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Thread: A "libertarian" defense of urban sprawl?

  1. #1
    Cyburbian kalimotxo's avatar
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    A "libertarian" defense of urban sprawl?

    John Stossel's recent column is a typical example of his generic, stark brand of so-called libertarianism. Herein his logic leads him to the conclusion that because "liberals" hate suburban sprawl, it's his duty as the anti-liberal to defend it, truth be damned. He sees sprawl as the natural result of Americans living as they want to.

    While I recognize the need for land use regulations, I'm the first to admit that we are still paying for the mistakes made by our plancestors in the form of homogenized, low density development. I think it's important for planners to recognize that many of the growth patterns we bitch about are the result, among other things, of poorly considered, inflexible, and out-of-date Euclidean zoning codes. Thankfully, someone goes for Stossel's right flank in this American Conservative article.

    To me, planning is one of those areas where the lines between right and left are incredibly blurry. Consider that the genesis of land use regulations was to prevent nuisance and trespassing; such policies are just as important in maintaining a traditional capitalist's view of property rights as they are in promoting a more liberal view of public welfare. One of my libertarian friends once summed up his belief system as such: "Your right to punch ends at my face." That makes enough sense to me, but what about other variations like, "Your right to pollute groundwater ends at my well," or, "Your right to run a kennel in a residential neighborhood ends when I can't get a healthy night's sleep."

    I don't intend to start a flame war here by politicizing planning because, as I said before, I don't see Stossel's argument as libertarian so much as contrarian. My question for you all is, from a purely philosophical standpoint, is urban planning an inherently liberal or conservative concept? Furthermore, how does ones approach to planning differ depending on their politics? I know we have a handful of conservative posters here, and I'm especially interested in how you all deal with the planners as communazis meme that seems popular among some property rights zealots.
    Process and dismissal. Shelter and location. Everybody wants somewhere.

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    Folks who make "libertarian" arguments in favor of sprawl tend to kind to gloss over those big taxpayer-funded freeways. Somehow the argument that they are paid for by gas taxes makes gas taxes not a tax. Other pro-sprawl government subsidies, like Clean Water Act water-infrastructure improvements, FHA and other public loan programs that were only usable in new suburbs, either result in a lecture on the evils of regulation or the subject get changed quickly.

    Stossel doesn't seem to have a problem with government regulation--the sale of fishing rights, government fines for elephant hunting, are declared "ownership rights" instead of "government regulations and taxes" because if he admitted that taxation and regulation did something useful the Libertarian Party would take away his autographed copy of "Atlas Shrugged" or something.

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    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by kalimotxo View post
    My question for you all is, from a purely philosophical standpoint, is urban planning an inherently liberal or conservative concept?
    It is a Progressive tradition. But real conservatives (not the so-called conservatives in the minority party in USA right now, but the ones who fled the minority party in the USA) understand the need for fiscal prudence and planning is part of that need.

    Quote Originally posted by kalimotxo View post
    Furthermore, how does ones approach to planning differ depending on their politics? I know we have a handful of conservative posters here, and I'm especially interested in how you all deal with the planners as communazis meme that seems popular among some property rights zealots.
    First, the PPR movement has very few outcomes to show for it, so it is a non-issue in the end. That sooshulizm meme is merely thrashing around looking for traction, and treating it gently or humorously as a conspiracy theory is - IMHO - the correct approach.

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    Cyburbian fringe's avatar
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    "...Originally posted by kalimotxo
    My question for you all is, from a purely philosophical standpoint, is urban planning an inherently liberal or conservative concept?..."

    Libertarian thinking actually reflects a devolution in mental state. Prior to the advent of civilization 6500 yrs or so ago we were all "libertarians", grabbing and growling and hunkering in our corners of the cave.

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    Cyburbian Linda_D's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by fringe View post
    Libertarian thinking actually reflects a devolution in mental state. Prior to the advent of civilization 6500 yrs or so ago we were all "libertarians", grabbing and growling and hunkering in our corners of the cave.


    Perfect definition. This is especially true of the American branch who seem completely obsessed with taxation and legalizing drugs.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian ursus's avatar
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    Planning is no more inherently liberal or conservative than fire protection. We run up against the "communist" accusation typically when we have to "infringe" on someones percieved rights in the interest of others' - I really think it's that simple. Noone likes to be messed with...it's just necessary.
    "...I would never try to tick Hink off. He kinda intimidates me. He's quite butch, you know." - Maister

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    Cyburbian fringe's avatar
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    In some cultures the very idea of property "ownership" is a joke. The idea that any of us could "own" something like land is patently absurd especially to matriarchal thinking, not that any of those societies exist anymore.

    The native Americans who traded Manhattan Island for beads probably thought it was a good joke on the bead bearers.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian Luca's avatar
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    Most people I know/know of that call themselves 'libertarian' do seem to be at the rather nutty end of teh spectrum.

