Preservation Institute
The Natural Environment : The Social Environment

Home Page

What We Believe


Transportation and Development Politics

Political Theory: Beyond Progressive and Conservative

Preservation Institute Blog

email us


Livable Cities and Political Choices

This preview includes brief selections from the book.
Read or buy the book at the Unplanning homepage.


Chapter 1
Planning or Politics

Environmentalists have not moved beyond the modernist faith in city planning. When they see problems that were obviously caused by planning, they blame them on insufficient planning - on "piecemeal planning" that looked at transportation or at zoning in isolation. Instead, they say, we need comprehensive regional land-use and transportation planning.

But environmentalists have a hard time convincing the public to let the planners make decisions that now are made by individuals and by local government.

The Failures of Planning

Environmentalists want to build cities with walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods - cities designed like American cities were a century ago, before most people ever heard of city planning.

Early in the twentieth century, the inventors of city planning claimed that this sort of piecemeal development was no longer appropriate in modern cities. These early planners believed that, because the modern technological economy was becoming increasingly centralized, it was inevitable that land uses would be developed on a large-scale and that each would be planned by experts.

The ideas of the early planners failed when they were put into practice in postwar America. Postwar planners followed the early planners' prescriptions by separating land uses and designing freeways to accommodate projected traffic, but these things made the cities' problems worse.

Today, most city planners believe that we should go back to the older model of traditional neighborhood design. Yet the city planners believe that we need more top-down planning to build this sort of traditional urban development. Because development is large-scale and almost everyone has an automobile, developers can build massive single-use neighborhoods or build massive shopping centers outside of town that can take all the business away from Main Street. We need strict master planning to prevent this destructive style of development.

Reducing the Need for Planning

Yet many of our greatest successes in urban design have been the result of political action, not of planning. The anti-freeway movement of the 1960s and 1970s stopped plans to slice up the centers of American cities with freeways. The anti-sprawl movement of recent decades has stopped many proposed suburban subdivisions and shopping centers. Both of  these were political movements - and citizen-activists had to spend much of their time working against projects that city planners had proposed or approved.

This book talks about taking these movements one step further: direct political limits on urban growth are a key factor in building livable cities that our technocratic bias has made us overlook.

This book begins by looking at the history of technocratic city planning, its utopian theories and its practical failures.Then it uses a thought experiment to show that these planners were wrong to think of cities as bundles of technical problems to be solved by experts. It looks at three possible political limitations on transportation, in combination with several possible political limitations on the scale of new development, and it shows that these different political limits on urban growth would produce cities with different ways of life. This choice of how we live is not a technical problem to be solved by planners: it is a human issue that should be a matter of personal and political choice.

Direct political limits on urban growth would not eliminate the need for planning, but they would cut the problems that the planners must deal with down to a manageable size, they would reduce the need for planning, and they would allow more individual choice and more local decision making.

This preview includes brief selections from the book.
Read or buy the book at the Unplanning homepage.


Chapter 2
The Technocratic Ideal

The ideal of the planned city was invented at a time of technological optimism when people had boundless faith in modernization and growth. The early planners believed that large-scale development was an inevitable result of modern technology, and they wanted to accommodate modernization. But the "inevitable" trends turned out to be less benevolent than the early planners had expected.

Functionalism and Technocracy

Thorstein Veblen, who spread the idea of technocracy, talked about the "revolutionary posture of the present state of the industrial arts."10 Traditional societies would be swept away by purely rational planning based on the objective demands of technology.

The functionalists, who dominated architecture and urban planning during the mid-twentieth century, considered modern architects and planners to be revolutionaries like Veblen's production engineers: they would sweep away traditional cities in favor of the purely rational forms dictated by modern technology.

Project and Accommodate

The early planners agreed that city's land uses should be separated into single-function zones or superblocks, much larger than a conventional city block. The interiors of these zones should be park-like, with free-standing buildings surrounded by open space, rather than rows of buildings facing streets. Their internal circulation systems should be designed for local access only, and larger arterial streets and parkways that surrounded them should carry all the through traffic.

These single-function zones and the transportation routes should each be designed by experts in its function - industrial planners, housers, traffic engineers, and so on - and the work of all these specialist planners should be coordinated by master planning. Thus, the city's design was controlled by technical decisions that the planners make, not by political decisions that citizens make.

Practical planners, even in the 1930s, tended to focus on these common features of the planned city and to ignore the debates between the international style planners and the regionalists about density and scale.

The Chicago School of Planners

In postwar America, the ideological differences between the international style planners and the regionalists evaporated in the face of a "value-free" methodology which grew out of the work of a third school of planners that is not as well known as the first two, the Chicago School of Planners.

