Out of Control Policy Blog

Kelo and Intention-based Urban Planning

Randal O'Toole has a great op-ed in the Globe and Mail today that uses the Kelo decision, and its deference to comprehensive planning as a legitimate justification for the use of eminent domain, as a launching point for a consise, eloquent critique of modern urban planning:

The Supreme Court's majority in Kelo v. New London assumed that the benefits of the Connecticut city's plan would be greater than the costs. But rather than ask whether that had been true of previous plans, the court simply judged the planners by their intentions, not their results.

In fact, comprehensive urban plans in the United States, and the rest of the developed and developing world, have a nasty habit of costing far more than the planners project, producing far fewer benefits and causing all sorts of unintended harmful consequences.

The reason is simple: Cities, like economies, are far too complex to scientifically plan. Rather than admit they can't do it, planners follow simplistic fads. In the 1950s, the fad was high-rise public housing projects, which proved disastrous all over the world. Today, the fad is "smart growth," packing people into high-density, mixed-use developments and rebuilding existing neighbourhoods of single-family homes with higher densities.

My hometown of Portland, Ore., is recognized throughout the United States as the model for "smart growth." In 1992, planners promised to save the Portland region from becoming like Los Angeles, the most congested, most polluted and one of the most expensive urban areas in America. To do this, Portland planners decided to increase the region's population density by 70 per cent, build few new roads (because new roads encourage people to drive) and, instead, build lots of light-rail and streetcar lines.

As an afterthought, planners compared other urban areas across America with their future vision of Portland. One area turned out to have the highest population density, the fewest miles of freeway per capita, and an expensive system of passenger rail lines. Which urban area was it? Why, Los Angeles, of course.

. . . .

The truth is, no one can ever collect or understand enough data to understand a complex urban area, much less predict the future. But "if economic reality is so complex that it can only be described by complicated mathematical models," says planning guru Herman Daly, "then the reality should be simplified." Lenin would have liked that.

Read the whole thing.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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