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John Petro

Centrally Planned or Privately Funded?

After considering the legacy of urban planning in the United States during the 20th Century—the bulldozing of entire neighborhoods for slum removal, the construction of public housing towers, and lacerating city centers with expressways—Slate magazine’s architecture critic Witold Rybczynski warns us against taking on large publicly-planned projects once again.

Rybczynski points out, “Urban renewal destroyed rather than repaired inner-city neighborhoods,” a generalization that largely holds true. Large urban planning projects were often at odds with what makes cities successful: pedestrian-oriented streets that are diverse and vibrant; environments that allow the mixture of different uses and serendipitous interactions with other users; and building types that are easily adapted for new uses.

The scale of many centrally-planned projects was hostile to the pedestrian. Superblocks sucked the vibrancy and vitality out of neighborhoods. The separation of uses—cultural centers and downtown office ghettos—ensured that large parts of the city would be all but deserted for large parts of the day.

One reason that large-scale urban planning is so difficult to do well is that cities are organic, the result of millions of small human interactions, and the physical makeup of cities reflect the actions and desires of the human beings within the community. Centrally planned projects, on the other hand, are imposed, inorganic, and reflect the actions and desires of the planners or city officials.

Which is probably why Rybczynski argues that “a vision of the future city will best emerge from the marketplace.” Presumably because the marketplace is an organic entity it better represents the needs and desires of cities, neighborhoods, and communities.

Except that the marketplace—and I take marketplace to mean the “free market” or the private sector—often does not reflect these needs and desires. The private sector is motivated by profit, and the means with which the private sector expresses this motivation are often at odds with what is best for a city and its inhabitants.

For example, New York City experienced a tremendous residential building boom through much of the last decade. But driven by profit motive, developers built predominantly luxury condominiums affordable to only the richest New Yorkers. Meanwhile, middle-income housing is becoming even more scarce. Clearly a city without a middle class is not in anyone’s interest, but the private sector is not interested in providing public goods.

There is a role for the public sector after all. By setting clear standards and requirements for the private sector, cities can guide new development to meet the city’s needs. That is why cities can and should implement policy that ensures that private developers contribute to maintaining a healthy urban fabric. Development impact fees, inclusionary zoning policies, and other standards are effective policy tools that cities can use to guide development.

Additionally, cities must continue to provide the types of public goods that benefit everyone. Parks, transportation systems, and cultural institutions are best provided by the public sector, which is driven by motives other than profit.

But in order to do so, citizens must once again trust their local governments to do what is right for the city and its citizens. Rybczynski has given up hope for the public sector to take the lead on shaping development. But relying on the private sector will not adequately address all of a city’s needs.

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Posted at 5:48 PM, Apr 22, 2010 in Urban Affairs
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