Sunday, March 18, 2007

Architects vs. Economists

I've been doing some more thinking on the comprehensive urban planning debate, and I might have some insight into the two opposing perspectives, which I would characterize as architects vs. economists.

Let's start with economists. One of the major lessons of the 20th century is that economies are too complex to be effectively planned - as the gigantic failures of communism and socialism in Asia and Eastern Europe showed. Free markets are clearly the way to go. Economies can be "guided" somewhat, yes, but comprehensively planned? No.

At the other extreme, we have architects and their buildings. In this realm, clearly, planning is everything. Putting a bunch of construction materials and people on a site and letting the "free market" construct a building without a plan or coordination is clearly not going to work very well.

In between those two extremes, we have a big set of grey areas: economies -> regions -> metros -> cities -> neighborhoods -> streetscapes -> buildings. Free market economics is generally the best model for the left side, and architectural/urban planning for the right, but what about the middle?

Clearly planning can work at a level higher than a building. Think of the core Mall area of Washington DC, or master-planned developments like The Woodlands. The Woodlands may be pushing the practical limits of planning, though. Even with all their accolades, it looks like they left out a lot of stuff people want, because there is an incredible amount of commercial development just outside their boundry along I45.

Houston is a *big* city, and comprehensively planning it is probably a problem on the same scale as planning the economy of Cuba - and notice how well that's worked out for Fidel and the Cubans. Planning is more appropriate at the neighborhood and streetscape levels (like with TIRZ districts, area plans, and deed restrictions).

One problem seems to be that the loudest voice at the city level is biased towards architects and planners, who are very involved in urban affairs (it's their context and lifeblood, respectively), vs. economists, who can pretty easily ignore cities while being very successful in their field (the most famous "urban economist" being Jane Jacobs, who wasn't even professionally trained in economics).

Planners are basically architects on a larger scale, but one big difference is that architects have a building budget, while all planners can do is say "build this, or don't build at all" - essentially a giant obstacle course to builders and their plans, filtering out the ones that don't fit the vision. What does get built looks pretty nice, but it's the proverbial "visible tip of the iceberg" compared to everything that didn't get built or all the needs of consumers, land owners, and citizens that are not being met by "the plan."

At the end of the day, planning is unlikely to achieve what most of its supporters want. The opposite in fact. In almost all other cities, the planners specify density in some areas and not in others. The low-density "neighborhood protection" sails through, but activist NIMBYs use the mandatory public processes and reviews to shoot down most of the higher-density designations and projects - leaving a city with less density, less development, fewer pedestrian and mixed use areas, and less vibrancy. Portland is one of the few cities that has been able to use an all-powerful regional government entity (Metro) to ignore the NIMBYs and force the density through, but now even they are facing a voter backlash. What are the odds any Houston planning effort will get powers anywhere close to Portland's Metro? Pretty much zip, which means Houston would get stuck in the same position as just about every other city in the country that has adopted planning/zoning: low-density, low-development stagnation. No thanks. In the spirit of Jane Jacobs, I'll take a little "messy vibrancy" over that anytime.

27 Comments:

At 9:29 PM, March 18, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

Why does this have to be either/or? It isn't in most cities. Why is The Woodlands your paradigm for planning?

 
At 10:04 PM, March 18, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

They represent ends of a continuum, and it is possible to blend elements of both (which I argue for at the neighborhood level), but I think the bias in too many cities is too far on the planning side.

The Woodlands has won many awards, and has planners from all over the world flying in to look at their model. I think it's pretty much the best local example.

 
At 11:22 PM, March 18, 2007, Anonymous Neal Meyer said...

Tory,

Those are some very valid observations. It is one thing to plan a shopping mall, a suburban bedroom community, a mixed use development, or some other development. It is another thing altogether to attempt to plan an entire city and attempt to shape the future. There are so many things that could change over time and would be planners are trying to divine what the desires of thousands (or millions) of people are. Inevitably the hopes of some members of the public (usually involving property rights) and those of the planners are going to clash.

When I think about the issue of zoning, it occurs to me how often zoning variances are demanded and granted. There is little doubt in my mind that if Houston were to adopt a zoning ordainance, there would be hundreds of requests for variances every year, which would be indicative that planners would have failed to see (or foresee) something. Academic studies indicate that about 60-80 percent of variances are granted. There is no doubt in my mind that zoning itself would quickly become intolerable and would have to be abandoned were it not for variances.

 
At 10:18 AM, March 19, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

Well, the Woodlands is an example of planning for an upper-income suburb, not a major city. For good local examples of how planning has been balanced with free market economics in a major city, I would look to Dallas, San Antonio, or Austin. All three have managed to enjoy thriving economies while avoiding the aesthetic stigma we have received.

 
At 10:33 AM, March 19, 2007, Blogger kjb434 said...

