Monday, March 20, 2006

Planning or behaviour modification?

London will soon be experimenting with a new type of suburb, according to the London Free Press. The aim of the project is apparently to encourage new suburban development to be "friendlier," but to whom? Although detested by urban elites on aesthetic grounds, by activists of progressive or socialist stripes who find little common ground with or support from residents of self-owned property, and by planners who abhor deviation from the textbooks, suburbs are the chosen destination of most families precisely because they are friendly places to live and raise children. That is why London's experiment with what city planner John Fleming calls "placemaking" — to avoid the contentious terms "new urbanism" or "new suburbanism" — is driven by planners, urban elites and activists.

The protruding garages of the modern day suburban houses were to be replaced by porches. The garages would be off rear lanes and hidden from the street. The streets themselves would be narrower. The effect would be of an old city neighbourhood from the 1930s, with the same friendly feel.

[…] During the past five years, members of the public and council have complained about urban sprawl. But by planning definitions, there really isn't urban sprawl in London, Fleming says. There are clearly defined areas of growth, services such as sewer and water lines in place, and designated green spaces.

"We began to understand when people were talking about sprawl, really what they were getting at was this homogeneous sameness across the landscape."

Planners were frustrated with complaints about sprawl until they realized what people were talking about.

"We were ignoring this one side, this sense of place," Fleming says. "When people think of sprawl they think of these endless suburbs, human filing cabinets where there is no real sense of difference between a suburb in Brantford, Windsor or London. If I were to blindfold you and drop you into a suburb in one of those communities you likely wouldn't know where you were. This is what people were objecting to."
The sort of people who take the trouble to object to planners about the "sameness" and endlessness of suburbs are the sort of people who typically aren't going to be living in them. They are the same sort of people who feel intellectually comfortable asserting vague and pleasant-sounding rhetoric as incontrovertible standards by which other people must live. Where a dozen vocal opponents of development shout at their council, hundreds or thousands of others quietly go about the business of creating a home and a community on their own.

This is not to suggest that the structural ideals of new suburbanism are themselves objectionable or malevolent. Porches, gridlike streets, parks facing open streets… many homeowners would undoubtedly find these desirable commodities. And, as the article points out, risk aversion in large capital projects such as subdivisions can sometimes make the marketplace slow to respond to consumer demands. Slow, but not insensitive however. The risk of codifying a new planning "ism," even if it's given a folksy name like placemaking, is much greater, however, than a few more "endless suburbs, human filing cabinets" on the landscape. It is a short step from forming a prescription for the ideal and expected behaviour of consumers and sellers in their own best interests to commanding the behaviour in the form of regulation and legislation, a short step that even people with well-meaning intentions find too irresistable to consider the means of achieving them.
Municipalities, such as Waterloo, are creating new communities through wholesale change in regulations, forcing developers to adopt a different way of building.

"We just felt, council agreed, the development community in London wasn't ready for that," Fleming says.
In other words, "we just felt, council agreed" that there is nothing inherently wrong with regulating the use of other people's property, but we just need to get people used to the idea first. For now, the experiment is a demonstration project — it is hoped that it is not a demonstration of future regulation.


James Bow said...

You are operating under a false premise: that the suburban growth seen from the 1940s onward was anything other than planned. It's not. If anything, our suburbs are governed by far more planning and engineering regulation than currently exists in the pre-1940s neighbourhoods we're trying to get back to. Any attempt to deviate from sprawl mode used to incurr serious penalties in terms of regulation.

People haven't really been choosing low density suburban sprawl over more urban forms. In actual fact, the most popular form of residential form is small-town living. Centre-city living is the second-most popular, with suburban living fairly close behind in third. Rural living rounds out the list. However, because of regulations installed during the 1950s, and only recently challenged, suburban style housing has been the bulk of the market. People don't have the luxury of waiting until the perfect property comes on the market. They have to buy sooner rather than later based on price and location.

I find it ironic that you are defending one of the most government-planned options of living in the face of attempts to diversify the market and offer home buyers more choice.

MapMaster said...

I must defer to others like yourself on the current extent of government regulation of suburb development. However, it is my understanding that municipalities do not generally regulate the design of neighbourhoods and housing, the focus of the new suburbanism.

