Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Are Planners Anti-Capitalists?

There are always theoretical debates on the limits of government on the free market. No profession is affected more by these free market debates than city planning. How far the government can alter the market place of the most expensive commodity, property, is always in the backdrop in planning decisions. In fact, city planning started as a reaction to how the free market plan or didn’t plan property and ever since, planning’s role as a check and balance of sorts to the free market has always been questioned.

The divide of those who question planning’s authority on the free market versus those who are pro-regulation, naturally often falls on political ideologies. Those that are in favor of the free market determining how neighborhoods develop are often conservative. They believe that ultimately, the free market i.e. people’s wallets should determine neighborhood viability and investment. Those that are pro-regulation still very much believe in the free market but they also believe certain places, institutions and cultural characteristics should be protected from the boom and bust cycle of the market. Most planners fall into the latter category.

But the reason that most planners are pro-regulation is not solely based on liberal beliefs but it is also based on the history of capitalist free market planning. While the free market can do things government can not do, like organically gentrify dilapidated neighborhoods, design futuristic developments and create lively urban cores, the free market also has a history of being prejudiced, self-segregating and exclusionary.

From a planning perspective there seems to be two dominant patterns of the free market development in cities. There is the development pattern of building what is only absolutely necessary for the function of the marketplace. Examples of this would be early tenement housing, workforce housing located next to factories and waterways dominated by industry, railways and ports. The other development pattern of the free market is based upon on much people are willing to spend to live in neighborhoods to their likes and preferences. Examples of this would be bedroom communities, neighborhoods with covenants and of course redlining.

The latter development pattern has been much more common in American metropolises since the Urban renewal era and even much more troubling. While today, we do not see the illegal practices of redlining and blockbusting from the 1960s, we still see the free market playing into class separation. The free market has always marketed to home buyers that they should live with people who are just like them. And depending on how willing people to spend the market will fiercely defend your right to live only by others who are just like you and will price out or physically divide out all others that are different from you.

Now, many believe that if a person wants to spend their money to separate themselves from others that is their right. And it is their right even if it is the antithesis of city development, which is based upon the sharing of ideals and customs. The free market will always market exclusivity over cohesion and will use the fear of having someone living next to the unknown to play up the exclusivity of a development. And the idea of living next to others like you can make someone almost unknowingly participate in further class separation. If you asked folks, would you rather live in a diverse, cohesive city or would you rather live in a city that is divided by class struggle, most people would choose the former. But if you asked people which would they rather live, a mixed income neighborhood with people from various different backgrounds or in a neighborhood where all the houses are worth over 250K? Which neighborhood would people choose?

These distortions in the market place affect the cohesiveness and equity of city neighborhoods and therefore affect city planning decisions. If the goal is to maintain a well balanced functional city for all (Note: you do not have to sacrifice a neighborhood or a city’s well being for the sake of diversity. You can have both) is it really that unfair if planners ask for a certain percentage of below-market housing units for working families for new developments? Is it unfair for planners to ask for rent control for a city’s last remaining working class neighborhoods? Are planners anti-capitalists if we steer high-impact developments away from low-density neighborhoods?