Does California Really Need More Planning?

Development should be a reaction to market demand

Critics call some new suburban development “unplanned,” a term that in their vocabulary goes right along with inefficient, unorderly, haphazard, cookie-cutter, and a host of other unflattering adjectives. Following suit, the California chapter of the American Planning Association (APA) recently stated that California has insufficient planning. They offer policies that will purportedly provide Californians with “smart” choices about where to live.

Unplanned development and insufficient planning conjure up visions of vast housing tracts and strip malls with no rhyme or reason in their design or location. It is as if some force randomly selected a spot on the map for houses without regard to the surroundings. Of course, after this illusion has been created, we are told that this is bad, that this unplanned growth is what is wrong with today’s suburbia and it ought to be changed through more and better planning.

The California APA really wants more planning of its preferred developments, new urbanist model communities, which include much higher densities, narrower streets, and rental units and retail/office uses located in a town center. Of course, these types of communities can be, and are, planned and built if there is demand for them. However, it is inaccurate to characterize types of developments you disagree with as “unplanned” while portraying developments you prefer as “planned.”

The inference here is that more planning will give us the kind of cities the planning and smart growth supporters desire. This, planners claim, will rid us of these pesky growth-related problems such as traffic congestion, environmental degradation, loss of community, and lack of infrastructure because people will begin walking to work, get involved in their communities, and conserve more natural resources. But, this assertion ignores realities about housing and real estate markets because these smart growth advocates have reversed the cause and effect. Land use patterns do not fundamentally affect human behavior, but are the result of consumer preferences. People don’t drive because of our dispersed land use pattern so much as driving allowed them to live as they wanted in a lower density environment. The level of neighborhood involvement has little to do with the type of home one lives in or the density of the area, but rather the individuals themselves.

More traditional planning will do little to solve growth related problems in California except give us more of the same-single-use zoning, expensive transit systems with low ridership, HOV lanes that are rarely used, strict land use controls that limit development innovation, and urban growth boundaries that cause leapfrog development and drive up housing prices. This is the same planning that has given use what we have now – traffic congestion, numbing sameness in local malls and stale residential subdivisions, and exclusionary zoning practices that restrict housing choices for consumers.

What California needs are more market-based mechanisms that price development and public services according to consumers’ usage patterns and allow real estate markets to function more effectively. We pay for our utility bills based on our use, we pay more for airline tickets and hotels during high travel periods, why not price roads, sewers, and water service much the same way? Highway 91 express lanes in southern California has used utility-type pricing and has been tremendously successful moving thousands of commuters every day nearly congestion free. To protect valuable open space and cropland, the state could use land trusts and transfers of development rights instead of restrictive growth boundaries that arbitrarily help some landowners and hurt others. Cities could use flexible zoning to stimulate mixed land uses so a sandwich shop, for example, could locate within a residential neighborhood or an industrial park instead of in a strip mall down the street.

Economic incentives will have more success in our market-oriented economy than top-down controls or propaganda about where and how to live. If planners are to have any success in preparing us for future growth, they should focus on planning and pricing infrastructure and removing barriers to private development innovation, not championing one style of development over another.

The nature of development does not drive human behavior, but rather is driven by it. Development should be a reaction to market demand, not a social engineering tool designed to manipulate human behavior.

Chris Fiscelli is a senior fellow in urban and land use policy at Reason Foundation