One of the best examples of a master planned city that has not succeeded except for people being forced to live as a government center: Brasilia, Brazil.

One the best examples of a master planned city that has succeeded and is also a government center: Canberra, Australia.

Both has completely different vision. Canberra's had some flexibility. The only issue I have is that both are government centers, which mean free market forces are severely out of wack (just look at northern Virginia near Washington, D.C.

 
At 10:35 AM, March 19, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, Austin gets high marks primarily for geography, which won't change anytime soon. I'm from Austin and I can assure you that it has less to do with architecture and more to do with being able to have a house in the hills or on a lake (all artificially created) and to be able to look out and view the hills to the west. San Antonio does have some of the same geographic elements to its northwest, but San Antonio is not a planned city by any means, considering that a large majority of the development has occurred along the I-10W Loop 410 Hwy 1604 I-35 N corridor. Most "gringos" that visit SA never see anything other than downtown and the SeaWorld/Fiesta Texas areas-I'm sure they would have a different view if they went to South or East S.A. Dallas is a mystery, it is probably less aesthetically pleasing than Houston, considering it has tremendous sprawl, less trees, plenty of concrete, etc.etc. Dallas still receives a tremendous amount of goodwill from a show that's been off the air 20+ years ago. Most people that assume Dallas is more pleasant place have never stepped foot in the great state of Texas so they have no observations from which to draw.

 
At 2:48 PM, March 19, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

I didn't say any of those were "master-planned." They have balanced modest planning with the free market. All three are seen as being tidier and more well-kept than Houston, something which has especially hurt our image vis a vis Dallas. Drive through Dallas, even though poor areas, and tell me it doesn't seem like people just care more about their city and how it looks. Yes, Austin benefits a lot from geography, but the whole effect would be a lot less pleasant if Lamar Drive looked like Shepherd or Congress resembled Main.

Of course, there are a couple of nice roads in Houston - like Memorial Dr. and the streets near Rice - but they are the result of planning!

 
At 3:55 PM, March 19, 2007, Blogger kjb434 said...

Hey, the Woodlands is NOT an upper income development. Withing the approximately 30,000 acres of development, there are plenty of lower income development and apartments.

Currently, the last major phase of the Woodlands on the Harris County side of Spring Creek contains some of the most expensive and some of the cheapest homes in the development.

The Woodlands also contains many duplex style housing which have the lower price tag.

The variety of housing withing the development is one of the reasons they have won so many planning awards since they cater to all income levels versus focusing on one type.

 
At 5:00 PM, March 19, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory - no offense intended, but you don't have a clue as to how planning and zoning operate in this country, especially when you go off the deep end making a comparison between planning and communism.

 
At 5:13 PM, March 19, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Communism essentially says "a technocratic elite in the government can understand people's needs and plan to meet them." Seems pretty similar to comprehensive urban planning to me.

 
At 7:38 PM, March 19, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up in Dallas, and I go there a lot. While I can agree that, say, Preston Rd. looks more "tasteful" than, say, Westheimer Rd., I can also emphatically assert that it is a lot more "boring".

And what could be a bigger waste of precious green space than a "parkway"? I say let all the useful-but-ugly stuff like car dealers, furniture stores, and Best Buys gather near all the cars, where they should be anyway.

jt

 
At 10:31 PM, March 19, 2007, Blogger Justin Sabrsula said...

Really, Tory? Really? Communism? Your argument is specious at best, and makes you sound like you're calling people names! What if we defined urban planning as people having a say in the way their world works around them? Sounds an awful lot like democracy to me.

 
At 11:31 PM, March 19, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

"And what could be a bigger waste of precious green space than a "parkway"? I say let all the useful-but-ugly stuff like car dealers, furniture stores, and Best Buys gather near all the cars, where they should be anyway."

You're right, they really screwed up when they planned Memorial Dr. Should have let it end up like Westheimer.

 
At 11:33 PM, March 19, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

Thank you, Justin. Some common sense amid the paranoia.

 
At 2:40 AM, March 20, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

mike,

You're serious? Plopping a private freeway for wealthy suburbanites right through the middle of the city's main park is an example of *good* planning? It does seem pretty screwed up to me.

(Maybe we should double-deck it. The views would be great! Hey, I think I'm getting the hang of this "planning" thing after all...)

jt

 
At 7:56 AM, March 20, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Justin: not attempting name calling, just pointing out that planning has limits due to the complexity of the problem - and communism is an extreme example of that failure. In theory, the US govt could nationalize all industry, and Congress could run it, and that would be "democracy", but I think most people would agree that would be a disaster.

If the federal govt argued it needed to handle comprehensive urban planning for the entire country, I think, again, most people would realize that's ludicrous. Or even if the state govt thought it could do it for Texas. I'm simply arguing that a city and metro the size of Houston is also beyond the practical, effective limits of comprehensive planning. I think the more effective unit for planning is the neighborhood, through deed restrictions, master-planned communities, area plans, and TIRZ districts. It's really the practical size limit for complexity that humans can handle.

