Planning Myths?

Many thoughtful Pittsburgh observers, including one momentum-building candidate for Mayor of Pittsburgh, argue that the Pittsburgh *region* needs more attention *as a region.* I think that's right, but it's important to be clear regarding what that means. What Southwest Pennsylvania could use is more regional *coordination,* not necessarily a central regional planner. "Central planning" is just as problematic as a regional concept as it is as a local urban concept.

Here's a link to a recent paper that uses "central planning" as a something of a rhetorical straw man -- but may be on to something nonetheless. Randal O'Toole, Debunking Portland: The City that Doesn't Work. O'Toole is out of the Cato Institute, which is a well-known Libertarian think tank, so if you wonder about his bias, there it is. Whether the bias matters is a different question. Here's the abstract for the paper:
Though many people consider Portland, Oregon, a model of 21st-century urban planning, the region's integrated land-use and transportation plans have greatly reduced the area's livability. To halt urban sprawl and reduce people's dependence on the automobile, Portland's plans use an urban-growth boundary to greatly increase the area's population density, spend most of the region's transportation funds on various rail transit projects, and promote construction of scores of high-density, mixed-use developments.

When judged by the results rather than the intentions, the costs of Portland's planning far outweigh the benefits. Planners made housing unaffordable to force more people to live in multifamily housing or in homes on tiny lots. They allowed congestion to increase to near-gridlock levels to force more people to ride the region's expensive rail transit lines. They diverted billions of dollars of taxes from schools, fire, public health, and other essential services to subsidize the construction of transit and high-density housing projects.

Those high costs have not produced the utopia planners promised. Far from curbing sprawl, high housing prices led tens of thousands of families to move to Vancouver, Washington, and other cities outside the region's authority. Far from reducing driving, rail transit has actually reduced the share of travel using transit from what it was in 1980. And developers have found that so-called transit-oriented developments only work when they include plenty of parking.

Portland-area residents have expressed their opposition to these plans by voting against light rail and density and voting for a property-rights measure that allows landowners to claim either compensation or waivers for land-use rules passed since they purchased their property. Opposition turned to anger when a 2004 scandal revealed that an insider network known as the light-rail mafia had manipulated the planning process to direct rail construction contracts and urban-renewal subsidies to themselves.

These problems are all the predictable result of a process that gives a few people enormous power over an entire urban area. Portland should dismantle its planning programs, and other cities that want to maintain their livability would do well to study Portland as an example of how not to plan.


6 Responses to "Planning Myths?"

Jonathan Potts said... 11/03/2007 10:37 PM

Robert Bruegger spends a fair amount of time in his book "Sprawl: A Compact History" discussing Portland, which is really the closest thing we have in America to European-style urban planning.

Jonathan Potts said... 11/04/2007 8:31 AM

Correction: The author was Robert Bruegmann. I discussed the book here:

Frank said... 11/05/2007 2:47 PM

I find these arguments that transit enables sprawl very tenuous at best. In this article, the author says that it's both bad to increase density & property value within cities (force people to live in multi-family homes or small lots), AND it's bad to have people move into transit-accessible suburbs. Most people would call increasing population-density growth, and the fact that growth is extending into transit-friendly suburbs is not a good thing...sure is better than non-transit friendly suburbs.

The Blurgh

Frank said... 11/05/2007 10:30 PM

Sorry--meant to say "and the fact that growth is extending into transit-friendly suburbs is not a bad thing!"

John Morris said... 11/06/2007 2:12 PM

I need to learn more about Portland but from what I can tell what's happening is that the city is trying to do a u-turn in terms of reversing previous car oriented policies and this is very hard. Once living patterns and infrastructure are set in one way, it's tough to reverse it.

What should be understood as self evident is that these car oriented policies have nothing to do with the free market and developed only because of massive government spending on "free highways".

lli said... 11/10/2007 1:41 PM

The author ignores the overheated housing markets on the entire West Coast and their effect on Portland housing costs. Housing values in my old Portland neighborhood were skyrocketing long before light rail came to that part of town.

As for families leaving Portland for smaller cities nearby, I suspect it has more to do with the state of Portland's public schools, whose funding was gutted in 1990 by a ballot measure limiting property taxes. The schools have never really recovered, and have taken additional hits since.

Finally, even on the worst traffic days, congestion there doesn't appear to be any worse than cities of comparable size.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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