Monday, 20 September 2010

A World Without Planning?

With the approaching Party Conference season and the impending Government Spending Review it is hard to think beyond the planned budget cuts. With most Government departments being told to trim their budgets by at least 25% in the short term, it is interesting to muse on how radical the area of planning could be altered in light of the proposed cuts. Planning is without doubt the clearest policy area where Government, at all tiers, has the strongest direct influence. So if the Coalition Government are to truly 'roll back the State', then what if urban planning were to disappear as a public function?

This is not so outlandish as one might think as the city of Houston demonstrates. In this Texan city of over 2 million people the traditional free market philosophy is subscribed to, with public sector planning (in the form of US 'zoning') seen as a violation of private property rights and individual freedoms. One can imagine public sector planning being termed 'too socialist' in these parts! Qian (2008) provides an excellent study of how Houston has developed as a city with no zoning and the role played by the private sector, as well as neighbourhood residents groups.

In short, the only public sector intervention comes through the planning of infrastructure (such as utilities and transport) and minimum standards on issues including plot size and parking requirements. The onus therefore falls on private covenants which dictate the type of land use and mimick zoning policy to a degree. But not all covenants are enforced and this therefore fails to provide as strong a steer as a city zoning map.

Despite this, Qian finds that Houston displays little difference to a comparative city such as Dallas which is traditionally zoned for land uses. In fact Houston is characterised by a urban form that could easily have been the result of state planning. Whilst not perfect, and still dominated by car-dependency and urban sprawl, the city demonstrates that other bodies and actors can step into the void left by the public sector. Most interestingly, neighbourhood organisations play a strong role in the types and character of land uses in the city.

But unfortunately planning is more than just land use policy - as the current move towards spatial planning demonstrates. The danger is that with a lack of state planning 'joined-up' thinking is overlooked and planning fails to engage with a wide range of parties, especially those vulnerable groups that have little representation or power in the private sector.

So lessons for the UK? Perhaps not. Despite it's radical overtones regarding the 'age of austerity', I cannot imagine the Coalition Government wholly disbanding the planning system. Houston relies heavily on the covenant system, whereas in the UK covenants are less prevalent. But the idea of communities taking a more proactive role in the planning of a neighbourhood is appealing and has been alluded to by DCLG in the move towards the 'Big Society'.

Qian (2008) World Cities and Urban Form. Routledge: London.

No comments:

Post a Comment