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Urban Planning Mon Jun 20 2011

Discriminating/Discrimination in Urban Planning

An interesting piece at Reason takes on the powers of landmark preservationists, architectural guideline bodies, and zoning and planning agencies in general, casting them as stealth modes of discrimination in urban planning. Pointing to the spotty at best history of urban zoning codes, author Tim Cavanaugh reminds readers that in fact "accounting for taste" in regulating what gets built and where is almost inherently discriminatory in the way that liberal social engineers would detest:

In fact, New York's zoning resolution followed by more than half a decade the 1910 zoning law of Baltimore's progressive Mayor J. Barry Mahool, who explained that "Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidents of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority."


This is the part of the conversation where defenders of zoning ridicule the idea that we are still bound by the bigotries of our forebears. Sure, planning intervention still produces separate communities, but good taste knows no color (except maybe Burnt Sienna). We're well past that kind of narrow-mindedness, right?

I'm not so sure. The proud planning history of Los Angeles includes anti-Semitic zoning, Nat King Cole's one-man desegregation of Hancock Park, and racially restrictive "covenants" on property titles. Today, the favored term of zoning disparagement is the epithet "Persian Palace" to describe gaudy mansions built by Iranian-Americans. When you look at the type of people who end up on the receiving end of land-use enforcements - from rooster restrictions to harassment of Antelope Valley hillbillies by "nuisance abatement teams" to censorship of outsider artists via permitting requirements - they sure don't seem to be folks at the top of the food chain in terms of political influence.

That's the attraction of urban planning: It allows discrimination but dresses it up as discriminating taste.

This is a favorite rhetorical maneuver of libertarians, to pull out examples of "social engineering" or regulatory practices being used for racist or sexist purposes to pull the rug out from under the advocates of such regulation. Ignoring that rhetorical play, Cavanaugh's argument is actually somewhat convincing. While zoning codes are certainly not inherently racist or discriminatory (and certainly not immoral, as Cavanaugh suggests), they do lend themselves to that other enemy of libertarians: rent-seeking big players.

The fact of the matter is that big developers have more opportunity to buy political influence to exploit the discretionary space in zoning and planning codes to exempt themselves from it. If you have the resources to lobby government, buy aldermen, and even hold cities hostage with the threat of "job removal," you can get around the rules that bind the less influential.

For example, zoning codes typically include "higher-level" zoning designations that give maximum flexibility to developers--often called Planned Developments or Planned Unit Developments. PD districts are specifically permitted to depart from the underlying requirements, and because of their greater impact are left to the discretion of zoning administrators and commissions to determine their appropriateness. Often what happens is that commissions will extract some exactions from the developer--rebuild some sidewalks, install a traffic light at your expense--in return for granting the permission to build in that style. This is a trade off that only big players can afford to make. It also helps if you've donated to your local alderman, who holds the aldermanic prerogative over decisions in their ward.

The problem is not the zoning codes themselves, however, it is the ability of the richest or most influential firms to manipulate or ignore it; in other words, it is the fact that it is not applied equally. For Cavanaugh, Euclidean zoning is inherently immoral because some Randian stereotype of a government bureaucrat is going around telling everyone how to use their property. But the whole idea of Euclidean zoning and its progeny is that your ability to use your property should not injure the ability of your neighbors to enjoy the use of their property. Imagine if you spent your life savings buying a piece of property, cultivating your little garden, renovating your home--and then a wealthy developer buys the homes next door to install a pig fat rendering plant with 24 hour operations. Will the magical market unicorns solve this problem for you? Your home will lose all of its value; Cavanaugh would praise this because it wasn't his Snidely Whiplash bureaucrat impacting your property but someone with more money, which makes it moral.

Nevertheless, Cavanaugh's piece has something very serious and fundamental at its core: rule makers and social engineers often forget; that excessive abstraction from reality will produce painful results for actual people. You can hand power to bureaucracies and professionals to implement standards, but the powerful--particularly the wealthy--will seek to exploit them, and will more often than not succeed, and the better angels of our nature rarely win out when it comes to property:

This kind of Platonic flapdoodle is easy in a world of design mavens who believe people would like housing projects if only they were drawn up by Rem Koolhaas. But the laws we're talking about produce non-theoretical misery for those Americans who, for a variety of reasons, are less than fully stylish.

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