The End of Ideology

Appeals to value-free techniques of planning and projecting future trends had a great deal of weight in postwar America. At the time, sociologists were saying that America had reached "the end of ideology," that the old political disputes were being replaced by the pragmatic use of technology to solve problems.47 Likewise, John F. Kennedy said:

Most of us are conditioned for many years to have a political viewpoint - Republican or Democratic, liberal, conservative or moderate. The fact of the matter is that most of the problems ... that we now face are technical problems, are administrative problems. They are very sophisticated judgments, ... questions which are now beyond the comprehension of most men ....48

In postwar America, practical city planners generally accepted existing demographic and economic trends and tried to control projected growth so it would take the form that both the international style and the regionalist planners believed in. They used zoning to organize projected growth in single-use areas, and they laid out freeways and arterial streets to rationalize projected traffic.

This preview includes brief selections from the book.
Read or buy the book at the Unplanning homepage.

Chapter 3
Postwar American Planning

Modernist city planning was considered radical and avant garde during the 1920s and 1930s, but it became standard practice in postwar America.

Many of our cities' problems are the direct result of postwar planning that followed the ideals of the early planners.

Planning for Congestion

According to the conventional wisdom, our cities are congested and automobile dependent because of lack of planning. In reality, these problems are worse because traffic engineers and other planners in postwar America followed the prescriptions that the early planning theorists had laid out during the first half of the twentieth century.

Planning for Sprawl

According to the conventional wisdom, our cities also suffer from suburban sprawl because of lack of planning. In reality, the major causes of sprawl in postwar America were the federal and state freeway planners who made long-distance commutes possible, and federal housing planners and local zoning boards who encouraged suburbanization.

Planning for Blight

Automobile-centered planning did not just generate sprawl by letting people commute longer distances; it also generated sprawl because freeways and traffic blighted older neighborhoods.

What was the solution to urban blight? Obviously, it was even more modernist planning: demolish slums and replace them with towers-in-a-park housing projects. .

Even the conventional wisdom does not blame these housing projects on lack of planning, since their designs followed the ideas of the early city planning theorists very closely.

Planning Functionally

The freeways, suburbs, and urban housing projects all followed the cardinal rule of modernist urban planning: a city's land uses should be separated so each can be designed by experts to perform its function most effectively. By now, we have learned from many decades of experience that separating functions creates more problems than it solves - that it is a major cause of the problems of the contemporary American city.

Mixed Functions and Traffic

First, separating functions creates traffic congestion and parking problems.

Mixed Functions and Shopping

Second, separating functions makes it impossible for neighborhoods to support convenient and interesting shopping.

Mixed Functions and Public Life

Third, separating functions eliminates the public life that used to give people a connection to their neighborhoods.

Comprehensive Regional Planning

When you list all the problems that have been caused by planning, the conventional wisdom responds that they are caused by "piecemeal planning" of individual roads and individual land uses. What we need is "comprehensive regional transportation and land use planning," a single planning agency to coordinate the land uses and the transportation system of an entire region.

This was the ideal of the early regionalist planners, but the meaning of regional planning changed dramatically during the postwar period, though the catch phrase remained the same.

Because they were technocrats, the early regionalists believed that the region's master plan would involve both economic planning and city planning. The master planners would be able to reorganize production entirely, and they would understand the connections that specialist planners ignore.

This sort of command-and-control planning seemed plausible when the earliest planners wrote. But today, everyone knows that this sort of command-and-control economic planning does not work. The Soviet Union and the other command-and-control economies of eastern Europe collapsed because they were economically inefficient and backward.

In the real world, "comprehensive regional land-use and transportation planning" cannot control the entire economy, as the early regionalists had hoped. It must be coordinated with the rest of the economy in the same way that any other specialized planning is: the regional planning agency must project the future population and economic growth of the region and then design the regional zoning map and transportation system needed to accommodate this growth.

The early regionalists wanted to change the modern economy. Postwar regionalists wanted to accommodate the modern economy.

This preview includes brief selections from the book.
Read or buy the book at the Unplanning homepage.


Chapter 4
Neo-Traditional Planning

Beginning in the 1960s, there was a political reaction against modernist planning.  There was a movement to stop urban freeways and urban renewal in order to save existing urban neighborhoods, which Jane Jacobs was part of, and there was a parallel movement to stop shopping malls and suburban sprawl in order to save existing small towns, which was most successful in Vermont.

It was not until the 1990s that the movement against modernist planning began to emphasize positive proposals. In addition to working against modernist projects that threaten traditional neighborhoods, it began working for projects that would build neighborhoods and entire regions in a neo-traditional mold.

