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Thread: What is "conservative" urban planning?

  1. #1
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    What is "conservative" urban planning?

    With the revival of the "APA: not open to conservative planners?" thread, I thought I'd post a question to the ideologically diverse denizens of Cyburbia: just what is conservative planning?

    One might think that conservative planning is "let the market decide", but that's not planning; it's Libertarian-style anarchy. In conversations with planners who label themselves as conservative or libertarian, they acknowledge the need and valuable role planning has; that it's a response to what would otherwise be market failure and "tragedy of the commons" if there was no government intervention.

    So, how does conservative planning differ from commonly accepted good planning practice? Does current good planning practice incorporate elements of what could be considered conservative planning?

    I'll give an example: even though my ideology leans towards the left, I'm opposed to what I call "feelgood planning", which I once described as:

    "Projects with poor cost-benefit ratios that are destined to fail or at least underwhelm, but which are promoted and implemented because they bring a feeling of hope to the surrounding community, and possibly because their proponents are in denial about the inevitable outcome. "At least they're doing something.""

    Examples of feelgood planning include:

    * Mural programs
    * Banners on light poles
    * Pocket parks
    * Creation of subsidized infill housing in blighted, often dangerous areas where there is a shrinking demand for housing.

    I could argue that conservative planning acknowledges market forces, rather than disregards it. Some examples would include the "shrinking cities" movement; rather than continue growth-oriented planning in areas that continue to lose population and jobs -- another type of feelgood planning, in my opinion -- it acknowledges the problems facing the region, and plans for "rightsizing". They acknowledge that breathing new life into urban prairies is pointless, and costly in the long run. Conservative planning acknowledges that plans shouldn't be boosterist prose where growth is always the intended result.

    So, fellow Cyburbians: what is conservative planning?
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

  2. #2
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    IMO, there is no such thing as conservative or liberal planning. It's a false dichotomy. You could make the argument that the Robert Moses schemes of building highway underpasses too low for buses and funneling state funds away from mass transit toward highways were conservative, but I would counter that these things were actually quite radical. Because government planning involves manipulating the levers of local/regional/state power toward some end, you could argue that it's inherently statist, but that doesn't make it liberal, either.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian
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    IMO conservative planning can have at least two very different interpretations:

    1. Less municipal regulation leading to a more rapid development of land by private interests (which has some far distant parallels with the federal deregulation of major industries: railroads, airlines, etc.).
    2. More municipal regulation in the forms of smart growth, best management practices, etc. that scrutinizes development to a far greater degree in the hopes of lessening our carbon footprint, reducing stormwater runoff, etc. Although there isn't a direct correlation (more like an analogy) one could compare this "moderate" type of growth with fiscal conservatism in investments.

    Either way, I think we are trying to fit the square peg in a round hole. Conservatism is often viewed by the general public in just the political sense. Isn't planning supposed to look beyond politics? :-P

  4. #4
    Cyburbian TexanOkie's avatar
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    I don't think that planning, at least in practice, is ideologically split left-right like this, it's more the other axis (totalitarian-libertarian). Left-right does come into play in motivation, though, and my forum about the nature of growth discusses prominent views consistent with left-right views of progress, growth, and the role of government as far as intentions.

    Off-topic:
    You can find out where you stand on a 4-way axis at the following site: http://politicalcompass.org/. I scored to the economic right 4.25 points and to the social libertarian -0.92 points.
    Last edited by TexanOkie; 20 Aug 2008 at 4:13 PM.

  5. #5
    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    The conservative-liberal dicotomy in planning doesn't have so much to do with the practice of planning, more the approach or reasoning. Let's take, for example, the Community Development Block Grant program. By many accounts, this is a "liberal" program all about helping low-moderate income individuals. What people forget is that 1) it was created by a Republican, 2) it eliminated a whole bunch of pain-in-the-ass specific and often competitive grants, and 3) it was created based on local control and that local government will spend it more appropriately than the Federal government.

    By looking at those three items, suddenly what was a "liberal" program looks an awful lot like something a "conservative" would embrace. When pork was running rampant, perhaps APA should have stepped up and said "hey, these places think they have worthy projects. Folks at the Congressional level have no way of really judging their value. Say, we have this CDBG program that we've been slaughtering for the last 10 years. Why don't we increase funding for it since it has a formula allocation and let these specific decisions on funding priorities be made at the local level?"

    See? That sounds a lot more palatable to a fiscal conservative griping about pork than just saying "poor low-moderate urban folks need more help... gimme gimme gimme!", plus helps with the pork issue. CDBG has performance measures and eligibility requirements, so you have some way to determine results.

    To me, the conservative-liberal thing is all about perspective. Need I remind everyone that Sugar Land, TX, one of the most conservative Republican communities, also has some of the more onerous design and zoning regulations.
    Last edited by Suburb Repairman; 21 Aug 2008 at 9:17 AM.

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman Göring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

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    Cyburbian el Guapo's avatar
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    I have a little rule. If Paul Farmer says it is so, then it is a safe bet that I disagree and whatever position he doens't take. That would be conservative planning.

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    Cyburbian btrage's avatar
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    I would say that "conservative" planning is defined by the following:

    1. Developer driven land use planning.
    2. As little money as possible devoted to "planning" - see Bush's desire to cut CDBG funds.......
    3. .....which conflicts with the desire to have more top-down oriented planning processes.

    I would say that "conservative" planning is more related to the decision making processes of elected officials, as opposed to political differences among professional planners.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian TexanOkie's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by btrage View post
    2. As little money as possible devoted to "planning" - see Bush's desire to cut CDBG funds.......
    3. .....which conflicts with the desire to have more top-down oriented planning processes.
    You're right in that conservative planners usually want most, if not all, planning, direction, and funding to come from local sources rather than far-off state and national capitals. In this regard, though, too, it can be split between liberal and conservative mindset. Conservatively, it strongly adheres to federalism and limits the power of federal and state governments. Liberally, local politics brings democratic processes much more accessible by and accountable to the the general public.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian
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    I also am not so sure that this divergence along liberal/conservative lines is the best description.

    I consider myself a conservative. I am professionally employed as a Planner. Not sure that means I am a conservative planner.

    I break it down in this way: Planning to me is about finding a functional balance between a community's interests and the rights of property owners. It is the fundamental weighting of this balance that might inspire more conventional liberal/conservative thinking.

    A conservative planner may take an approach that gives more policy width to the rights of individual property owners. Therefore while reasonable planning policy and regulation are necessary and good, not ALL regulations are necessary and good.

    A more liberal approach, if you will, might tip the balance in favor of the community's interest over individual property owners.

    This is obviously very grey and nuanced, IN PRACTICE.

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    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    I don't really buy into the whole argument of "community vs. developer interests" defining liberal vs. conservative. Planning is inherently about interest conflicts at all levels, more often between individual property owners rather than this notion of community vs. developer, IMO.







    .

  11. #11
    Cyburbian FueledByRamen's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by btrage View post
    I would say that "conservative" planning is defined by the following:

    1. Developer driven land use planning.
    ...which I would call anti-planning.


    In my experience, cities that people would consider to practice "conservative planning" are cities which have a very strong growth regime. In these instances, it is actually the lack of planning (or lack of council/P&Z listening to the planning dept.) that creates this "conservative planning" persona for the city.

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