What is the Right Level of City Planning?

Adam Hengels of Market Urbanism recently published a critique of city planning. Hengels writes,

However, in the pursuit of designing “new” cities from a “blank slate” they have begun their quest with one fatally flawed premise, that wise technocrats can master-build entirely new cities catering to the infinitely diverse set of needs and desires of yet-to-be-identified citizens.

While I am largely in agreement with this critique, I believe Hengels overstates the case. The traditional libertarian approach to planning is to condemn government planning and praise private sector planning. Government plans tend to fail because government lacks knowledge and incentives. Private planning tends to succeed because it must follow the market. Firms are islands of socialism in a sea of markets.

New city projects, even when done by private firms, appear to be a planning overreach, and many are. It is foolish to try to plan where the finance district, entertainment district, industrial district, commercial district, and residential districts are located. Nevertheless, some planning is good. Hengels writes,

The focus should be on issues of governance, culture, and institutions instead of a top-down, build-from-scratch mindset.

I agree, but would take the level of planning slightly further. A city plan should not just include governance, but also public spaces, roads and parks being the most prominent. A recent Economist article illustrates the dangers of too little planning.

The scene around Ms Mwaitulo’s house in Mikwambe is chaotic. Houses are rising higgledy-piggledy. Many are half-finished and look abandoned, although they are not: one has no floor and a tree growing inside. What appears to be a small village square turns out to be a plot on which the owner has not yet got around to building. The neighbourhood has only one paved road, no central water supply and no sewer. It is a kind of bourgeois shanty town.

I am not suggesting new cities build roads, sewage, and parks prior to the creation of housing developments. However, cities should, at least, clarify where the public areas are and enforce them against encroachments from the private sector. New York City, for example, in 1811 famously mapped a grid of streets and lots to allow for the (mostly) orderly construction of Manhattan. The grid ensured streets wide enough for traffic and provided clarity for private developers wanting to build on lots.

Urban planning currently focuses too much on planning. However, it is a mistake to replace too much planning with insufficient planning. Like Goldilocks, we should strive to understand what the optimal level of planning is, and my humble suggestion is to follow New York City’s lead.

Leave a Reply