On the micro scale, the New Urbanists began building new neighborhoods and rebuilding existing neighborhoods using traditional neighborhood design as their model. They became influential after the Congress for the New Urbanism was founded in 1993.

On the macro scale, the smart growth movement began to rebuild entire regions by using the traditional pattern of transit oriented development as their model. Parris Glendenning popularized the phrase "smart growth" after being elected governor of Maryland in 1994, and Portland, Oregon, became the nation's prime example of smart growth.

These two movements both use top-down planning to build old-fashioned neighborhoods and metropolitan areas.

This preview includes brief selections from the book.
Read or buy the book at the Unplanning homepage.

Chapter 5
Limits on Urban Growth

Why do we need all this planning to build cities that look like cities did a century ago, before there were any urban planners?

Simply doing away with planning will not let us build traditional neighborhoods, because technology has changed since the old neighborhoods that we admire were built. If we eliminated planning, developers would still build office parks, shopping malls, and suburban tract housing, even if the zoning laws did not force them to.

But we can reduce the need for planning by putting political limits on urban growth. We can directly limit effects of modernization that make planning seem necessary and inevitable.

First, we can limit the scale of development. We can limit the maximum land area that a development can cover, as we now limit height and ground coverage. The planners will still have to create a street system with small blocks, but these blocks can be filled in with individual small-scale developments.

Second, we can limit use of the automobile. One very effective way to do this is to reduce the speed limit for automobiles, which would shift longer trips to public transportation, would stop sprawl, and would shorten the average trip length.

This chapter will look at different ways that cities would be built if we had different political limits on scale and on speed, with these limits in effect during the entire time that the cities are being developed. These are not proposals for changing our existing cities. They are models used in a thought experiment, to show that political limits on growth could let people choose what sort of city they live in, and to show that political limits on growth are essential to creating livable cities.

Today's New Urbanists and regionalists are practical planners, so their most striking accomplishments have been based on the biggest opportunities for practical planning: entire suburban developments and comprehensive regional plans. By contrast, this chapter asks a theoretical question: if we are building a region from scratch, what is the best way to create a traditional urban pattern - best politically, esthetically, and environmentally?

Looking at three models, each with a different limit on the automobile applied consistently throughout the entire metropolitan area, is useful as a thought experiment. It will make it clear that, by choosing different sorts of limits on the automobile, we are choosing different ways of life - which is a political decision that people should make for themselves, not a technical decision that should be made by the planners.

This preview includes brief selections from the book.
Read or buy the book at the Unplanning homepage.

Chapter 6
The Next Steps

Technocratic planners have always said that we should replace the irrational patchwork of city governments with a regional land-use and transportation planning authority, which could deal with all of the region's problems in a comprehensive way. The old political divisions should be replaced with a single regional planning authority, because in modern societies, political decisions are not as important as the technical tasks of planning.

In reality, to reclaim our cities, we need to do almost the opposite: we need to recover the political use of government, so we can use the law to limit technology.

We do need some special-purpose regional planning agencies that cut across local jurisdictions and are responsible for transportation, for air and water pollution control, and the like, but we do not need centralized control of all regional land-use and transportation planning. Instead, we need to begin making responsible political decisions to limit technology, in order to cut our cities' problems down to a size that the planners have some chance of solving.

The three models in the previous chapter showed that urban planning should be subordinate to political choice. In this chapter, we will look at the practical political actions that are needed as the next steps to rebuilding our cities.

Stopping Freeways

An essential first step in reclaiming our cities and our countryside is to stop building freeways. Funding is needed to maintain existing roads and freeways. New freeways may be needed under unusual circumstances. But virtually all the funding that now goes to expanding freeway capacity should go to public transportation, to bicycling, and to improvements for pedestrians.

Controlling Sprawl

Along with the political battles to stop freeways and slow traffic, there have been many political battles during recent decades to stop suburban sprawl and out-of-scale development.

Zoning Choice

The most important thing we can do to stop sprawl is simply to loosen up local zoning laws that require sprawl. Despite the talk about smart growth, municipalities and counties all over the country still have zoning laws based on the 1950s ideal of suburbia, which require developers to build low-density, single-use projects. All this land-use planning is the greatest contributor to sprawl today, as it was in the 1950s.

Controlling Speed

Finally, we also need to slow automobile traffic. There are three possible ways of doing this: limiting speeds on neighborhood streets, removing automobile lanes on arterial streets, and reducing speeds on freeways.

Transforming our Cities

If we shifted funds from freeway expansion to public transportation and pedestrian safety, if we allowed zoning choice, and if we began to lower speeds, we could transform American cities as dramatically in the next few decades as they were transformed during the postwar decades.

