning rules literally forbid residential outcomes like that found in some of the most liveable cities of the world, or force developers to go through so many hoops to get the exemptions agreed that they don’t even try.

  • James Millar

    I can’t help but feel that ‘social engineering’ is one of those almost entirely useless words thrown around political debate (like ‘political correctness’) that has come to mean ‘policy someone else suggested that I don’t like (for whatever reason)’. I mean isn’t any policy in effect ‘social engineering’, whether social or economic (as the two are intrinsically linked)? I remember during the last Labour government, suggestions to change policy around shower heads was met with howls from the right of a ‘nanny state’ and ‘social engineering’, whereas recently Steven Joyce was ordering universities to produce more engineering graduates. I don’t hear the same howls of ‘nanny state’ as before, yet fundamentally what is different – both are examples of top-down policy, the only difference being the party proposing it. Even parties proposing a lassez-faire approach to governing are engaging in social engineering – such policy is always going to favour the incumbents, as I doubt there’s a truly ‘free market’ in existence for anything (no barriers to entry, no asymmetry of information, no externalities etc).

    “So, all this is about is Cox and others are arguing about is in essence those who “get to do the choosing”.”

    Yep, pretty much!

  • Harry McDonald

    ‘I’m sorry Wendell Cox, but I think you’re the biggest social engineer of the lot.’
    I’m sorry but I don’t know why you’re sorry; you are only stating what seems obvious. To Cox (and Joyce, Quax, Brewer), ‘social engineering’ is planning with which they don’t agree. The rules they bring in just are not the same thing.
    The recent Mercer report on liveable cities was interesting in that the main(only?) criticism of Auckland was the lack of public transport – and this from people on large salaries.

  • Kleefer

    This post contains a mixture of useful observations, straw-man arguments and non-sequitur. I’ll start with the useful bits, which are around how planners get their wires crossed by advocating densification while putting rules in place that prevent this from happening. Where are two million Aucklanders supposed to live if they’re not allowed to build on the fringes but further subdivision and construction of apartments in established suburbs is disallowed? Interestingly, un-zoned Houston has higher density in its central city than smart growth poster cities San Francisco and Portland.

    The straw-man is that, without “planning”, some nasty person would be free to set up a polluting factory next to your house. This is absolutely not true. Common law protection of private property rights is more than sufficient in such a case. The Resource Management Act completely overrides private property rights by giving decision-making power to bureaucrats rather than those actually affected by proposed land uses. Also, you talk about externalities yet ignore the externalities created by smart growth, namely massively increased house prices.

    The non-sequitur is that your claim that because Wendell Cox is opposed to smart growth he must be opposed to density, therefore somehow he is a bigger social engineer than those who literally confiscate the property rights of everyone outside a squiggly line they draw on a map. Insane, but this is the sort of “thinking” that pervades not just this blog but much of the planning profession, where anyone who questions the benefits of smart growth is a dangerous heretic.

    • Nick R

      …and confiscate the property rights of everyone inside the line too.

      Once we change the regulation that prevents people exercising their property rights inside the line, we have no need for the line anymore. The problem with Cox et al is they demand the line be removed but simultaneously demand that all the same heavy regulations and constraints be maintained everywhere.

    • Mr Anderson

      I dunno about Wendell Cox but that other sprawl advocate Randal O’Toole sure opposes regulation changes that would encourage intensification: http://www.streetsblog.org/2010/09/01/shoup-to-otoole-the-market-for-parking-is-anything-but-free/

    • “Common law protection of private property rights…”

      As a lawyer I am thrilled to see that you would like to ensure that the legal profession in NZ is financially supported. If you start relying on tortious remedies to solve problems such as the one you have described, lawyers will be rubbing their hands with glee as you spend thousands of dollars taking on large corporations as you try to convince a court that you have suffered damage as a result of the factory moving in next door.

      Once the coporation with deep, deep pockets and mega law firms have rolled out multiple doctors testifying that the factory is perfectly safe and valuers saying that the value of your property has actually risen, you wont have a problem anymore. The years of strung out legal hearings and appeals will mean you will have had to sell your house by then and it won’t matter.

      I am all for it!

  • Luke C

    Interesting relevant article from the USA “Soaring Rents Drive a Boom in Apartments”
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/07/business/developers-of-new-housing-aim-for-renters-not-buyers.html?hp&_r=0
    Lots of young people wanting to live in apartments in cities rather than in sprawling subdivisions.

  • Doc

    I think the main thing this poster missed out is that there is a massive housing shortage in auckland. People are having trouble finding a place to sleep at night let alone it meeting what they want out of life.

    • Tom

      You can easily find a place to rent in Auckland, just not in the inner suburbs. You will have a problem if your expectations are too high.

    • Doc

      Not true, trying to find what you want in Auckland is not very easy at all and people are forced to make compromises and settle. It is this sort of situation where planning is most important as developers can get away doing the absolute minimum and people will still buy it.

      It’s just like any captive market, the producer has no need to innovate or be competitive as people will buy their goods due to having no other option.

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