    I think a 'libertarian' approach to urban 'planning'/permissioning might be that it's ok for a community to give itself laws to avoid one property ower creating an obvivious nusiance to his neighbors but it's not ok for absurdly detailed micro-management to be imposed as a matter of fact.

    From a broader standpoint, the structural flaw in ideological libertarianism are the non-binary nature of whether an agreement is 'freely entered into' and of whether someone's action can be said to 'damage' another. On a practical front, they also vastly underestimate the asymmetry and level of non-compliance costs in low-frequency exchanges.

    I think something like a strict libertarian intepretation can only work (if at all) in a very sparsely populated area. The moment people want/neeed to live in some sort of proximity, experience shows that you need lots of rules and (better yet) social mores.

    ALL THAT SAID, soemtimes the techncial zonign discussions the professional on this site engage in do seem impossibly esoteric and 'meddlesome' to an amateur urbanist like me.
    Life and death of great pattern languages

  9. #9
    It was a failure of nuisance law that helped lead to zoning. Nuisance law can't proactively stop something, only address it after there is harm. So your neighbor could build her combination nuclear power plant, 24 hour bar, kareoke amplification training facility, slot machine, multifamily dwelling, but neighbors could only do something after it harmed them.

    Proving harm in court is difficult, if not impossible. And courts were reluctant to intervene even if they found harm.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian mgk920's avatar
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    In fact, and I have mused these thoughts before in here over the years, it is my belief that a more truly 'l(small 'L')ibertarian' approach to development regulation will most likely result in higher overall unit density in closer-in developments. Developers. in their normal course of business, will of course want to maximize their potential returns on their investment in their projects and that means getting as many units as possible into the plans. Nearly ALL of the development control battles that I have seen pretty much everywhere involve developers wanting MORE units and neighbors wanting FEWER.

    Thus my ongoing contention that local zoning laws are the #1 major driving force of classic 'sprawl' and that a more 'libertarian' area would, in the long term, be much more dense and compact.

    This assumes that the only real emphasis in development control involve keeping truly incompatible uses (ie, a neighborhood school and a rendering plant/tannery) apart and not nit-picking other aspects of development.

    Mike

  11. #11
    Cyburbian
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    ^ The problem with that is in the US people normally associate wealth with being far from the city center, and we seem to be culturally driven to seek space for ourselves. Which is apparently one of the reasons why New York City is considered one of the most unhappy cities in the country.

    Anyways, Planning is Transpartisan if anything. Both sides have valid points, and then figure out what works/makes sense.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian ursus's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by fringe View post
    In some cultures the very idea of property "ownership" is a joke. The idea that any of us could "own" something like land is patently absurd especially to matriarchal thinking, not that any of those societies exist anymore.

    The native Americans who traded Manhattan Island for beads probably thought it was a good joke on the bead bearers.
    I think what you mean is that the anglican model of ownership doesn't make sense in some cultures. I would argue that all human cultures (including Native American) are territorial, even fiercely so. Some just formalize it less.
    "...I would never try to tick Hink off. He kinda intimidates me. He's quite butch, you know." - Maister

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    Cyburbian Linda_D's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ursus View post
    I think what you mean is that the anglican model of ownership doesn't make sense in some cultures. I would argue that all human cultures (including Native American) are territorial, even fiercely so. Some just formalize it less.
    Good points. It's something that goes back to our days on the African savannahs, so it's most likely a combination of culture and hereditary.

    Quote Originally posted by Wolfman View post
    ^ The problem with that is in the US people normally associate wealth with being far from the city center, and we seem to be culturally driven to seek space for ourselves. Which is apparently one of the reasons why New York City is considered one of the most unhappy cities in the country.

    Anyways, Planning is Transpartisan if anything. Both sides have valid points, and then figure out what works/makes sense.
    This is true, but it was also true around the world to a much greater extent than many urbanists will admit. European and Asian nobility all had "country" estates, either "houses" or "palaces. The rich in Europe, Asian, and Latin America still have that. In the US the difference was/is that the urban middle class was/is able to have places in "country", frequently as their primary residences, too.
    Last edited by Maister; 22 Mar 2010 at 2:00 PM. Reason: sequential posts

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    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    Digging deep into my anthropology major, I wanted to comment on the ownership issue because I think it is so interesting.

    I think it is less that other societies and at other times folks had little an emphasis on ownership than it is a question of WHO owns what. For a great deal of the world, ownership was/is tied with a tribe's (or whatever organizational structure you want to use) identity and not with the group's individual members. So, while individuals have rights to the use of land, actual control resides with the collective identity. But this doesn't mean anyone has the right to, say, farm anywhere they please. If land is being used, it is effectively controlled by the user. If land is abandoned, usually there is a grace period for the previous user to be able to reclaim their control. After that time, the land is up for grabs. That's the way it works here on the Pueblos and its also what I experienced in parts of Uganda when I lived there in 1992/93 and again in 1994/94.