 
At 9:03 AM, March 20, 2007, Anonymous Brian Shelley said...

"Really, Tory? Really? Communism?"

Yes Really Justin. Democracy has to be tempered by inalienable rights. Otherwise democracy falls victim to the tyranny of the majority. Virtually every embarassing event in American history was the result of the majority democratically emposing its will on a minority.

"Your argument is specious at best, and makes you sound like you're calling people names!"

Back it up! Why is it specious? Or do we assume you speak in tautologies?

"What if we defined urban planning as people having a say in the way their world works around them? Sounds an awful lot like democracy to me."

What if we defined urban planning as removing the liberties of individual property owners so as to appease the aesthetic concerns of the majority.

This is why I often can not take urban planning seriously intellectually. You can not dismiss dissent by questioning the moral fortitude or mental capacity of it purveyors while ignoring the arguments. Nor can you attempt to marginalize opinions by lumping them into the "radical" category just because they are outside of the beliefs of your social circle.

All indulge in this behavior from time to time, but I think Tory has been a stalwart defender of the use of facts and logical deduction which has maintained the integrity of this blog over the period of time I have been involved. I indulged in heavy handed behavior when I first joined with capital letter arguments and similar rubish. What I have learned from this blog is that it is in the nuances that opinions are changed, not in the blunt force of a well crafted retort.

 
At 11:00 AM, March 20, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

jt,

I was mainly thinking of Memorial Dr. as it runs through the Villages. They decided to prevent commercial businesses from building on it, and it makes for a pretty nice road. Every city should have a few roads like that.

Btw, I didn't know Memorial Dr. through the park was a private freeway. Lucky I've been able to get away with driving down it all these years.

 
At 11:08 AM, March 20, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

Brian,

If you think people have an inalienable right to do whatever they want with their property regardless of who is around them or where they live, and that any infringement of such right is "tyranny of the majority," I'm not sure there is a city in the world that will suit you.

"Nor can you attempt to marginalize opinions by lumping them into the "radical" category just because they are outside of the beliefs of your social circle."

Would this include comparing any attempts at any form of planning, before even seeing the details of what they entail, to communism?

 
At 12:23 PM, March 20, 2007, Anonymous brian shelley said...

Mike,

Rights have to be protected from the majority. It is not enough to just say that that's what the majority wants. You need to present a case of why some rights or priveleges of property can be usurped for the better good. I think the honus is on the urban planners to prove this. I don't think that "It would be prettier" is enough.

"Would this include comparing any attempts at any form of planning, before even seeing the details of what they entail, to communism?"

-Yes

I don't see a problem with Tory's use of communism as the end of a spectrum. I think urban planning taken ludicrously far enough would approach what most of us think of as communism. In reality has this occurred? Not that I'm aware of. Do some espouse it? It comes across that way at times.

Mike, from past posts you have come across as reasonable (in regards to my "liquidity" post). I want small and specific planning proposals that are legal, reasonable, and limited in scope. When someone uses "zoning" or "urban planning" I can't distinguish between reasonable government interventions and veritable urban planning communists.

 
At 1:47 PM, March 20, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike replied to Brian saying

"If you think people have an inalienable right to do whatever they want with their property regardless of who is around them or where they live, and that any infringement of such right is "tyranny of the majority," I'm not sure there is a city in the world that will suit you."

People don't have a right to do stuff on their property that will harm others. We dont need zoning to prevent that from happening though. We already have the common law nuisance doctrine. This is also generally prevented by the nature of real estate economics. If one owner has already decided that one use is the most economically efficient it is highly unlikely that the owner of the lot next door will decide that some radically conflicting use is actually the most economically efficient. If he does we still have the previously mentioned nuiscance doctrine.

Zoning is a least good solution to a recognized problem. Most issues we talk about in this forum, like historical preservation, I would prefer to see the city buy the rights to the land as opposed to appropriating them by zoning. Where it is citizen vs. citizen we already have the nuisance doctrine. Given we already have solutions without all of the negative controlling aspects as zoning, I do not understand why zoning seems to have such an appeal.

 
At 2:52 PM, March 20, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

Who said anything about zoning?

 
At 3:04 PM, March 20, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

*Not that I would compare zoning with communism, except in a very severe form. I live in College Station, which has zoning, but does not feel communist. Other cities that have zoning like Dallas, Austin, or the Villages do not feel communist either. They've managed to provide pleasant roadways and protect scenic and historic areas from insensitive development.

On the other hand, when I lived in Chicago I felt like they took things too far. With them, I can see the communist comparison.

But again... who said anything about zoning?

 
At 6:06 PM, March 22, 2007, Blogger Justin Sabrsula said...

