Planning Is a Tool, Not a Goal

Published August 1, 2003

Local government officials often lament the fact that “not enough planning” has gone on in their communities. Like virtue, urban planning seems to be considered by many as an end in itself.

But planning is neither an inherent good nor an inherent evil. Fundamentally, planning is a means to other ends. Regardless of who the planner is–a family sketching out its vacation, a Fortune 500 firm setting its budget, or government officials at any level–plans make possible the achievement of results. Plans are not the result itself.

Planning and Poverty

At least at the international level, planning has been more often associated with failure and poverty than with success and affluence. Seventy years of planners’ dictates reduced the proud and talented Russia to virtual Third World status. The society that gave the world Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky couldn’t plan how to put bread on the table.

Worldwide, other societies that took a wrong turn toward national planning are changing direction. All that slows them down, it seems, is caution by their ruling elites, who profit by running whatever is left to be run.

For at least 50 years, the United States has sought to bring lower-income households, especially minorities, into the economic mainstream. For at least 70 years, we have tried to maximize home ownership. These two objectives are closely related, because so much of the nation’s wealth is created by home ownership.

Billions of dollars in spending and reams of anti-poverty legislation and regulation make clear that it is a national priority in the U.S. to open the doors of opportunity to those who have been left outside. While substantial gains have been made, much remains to be done.

Urban Planning vs. Equal Opportunity

With equal opportunity such a high priority in America, one might expect even urban planners to aim for that goal. It is quite disturbing, then, to discover the current urban planning orthodoxy–which operates under the label “smart growth” (a misnomer, as it is neither smart nor growth-enhancing)–works at cross-purposes with our interest in growing a more inclusive society.

The principal urban planning strategies have to do with rationing land and development, establishing urban growth and service boundaries, and imposing impact fees. Virtually all economists agree that the price of what is rationed goes up. Housing prices are no exception. A recent Harvard University study found much of the difference in housing costs from one region of the country to the next is the result of restrictive land use regulation.

“Smart growth” has meant fewer households are able to climb on board the economic engine of home ownership. They are denied access to the home equity wealth that for other Americans finances education for the kids or new business starts. Community also suffers under the misguided hand of urban planners, because home ownership gives people a greater stake in their neighbors and their neighborhoods.

Take Your Pick

We can’t have it both ways. Either we want to reduce poverty in this country, or we want to achieve a particular city form that makes planners feel warm and fuzzy as they pedal around town.

Urban planning should be responsive, not prescriptive. It should respond to the needs and desires of people, not seek to impose standards of behavior on them. The thrust of contemporary urban planning might make sense if we were bees or ants. But we aren’t. And if we were, there would be no need for planning, since all of this would come naturally.

It is time for planners to get back to basics. “People-last” planning has no place in a nation claiming to have a “government of the people, for the people, and by the people.”

Wendell Cox is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute; a consultant to public and private public policy, planning and transportation organizations; and a visiting professor at a French national university. His email address is [email protected].