I do appreciate the comment as it allows me to address a misperception that I inadvertently invited in the post. I did not intend to defend the development status quo — in fact, I am appalled that I have left wide open such an interpretation. But the premise that suburban growth is already highly regulated is not really relevant except insofar as that a mass of planning regulations has not provided a diverse and buyer-friendly marketplace hardly argues for the merits of additional planning initiatives.

The article cites the planner's rationale for the lack of diverse suburban development:

-Few developers willing to take a risk.
-A small number of developers in London overall, suggesting there is little competition and little drive to try something new.
-Reluctance by city planners and politicians to push the envelope on regulations for designs.
-Lending institutions reluctant to provide lower-interest loans for anything but tried and proven projects.
-The ease of "plugging in" standardized housing models into subdivision plans.
-Engineering departments reluctant to push the envelope on standards for roads and services.
-A lower-priced housing market in London, compared to the Greater Toronto Area produces lower profit margins. That means developers may be less likely to try design options that cost more.
-The theories themselves. Housing styles that create friendliness? Parks versus parkettes? Straight streets for easier walking?

If, as you suggest, government planning is responsible for the current state of the marketplace, the planners seem to be unaware of this except to imply that they haven't been regulating enough. Should they be trusted to resolve a problem they are unaware of having created?

Last, I do not doubt that many people would prefer the designs of the new suburbanism, as I mentioned in the post. Absent regulation and protections built into the development process by municipal governments, I would assert that developers would, sooner more likely than later, respond to this demand. I do, however, have doubts about the rankings of demand that you have cited, although my doubts are based only on anecdotal evidence. It is true that buyers cannot always or often wait for their ideal property to come on the market, but the greatest failure of modern suburbs for potential buyers I believe is simply the small lot sizes — not the absence of porches, straight streets, parkettes, etc. Otherwise, having grown up in one myself, I note that subdivisions over time develop the heterogeneity and neighbourhood feelings, the lack of which that their critics constantly bemoan, through the spontaneous interests and actions of their inhabitants without any government intervention.

MapMaster said...

Todays' Free Press suggests that developers themselves are anticipating building new suburbs along the lines of the new suburbanism on its own merits with the prospect of profit reward. Why does the city need to do anything else but stay out of their way?

basil said...

Why porches? Who the fuck uses them anymore execept smokers? Take a walk down most old London streets on a beautiful summer afternoon or evening and you will notice how few people actually use them. The residents are often inside enjoying the modern convenience of air-conditioning while working on the computer or watching a movie.

On the other hand, you might notice the driveways are often overflowing due to the tiny single garages which they built back in the golden ages before mom, dad and everyone else of driving age in the family owned a car or two - hence, the enormous garages of modern suburbia.

Recall the sense of community which resulted from the blackout a couple of years back? If you want to bring people together cut the power and we'll get bored and uncomfortable enough in our homes to step outside and, inevitably, run into our neighbours.

Anonymous said...

Thanks heavens we have all these childless, liberal-arts-degree-holding, would-be commie central planners to tell ordinary people what they want. Y'see, it turns out all after all these years of mistaken suburban development that people don't really want a large garage for their expensive vehicles, or a lawn for their kids to play on, or a deck in their yard on which to barbecue and entertain. The urban poofs who dominate your city planning department have performed extensive scientific testing and determined that people actually want no yard, a house which is attached to their neighbors, a microscopic electric car in the driveway, and to get to work in the morning they want to take a bus to a station, then wait 45 minutes for a slow, subsidized, union-operated, unreliable, made-in-Quebec, light rail train to take them to within a mile of their office, where they will have to take another bus, so they can finally get to work after 2 hours.

As for the blackouts which "bring people together" - don't worry! Dalton is working hard to ensure that you have plenty more of those.

Pietr said...

A lesson on town planning-at school in the 70s I was taught that the modern suburb was an official, planned response to hatred of the terraced grid that was used in most cheap Victorian housing, particularly rental.
So the planners officially adopted green spaces and curly streets to make things more 'interesting'.
The ultimate expression of this was the Broadwater Farm riot of the 80s, where the 'interesting' planform was found to be ideal for barricades and ambushes, especially of the firemen and police.
One policeman was hacked to death with machetes.
In suburban London.

James Bow said...

Speaking as someone who was trained as an urban planner, I have to admit that it is easy for planners to be arrogant. The education (and this is far from a Canadian phenomenon) tends to imbue planners with a sense that they can change the world. And we are involved in a profession that impacts the world in a very personal way. But it's like humanity's attempts to control mother nature. Our meddling often produces results that we had not anticipated, and the best intentions can create hellish results. I talk more about the arrogance of planners (and I'm as guilty as the rest of them) here.