This seems like a radical change, but fossil fuel depletion and global warming may provide the impetus that lets us make radical changes during this century.

And after all, the changes our cities need during the twenty-first century are less radical than the changes that occurred during the twentieth century. The changes in our cities that the most radical environmentalists hope for during the twenty-first century are not as extreme as the change from pedestrian and transit-oriented cities to completely automobile-dependent cities that hard-headed traffic engineers and suburban zoners brought us during the twentieth century.

This preview includes brief selections from the book.
Read or buy the book at the Unplanning homepage.

Chapter 7
The End of Modernism

No one today believes in the complete technological determinism of the technocrats and the early city planning theorists.

Yet a vestige of technological determinism lives on in the widespread belief that the problems of modern society involve such complex issues that decisions about how we live must be made by planners on technical grounds.

This book has shown that individual and political choice of technology is possible, that we can put the planners in their place if we think about the city in human terms. When we think about what a city's design means in terms of how we live, then we can choose technology on human grounds.

The early planners believed we needed city planning to accommodate modernization and growth. Today, we should be able to see that we must set political limits on destructive forms of modernization and growth - and that these limits will reduce the need for planning.

Modernism in Its Dotage

Modernism began as a radical movement, but now it is the status quo. Early in the twentieth century, socialists and other radicals believed modernist architecture was the style that would lead us to the ideal planned society of the future, but no one today believes that Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind and other belated modernists are leading us toward a better society.

Today, the political idealists are the environmentalists and preservationists who fight to stop modernist projects. The New Urbanists are the ones who believe that they are leading us toward a better society, that their neo-traditional designs will produce cities that are more environmentally sustainable and that have a stronger sense of community than modern cities.

Technical Questions and Human Questions

We need to reject the modernists' technological determinism by seeing that decisions about design involve human questions as well as technical questions. We must decide what to design as well as how to design it.

If we do not want a freeway to collapse, we must let the engineers design it on the basis of their technical knowledge; but we are wrong to reduce the question of whether the freeway should be built at all to a technical decision that transportation planners make on the basis of projected traffic volumes and cost-benefit studies. Engineers and planners have no special competence to decide whether our cities should be built around the automobile, because this is a decision about how we want to live.

When we think about the human purposes of technological decisions, we can put the planners in their proper place. The traditional relationship between an architect and a client is a good example of the way that ordinary people should control experts. Architects have special knowledge about materials, structures, and other technical questions, which let them make certain decisions about designing a house, but the clients know how they want to live, which lets them make the fundamental decisions about what sort of house the architect should design for them to live in.

Ordinary people should have similar power over fundamental decisions about urban design, so they can decide what sort of cities and neighborhoods they want to live in.

The Failure of Growth

Why did our thinking about technology and growth change so dramatically during the twentieth century?

Early in the century, everyone thought it was inevitable that the planners would gain more power because they were competent to mobilize technology and maximize growth.

Today, almost everyone agrees that we need some control on technology and growth: the idea that we need planning to control the destructive side-effects of growth has become a commonplace, and this book's call for direct political limits on urban growth carries the same bias one step further.

The failure of urban growth is just one part of a larger failure of economic growth. In fact, federal funding for freeways and guarantees for suburban mortgages were justified during the postwar period, precisely because they promoted economic growth by stimulating the auto industry and the construction industry. We have seen that consuming more transportation and more land for housing no longer makes our cities more livable. There is also reason to believe that economic growth generally has also stopped increasing our well being.

This book has looked at ways that we can choose the sort of cities we live in, politically and individually, based on the sort of lives we want to lead, and it has shown that these choices can dramatically reduce the problems that urban planners need to deal with. The same is true of the entire economy: if we begin to choose our standard of living politically and individually, we can dramatically reduce problems such as resource shortages and global warming, making it more likely that our economic and environmental planners will be able to deal with these problems successfully.

Citizens or Clients

There is enough support for these policies that they add up to a new political movement. Until recently, it was primarily a negative movement that tried to stop things from getting worse by fighting against freeways and sprawl. Today, it has become a positive movement that is making things better. Only one thing prevents it becoming a mass movement that changes our cities dramatically: Everyone believes that changing our cities is a technical problem that must be left to the planners.

This preview includes brief selections from the book.
Read or buy the book at the Unplanning homepage.


10: Veblen, Engineers and the Price System, p, 166.

47: Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the 1950s (Glencoe, Illinois, The Free Press, 1960).

48: Quoted in Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1978), p. 77.

69: Jacobs, Death and Life, p. 306-307.

90: Quoted in Fishman, Urban Utopias, p. 35.

91: Quoted in Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (New York, Basic Books, 1973) p. 31-33.