Why Urban Planning Should Be Abolished

Tribune-Review columnist Bill Steigerwald interviews economic Randal O'Toole about his new book, "The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future."

"After 30 years of looking at government plans -- forest plans, park plans, transportation plans, city plans, state plans, all kinds of plans -- I've realized all government planning is bad. Government planning -- that is to say, comprehensive, long-range planning that often tries to plan and control other people's land and resources -- always does more harm than good because the planners don't have an incentive to make sure that their plans are the right plans."

..."It's impossible -- literally impossible -- to plan to the level of detail to make sure that everybody achieves what they need and want. So planners oversimplify. They rely on fads. The fad was once to tear down slums and build high-density housing projects. Now the fad is Smart Growth."

Full Story: Meet the anti-planner



if not planning, then what?

Why didn't the interviewer ask what we should do instead of planning? What's going to prevent corporate interests from polluting our air and water, and putting factories right next to low-income houses? What's going to relieve congestion in our cities and work to reduce our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels which have been attributed to global warming? I don't trust anyone who says "this is bad" without proposing alternatives.

RE: meichler@mac

meichler, all,

O'Toole offers an alternative - and he wrote a book on it and blogs about it daily. Thus his current media-blitz/interviews pumping his book.

Second, there are lots of alternatives to planning, it's not hard to google them. O'Toole would reply with by paraphrasing Voltaire, "...what shall we substitute in its place? you say. What? A ferocious animal has sucked the blood of my relatives. I tell you to rid yourselves of this beast, and you ask me what you shall put in its place?" (This isn't a good argument, but there it is).

Third, for those not familiar with Cato, they're radical conservatives posing as libertarians. Think of them as Neo-cons light. Cato, Heritage, Reason, Thoreau, etc., are in cahoots and act as covers for the penultimate conservative core value called "Free Markets". According to them, anything the government "provides" in the form of "services" must be crushed - social security, healthcare, planning, even public education (yes, they argue that public schools should close. Vouchers anyone??). The philosophy is - Everything government must be destroyed, except commerce generation. It's all cloaked in quasi-patriotism, duty to god, and twisted views of federalism. Dick Cheney, to give one ominous example, has had many speaking engagements with these coalitions.

They're now tip toeing into the realm of planning.


The bottom line is O'Toole doesn't want taxes spent on planning. He justifies this position with a straw man argument, by attacking planning "trends", then toppling the argument straw-man style, and offering up Cato-isms.


Michael Cote
University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Student, Environmental Design-Urban Studies

Talk about conspiracies!

Well, that’s quite a boatload of...well, you know what I mean. Apparently, Mr. Cote is unaware of “Google,” or the several other search engines currently available. If he was, he would have known that the bizarre statements he made about the various organizations are, to put it bluntly, lies. He apparently is supportive of the idea that government should be “doing” all this stuff for us-telling us where to live, what to drive, what to eat, what to think, and provide our health care as well. The organizations he disparages feel that these are things that people should decide for themselves. At least, they could, if they are free.

I find it amazing that the same people who assault the government daily for a host if mostly imaginary transgressions, are still captivated by the idea that that very same government should be in control of all these things, and more besides. I should note that I don’t agree with everything put forth by the various think tanks listed, and, in fact, they don’t even agree with each other on many points.

I’ve been a planner for 20 years, now, and have no problem with local governments doing the planning, as long as it is open, and available to public participation. I also don’t think it is the job of a planner to “direct” the conversation, but to provide honest information to the decision-makers. I have worked in cities that only want large-lot, large house development, and with those who prefer village-type, TODs. Fine. If that’s what the public wants, that’s what they should have. I do advocate that as large a variety of development types as possible should be allowed, in order for the market to operate.

The government, particularly at the federal level, has wandered into areas that are not, by all rights, within its purview, and are not found within the Constitution, as well. Given the less-than-acceptable job done by most agencies of the federal government, regardless of which party is in power, I really don’t think that expanding their portfolio is in anyone’s interest. Except for the bureaucrats, of course.

I know the universities are largely about indoctrination, rather than education (see U. of Delaware for only the latest outrage), but this level of intolerance for opposing ideas is getting pretty bad.

It takes all kinds

There are different types of communities and different types of planning philosophies and woe unto those planners who end up at odds with the community and ends up accomplishing nothing or just hates the job.

You have to remember he's at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. I rarely ran into conservative professors and I went to some "moderate" universities. I was amazed at how screaming and shouting down opposing points of view of speakers is increasely accepted and even lauded at a lot of universities.

I saw some study on the so-called "red state/blue state" (it's the other way around) phenomena. People tended to move and cluster into like-minded places so they really have some skewed views of others outside their community and political views alien to their own.

Freeyoke -

I couldn't agree with you more about UMass-Amherst as a general statement. Conservatives are chased out the door, vigorously. So much for "open mindedness" in academia.

On the other hand - When in Rome...???


Michael Cote
University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Student, Environmental Design-Urban Studies

What The Public Wants

"If that’s what the public wants, that’s what they should have."

Hasn't the public ever been wrong? I seem to have heard that in the southern parts of the United States before the civil war, the public supported slavery, and in Germany in the 1930s, the public supported the Nazis. If you were a planner at those times, would you have given the public what it wanted by designing the slave quarters and the death camps?