    One nice aspect of this approach to ownership is that the tribe or whatever other corporate body you use has a vested interest in the continued success of the group through time and independent of members at any specific time. This interest extends to the use and stewardship of land. So, users are limited by the tribe in what they can and can't do with their land because, really, it exists for the future use of the people and not only for the user at a particular time.Growing food for the group today is important, but ensuring food production for generations to come is also important and the tribe is able to exert influence over both. In our current ownership structure, assuming no neighbors sue for my negative externalities, there is nothign to prevent me from killing my land and making it unproductive and then selling it. My only motivation is that I may not get as much as I paid for it, but the issue of long-term health is really not addressed.
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

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    Cyburbian ursus's avatar
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    We need an Anthro subgroup on Cyburbia because I love this! That's very interesting stuff, Wahday. Again, though, it seems to me that the true difference is in the formality. The things you reference are mostly tacitly understood by the members and participants in the culture. Western culture (particularly the fields we're all involved in) codifes regulations surrounding ownership and litigates differences between parties...isn't that extraordinarily different?
    Last edited by ursus; 22 Mar 2010 at 4:06 PM. Reason: typo
    "...I would never try to tick Hink off. He kinda intimidates me. He's quite butch, you know." - Maister

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    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    ursus, I think you are right that these rules are not always as articulated as they are in western culture, but there definitely was/is a system for voicing grievances and seeking damages for breaking the rules. Courts often hear such cases around land use and make rulings, just like in western society, though the nature of penalties and awards might be different (in Uganda, you saw in the paper a lot of goats being given, cows, X kilos of produce, etc. For a society that was less wedded to an exclusively monetary economic system, this makes sense - rural folks have cows and goats, but probably not surplus cash).

    And there is a planning connection! Elinor Ostrom along with others, has written extensively about "common pooled resources" (what others call "the commons") and how such systems are managed and conflicts resolved. She has looked at scenarios from the Americas to East Asia, India, Africa, the Caribbean and who knows where else. Classic examples include the acequia water delivery systems of New Mexico which have clearly articulated rules for how water is delivered, in what order, the obligations of irrigators, etc. But, similar to land, the water is "owned" collectively by the community and growers have "rights" to the use of some of the water (but must share it equitably with other users - a dry year is a dry year for everyone, not just elect growers, for example)

    In these societies that emphasize group ownership over land, the rights to use portions of that land are similarly articulated through a common pooled resource management system and usually people are pretty savvy in understanding the rules - what they can and can't do, what their obligations are and so on. If they don't abide the rules and violate them, the systems usually provide for a minor penalty the first two or three times and then a more substantial penalty after that. Ostrom's work is hard to read at times, but really fascinating and I think its remarkable that these management systems, no matter where they are in the world, seem to take on certain basic, common features. I think her work is pretty standard reading in Natural Resource Planning classes.

    And I love this stuff, too! I often take solace in wondering how humanity - across the globe and over time - has dealt with a particular problem.
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

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    Cyburbian ursus's avatar
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    Love it! I'll look up Ostrom, I've not ever read her. Thanks!
    "...I would never try to tick Hink off. He kinda intimidates me. He's quite butch, you know." - Maister

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    I haven't read the article that the OP refers to, but from their description of it, the author's thinking reminds me of an interview originally from (surprise) Reason magazine that was reprinted in an unremarkable anthology of planning-related articles. The piece was called "Plan Obsolescence." It was an interview with a planner named Peter Gordon. It has an amusing combination of leading questions ("Is any public transportation economically viable?") and the same kind of glib glossing-over of state-intervention in the "free market," as it really occurs, that other posters have noted here. Toward the middle of the interview, Gordon is talking about private developments where deed restrictions fill the role of traditional planning. He says "The downside of these entrepreneurial communities, of course, is that as more affluent people withdraw from cities the interest groups that are left behind become ever more powerful. The people who are victims are the people who are least likely to move. We condemn the poorest to the worst public schools and the worst public services" (I should note that neither "interest groups" nor poor people make any other appearance in this article). This statement would appear at first glance to suggest that even libertarian planners aren't strictly ideologues; they are clearly receptive to real problems of large segments of the population. But does anyone else find this statement to be incredibly bizzarre? It is difficult to imagine that the people he describes as victims have somehow formed these tyrannical centers of power, unless you take the liberal-government-responsive-only-to-whining-rotters-who-keep-it-in-office-in-exchange-only-for-not-having-to-work schema to its logical, most conspiratorial, most vaguely racist conclusion. On the other hand, because the article throughout is critical of "new urbanism" (it was published in 1998) and planning in general, it seems more likely that he is casting planning authorities as a self-contained interest group, intent on foisting their light-rail utopias on hapless commuters like the latter-day people's commissars they clearly are. Both these possible underlying beliefs are troubling. While the voices of two individuals over a decade do not make a pattern, it seems that the very premises involved in certain forms of American conservatism may be antithetical to planning in any meaningful sense.

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