Tory,

I don't think anyone's proposing that the City of Houston take over the development of private property to the exclusion of all other entities. I don't think the federal government has proposed to take over any sort of land use planning in cities across America.

In fact, I don't think land use planning, in the use of zoning, is a good idea at all. Studies have generally shown that cities with zoning like Atlanta and Phoenix have turned out remarkably similarly to Houston, primarily because the market will generally dictate that retail needs a certain amount of traffic, whether auto or foot, to pay the rents, and that people prefer certain types of housing in certain locations.

In response to the appropriate region for planning - what about transportation problems that occur at a regional level? What about flooding and drainage problems that occur at a regional level? What about mass transportation among city centers at a regional level? These are the types of problems that comprehensive planning should seek to address. I totally agree that lot size, signage, setback requirements, etc. can be determined on a neighborhood basis - and in most cities with comprehensive planning, they are. But as of right now, no planning is being undertaken - I believe the term for Houston would be spatial anarchy.

However, to say that private property rights trump all public good is to renounce not only the idea of planning, but of government itself. And I'm not sorry if I don't agree that paying taxes or participating in any sort of collective action equals communism.

 
At 8:18 PM, March 22, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

As I've said before, I totally support infrastructure planning - we do that now, and that's not under debate. The call has been for *comprehensive* planning, which seems to include form, density, lot size, and possibly even land use.

> However, to say that private property rights trump all public good is to renounce not only the idea of planning, but of government itself. And I'm not sorry if I don't agree that paying taxes or participating in any sort of collective action equals communism.

These are not my positions. All I'm saying is that communism was an attempt to plan at the national economy level, and it failed due to the complexity of the problem. I think that holds lessons for the scale detailed urban planning is most effective at - city is probably too complex, but streetscape and maybe neighborhood is managable.

 
At 9:52 PM, June 04, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Several problems here.

First, seems you're looking for a target: planners are the bad guy, or 'NIMBYs.' It's a destructive attitude and one that'll backfire.

Second, it's not an either/or circumstance, and mis-characterize it as 'either build this, or don't build at all.'

The facts are very much the opposite. Zoning OPENS UP a specific land use--the choice is 'build for that use--in any variation, or build somewhere else. I.e., put your preferred project in an area designated for that land use.

Third, grumbling that conventional zoning has produced sprawl--so Houston, perhaps the most spread-out city of all, shouldn't adopt planning--is a silly and bankrupt sort of inverted logic.

Just manipulate the zoning codes to accomplish the situation you're describing as desirable. Not hard.

I agree cities should set aside areas where 'anything goes'--meaning rather than totally prescriptive. Too many zoning ordinances are so specific they dictate everything but the building.

But why is that? Proposing out-of-scale projects on in appropriate sites and foisting badly designed buildings on a neighborhood--well, it's no wonder that kind of poor judgment created a backlash.

Personally, I think suburban conformity goes way too far. But the alternative has to be of a high enough quality to justify the complaint. And ultimately, it comes down to this--EVERY economist will tell you cities' competitive advantage comes from clustering people close together. So the 'no planning' position fails outright: 'anything, anywhere' can hamstring and disarticulate cities, weakening economic clusters and economic competitiveness. It can violate the character of attractive low-density areas that are strong assets, economic and otherwise. And it doesn't produce a range of housing options for the consumer.

If it's creativity, hustle-&-bustle, or a hot market you're looking for, there are ways to zone areas to implement that goal. Making planners a scapegoat for what's already wrong with your city, though, isn't so much simplistic as it is bankrupt.

 
At 7:31 AM, June 05, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Wasn't saying planners are bad - just that they need to operate at the right scale (a small one). Planners can still do great things at the neighborhood and streetscape levels.

Zoning is obviously more constraining than non-zoning. What if there is more demand for commercial space than what's zoned? Or more demand for high, or low, density residential? Or industrial? Or the demand is somewhere different from where it's been zoned? That creates inefficiencies and costs.

> Personally, I think suburban conformity goes way too far. But the alternative has to be of a high enough quality to justify the complaint.

I take the opposite tack: the free market should rule, unless what is proposed creates enough specific nuisance to justify a complaint and modification. And that standard should be quite high.

> cities' competitive advantage comes from clustering people close together

Sort of - what actually matters is how many people you can connect with in a given travel time - and that might be a longer distance, but in a faster vehicle (like a car vs. transit or walking).

The free market will cluster people to the extent it is advantageous. Houston's core is rapidly densifying for exactly that reason.

I will admit planners are only part of the problem. They may have good intentions (although in no way better knowledge than the market), but the implementation mechanisms that get set up for control get highjacked by politicians and NIMBYs - often against planners wishes (inc. a wish for more density in certain areas). In the end, the free market is better than a bastardized bureacracy.

 

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