The New Urbanist model tends to be popular with homebuyers wanting something other than the suburbs we've built from the 1940s on but, as I said, developers are struggling to change the engineering and urban design regulations that have been in place from the 1950s onward. As a result, sometimes governments have to go in with regulations to machete their way through the regulations that are already in place.

It would be nice if we could just do away with all of the regulations. It would be a revolutionary move. But I would argue that there is a need for planning. New developments affect older developments in ways we don't expect. We need to plan the sewers, the roads and the other infrastructure so that we can handle this growth without damaging each other. It wasn't until we had at least rudimentary zoning before such common-sense ideas as not building housing directly under smokestacks became, well, common.

MapMaster said...

Thanks for the link above. I see that I will have to read your stuff more often, James — I frequently read Dick Giro, a planner who is sometimes suitably cynical about his profession to my tastes.

Whether planners have achieved some good or not depends entirely on how the good is measured and who is measuring. I'm not inclined to argue that planners have not advanced some quality in development, but I've always rather gone with the baby and the bathwater tossing approach when it comes to regulation. Especially given the paucity of examples to compare contemporary regulated against unregulated development. I think that I expressed my sentiments best in an old comment:

One of the perils of publishing my opinion as a libertarian is that I run the risk of offending people when I make blanket comments like "I condemn urban planning." And that is my fault -- I should be a little more careful about how I write.

I do NOT actually condemn planners or planning -- much the contrary in fact -- but I do have a problem with what is contemporarily refered to as urban planning because it has statist connotations. Whether we live in a capitalist system or a statist one, people usually plan their spatial decisions to maximize a desired outcome, and in a complex specialized society it is of great benefit to have people who are specifically trained to analyze those spatial problems and make those spatial decisions.

However, I don't think those planners need to be hired by the government. Businesses or groups of freely associated people also benefit from doing their own planning -- and in fact they do. Spatial allocation of resources and activities is already something that they concern themselves with and hire planners for. They do this to maximize profit usually, or to minimize impacts to their surrounding environment, or a number of other reasons. These reasons are not always sound ones, but considering the fact that their own benefit is the desired outcome, they can usually be trusted to come up with the best possible solution to their spatial problems given the expertise of their planners (and if they want to maximize their benefit, they will look for the best planners). When the government is in charge of planning, many other purposes for planning may creep into the decision making process and these criteria may be of an arbitrary nature as far as the idea of "best" allocation -- these other purposes are political, such as a ward councillor who has a pet project or who wants to court the vote of activists who want to minimize the rights to property that they DON'T EVEN OWN to advance their own agenda.

That said, I don't think that planning in London is all that terrible when it comes down to roads and sewers. It could be better, I suppose, but it seems that the problem is often one of allocating budget resources. It is not a high priority of mine to get government out of the business of making roads and sewers, but maybe it should be because I think businesses or people who need improvements to maximize their profits would find ways to make those improvements when they are needed or would face the consequences of reduced viability. And that would not cost the taxpayer, who may or may not benefit themselves from those improvements.

And so on…

Having taken only one course in urban planning at UWO, and deciding that the requirements for the program were much too onerous for an idle-seeker like myself, I cannot attest to the inculcation of arrogance by the education planners receive. As a generalization, I don't mean to implicate you here, but it did seem to me that the program at Western at least did attract the sons (very few daughters as it turns out) of the urban elite, a class — if I may be permitted to use the word this once — that has profited handsomely from the dirigiste methods of state capitalism, and that is predisposed to arrogance.

Pietr said...

In England, it is said that 'ignorance of the law is no defence'.

I am quite prepared to believe that outcomes seen in the late 20th century were indeed predictable and predicted.
It is only the motivation of the directors of the movement which is revealed, and to say that one was unaware of these motives is a confession which represents the first step toward intellectual repossession and rehabilitation.

One has to take time out to understand and see through the motions which seek to sweep us up in tidal swells, smashing us against the crumbling bulwarks of a fading civilisation.

Civilisation gets smashed, we get smashed and the only creatures who 'gain' from this are the arch-manipulators who pull our strings and push our buttons.

Arrogance of that sort is the result of not even knowing that you have spent fifteen years as a ward of the State having buttons and strings attached.

Does it taste of true confidence or the bitterness of presumption?