Friday, April 9, 2010

The Problem with Growth Management

Since the early 1970s , urban planners in the United States have used growth management tools in response to sprawling urban growth and its accompanying ills. While planning literature splits these policies into gentler "growth management" (many urban growth boundaries, AFPOs, conservation easements, development fees) and more draconian "growth control" tools (housing caps, population limits, large-lot zoning), I consider them interchangeable below. Growth management tools have been used by state, regional, and local governments to address numerous important concerns including efficient provision of public services, natural resource conservation, farmland preservation, greenhouse gas reduction, social contiguity, downtown redevelopment etc. While few would disagree with the goals of growth management prima facie, the success of growth management planning faces two major obstacles. First, despite its noble intentions, growth management planning is perceived by many as a fundamental violation of private property rights: an icon that retains high monetary and symbolic value in the USA despite a long history of government regulation. While growth management policies have probably contributed more to the maintenance of land values than many private property advocates would choose to admit, a century of vitriolic legal history indicates that private property advocates see growth management, and land-use policy in general, as unconstitutional and inherently wrong. Second, the efficacy of growth management tools in achieving the aforementioned goals remains unclear. While many empirical studies demonstrate that growth management tools have influenced urban development in one way or another, and that relatively flexible growth management programs succeed [I think this is the case...], they also confirm that the complexity of land and housing markets render urban growth outcomes unpredictable and ultimately uncontrollable.

These two dilemmas leave planners to confront a rather uncomfortable contradiction: very stringent growth management policies (i.e. tightly regulated land markets) may help communities achieve desired environmental, economic, and social outcomes in the short-term, but they may further alienate property owners with contrary plans---and strong political alliances. Conversely, lenient growth controls may appease property owners, but sacrifice important municipal environmental and social objectives. What is a planner to do? How can planners possibly strike this unpredictable balance?

I argue that striking this balance is impossible. By retaining a myopic focus on growth management end-products, planning practice and scholarship engages in an impossible cat-herding task of pleasing everyone. While economic and spatial modeling may offer solutions that work in theory, even the most complex models and the most savvy compromise cannot pinpoint an equilibrium that satisfies every stakeholder at every moment. Instead, planners should reorient their focus toward growth management processes as both causes and solutions to sprawl. The thesis of this entry is that conventional, centralized, hierarchical growth management planning has exacerbated sprawl by imposing superficial solutions on a culturally reluctant public. While activists on both ends of the political spectrum have eroded the federal government's ability to control city planning from the nation's capital, local and regional authorities are no less hierarchical in their approach. Despite the most valiant (and expensive) efforts of planning institutions to engage stakeholders in public participation, growth management planning remains a process designed, administered, and imposed by a small and limited group of individuals.

As illustrated above, even the most intelligent and well-funded planners cannot independently produce solutions that solve the myriad conflicts (crime, gentrification, poor schools, pollution, unemployment, sanitation, water management, recreation, health, food systems, racism, demographic change) that push some residents and businesses to other regions. Centralized, fix-all solutions, therefore, result in further alienation, and individuals that can afford to, find their solutions to these conflicts in other places. Those who cannot afford to move away, persist as the structurally under-served and oppressed populations of our cities: quite often people of color, of low income, and/or low education.

Healing from within instead of imposing from above

Instead of being viewed as a region-wide outcome of unregulated land markets, sprawl should be approached as a mosaic of local conflicts that have been resolved by spatial defection (i.e.- "white flight") instead of resolution and consensus. Imposing growth controls without repairing the broken social capital inside cities will only result in further opposition, mismanagement, and perferation of urban growth boundaries. Sustainable land-use cannot be achieved with a solution or a plan. It must be sought through multiple intersecting planning processes initiated and administered by the people and organizations to whom these plans apply.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

GeoPortal Technology and Creating Cognitive Spaces

I spend a lot of my time experimenting with GeoPortals, online planning fora that allow individuals to access, contribute, and exchange plans. Ideally, GeoPortals will serve as "public space[s] outside public chambers" (Beauregard 2003), that offer explicit opportunities for diverse groups to share plans. Lew Hopkins, Professor Emeritus at UIUC, explains that plans are "signals of intent," much like prices are "signals of value." Plans are not strategies, designs, visions, or agendas (although these are important components of plans) but rather information about intended actions.

The conventional American planning system suppresses and hides the diversity of plans that exist in a region. Everybody makes plans, and many plans have overlapping and contradictory objectives. Within any metropolitan area, there are multiple Planning (with a capital "P") agencies (i.e. city and state planning departments, university planning departments, councils of government (COGs), regional planning commissions, and utility planning agencies). There are also innumerable planning organizations; organizations that make plans. Real estate developers, non-profit organizations, schools, businesses, homeowners, block clubs, civic organizations, and individual property owners all have their own plans. It becomes especially important to consider plans when their objectives overlap and/or contradict. Very often, the plans of organizations with monied interests (i.e. real estate) receive the most attention from Planning organizations because their plans have relativley large, and short-term tax revenue repercussions (whether positive or negative). Municipalities try very hard to create "comprehensive" plans that incorporate all the signals of intent of a city, but given our current hierarhical planning structure, truly incorporating every plan is humanly impossible. No municipal planning office has the time, money, or intelligence to keep track of all the plans in a city (that's not to say that planners aren't intelligent themselves...). As a result, plans that are less "valueable," or too long-term are marginalized or unrecognized, and the plans regonized in "comprehensive" plans are limited to smaller plans made by the city.

I am hopeful that GeoPortal technology can remedy this reality. GeoPortals carve out a virtual space in which all plans can be recognized. In a recent conversation with a colleague (thank you, Anne Silvis), I learned of a local non-profit that would like to acquire an entire block of land to create a safe environment for a women's shelter. An ideal GeoPortal would allow this organization to signal their intents to acquire a specific block, allowing the city, surrounding land owners, and neighbors of their intentions. The plans of the organization would appear on a map that shows where and how their plans intersect with city plans or the plans of other property owners. This paves a path for further dialogue or (god forbid!) conflict where no discussion would have occurred before.This is not to say that their plans are guaranteed to come to fruition or that it is in the best interest of everyone to make their plans public (Kaza 2009), but the city can no longer plead ignorance to the plans of an organization who might have otherwise prevailed invisible. The system validates their intentions and validates diversity. In so doing, it begins to errode at the hierarcy that has resulted in marginalized populations and environmental degradation.


Beauregard, R. 2003. Democracy, Storytelling, and the Sustainable City. Ch. 3 in Eckstein, B and Throgmorton, J. (eds). Story and Sustainbility: Planning, Practice, and Possibility for American Cities. MIT Press.

Kaza, N. 2009. In What Circumstances Should Plans be Public. Journal of Planning Education and Research. 28 (4).