The always-interesting Witold Rybczynski has a provocative piece up on Slate arguing that the failure of government-led urban planning means that “in a democracy, a vision of the future city will best emerge from the marketplace.” I don’t disagree with his observation that private organizations and real estate developers have taken the lead in shaping our cities, however I don’t believe it follows that the government has no role whatsoever.
Such an argument erases the many ways governments are deeply involved in planning urban spatial structure: designing and operating streets and other infrastructure, regulating urban land markets through enforcement of property rights and zoning, shaping the location and character of development through wetlands and other environmental regulations, subsidizing and shaping the housing finance system, and establishing and enforcing building codes and standards, to just name a few.
Although Rybczynski is right the government has largely withdrawn from the business of directly engaging in architecture and urban design (and that’s a good thing), the lesson isn’t that government should (or will) withdraw completely. The stark contrasts of quality of life between well- and poorly-governed cities illustrates just how important these more subtle processes of planning remain. His argument reminds me of Peter Montgomery’s thoughtful analysis of Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Although her critique of Robert Moses and heavy-handed modernist city planning is important, Montgomery argues her celebration of the urbanity of her neighborhood omits the government processes that establish the framework of urban life (zoning, subway system, urban services, etc). In this way it can be read as a neoconservative tract, writing out the role of government. (In addition, Montgomery argues she ignores corporations, class and race divisions, and metropolitan equity).
To be fair, Rybczynski does stress the importance of government for “management” and “little plans,” and to a degree I’m just rejecting his definition of planning. But the point I hope to make is the “urban visions” created by real estate developers aren’t a pure product of the market, but derivative from government-determined transportation systems, zoning, and metropolitan spatial structure.
The more interesting and accurate conclusion to draw from the failures of modernist city planning is to consider which forms of government planning are still active and desirable. In this sense, Rybczynski’s article is a bit behind the times. The tremendous interest in high speed rail, urban transit, green building codes, the government’s role in wind power and broadband, and housing finance regulation has reminded us of the central role of government in shaping our cities. Hopefully this will be the legacy of the Obama era: that the choice between government and the market is a false dichotomy. Because the two are mutually dependent, addressing public problems (such as city planning, and yes, health care) requires attention to the design of each.