Yes, I know these are extreme examples, but that is because extreme examples show up most clearly the moral blindness of the statement "If that’s what the public wants, that’s what they should have."

If the public today wants auto-dependent planning that will aggravate global warming and cause million of deaths, is that what the public should have? There are two assumptions here: that the public wants auto-dependent planning and that this planning will cause deaths because of global warming. But if these assumptions are true, would you still claim that "If that’s what the public wants, that’s what they should have."

Charles Siegel

Greg -


Thanks for the reply! In my response you'll note I haven't advocated a position.

I did restate for the audience.

Thus - Do you dis/agree that Cato et al, in congruence, aim to dismantle the programs I've listed? They do, have and will. And it's certainly not a conspiracy.

Greg, I haven't stated whether or not aforementioned programs are good or bad. I framed for the audience, is all.

And have fun man!

Thanks again for the reply!

Michael Cote
University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Student, Environmental Design-Urban Studies

I guess we're all paranoid, but in different ways..


"Given the less-than-acceptable job done by most agencies of the federal government, regardless of which party is in power, I really don’t think that expanding their portfolio is in anyone’s interest."

You are worried about bureaucrats increasing their power and unconstitutionally assigning themselves power to direct our lives, thereby rendering us less free. From my perspective, I am more concerned about private companies (including developers) assigning themselves more power to direct our lives by subverting regulatory oversight, limiting our choices to whatever is most profitable, thus rendering us less free.

Randall O'Toole talks about urban renewal, well what about tenement slums at the turn of the century. Those were purely private developers packing in as many people into un-safe conditions as possible. What about child labor? Industrial Pollution? Do you honestly believe that these problems would have been voluntarily addressed by private industry if there hadn't been coercive force at the hand of the government (which also by the way sometimes gives the people what they want.)

I know it doesn't sound like it, but I don't believe all developers are bad (I've met many, and I know they are motivated to build a good, often innovative product), so I hope in moments of reason you don't see every bureaucrat as a self aggrandizing despot.

Writing back and forth with you reminds me of talking with my brother, a centrist republican. We invariably agree that common sense and restraint is lacking in public discourse but we always arrive there from different directions. You seem to see government regulation as leading towards a soviet style command and control centralized bureaucracy, where people lack the ability to work hard and improve their lot. I on the other hand see de-regulation as leading toward a feudalistic society in which all decisions about public good are monetized so that those who have the money have all the power, are able to gain more of it, and those who do not have no access to gain more regardless of how hard they work. Same problem in the end just from different angles.

As for indoctrination in education, that is a tough one. You're right about universities being liberal, but I've always found conservatives to be the ones more interested in limiting inquiry or at the very least reducing policy questions to yes/no binary statements. "You're with us or your against us". Academics always seem to think in terms of broad systemic problems, with broad multi-faceted solutions, and it seems that is an inherently liberal way of looking at the world. The most overt indoctrination I've received in my extremely liberal education is to always question "Why?" and "Says Who?". How would you have higher education be framed?


Why Urban Planning Should Be Abolished

Wow, extreme. But not surprising from the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank (or paranoia shop). Perhaps if we do away with planning the market will have "an incentive to try to get it right." After all, I'm sure the general public's best interests are the number one goal for developers, right? From what I understand, Houston is planned by the market. Sure, they may have some innovative projects, but I rarely hear it mentioned as a great place to live. Unlike Portland and Burlington - places with strict planning guidelines.

I guess I could read the book and try to find the evidence to support the claims the author makes in this fluff piece, but I think I'll re-read Harry Potter instead.


Your comments are indicative of the close-mindedness I see permeating the planning profession; a fault I never imagined when I earned my Planning Degree more than 30 years ago. Rather than taking the time to actually read his book (check it out from the library if you are too broke to buy it) you revert to name-calling and snide remarks.

Whether you call them fads or trends O'Toole's comments are accurate regarding low-income housing and Smart Growth. And if you don't think we, by necessity, over-simplify and over-generalize too, then you have never actually done any planning.

alcarnet, et al

You're right, I resorted to snide remarks, something I should not have done. I don't truly think the Cato Institute is full of paranoid people. I do, however, think that limiting the governance of any body is based on the fear of losing what is yours. And that, to me, is paranoia. A topic for another discussion. The tone of the article, however, put me on the defensive. Perhaps I should pick-up the book, but I have read plenty of similar pieces and am still not convinced.

I know the author is correct in saying that these things are fads. That does not, however, imply that it is wrong. Also, I think that over-simplifying any planning trend, calling it a certain development product or density of housing, is also a bit close-minded. Sure, in the end planners generalize. But, unless I misunderstood your point, I think the planning process itself is not and should not be over-generalized. That is where you get NIMBYs and the planning process that should be in place falls apart.

Cato paranoia shop

I took a look at the Cato website to find evidence of paranoia but I didn't find much to back up your claim. It's not a conspiracy website. Cato says it backs individual liberty, free markets and peace. They may be radical ideas to you but every good planner should be aware of a no-build or no implementation option.

Developers aren't fundementally focused on the general welfare of a community but planners have their biases, too. I can't say all urban planning programs in America have some political agenda but most of my professors were smart growth advocates so it's good to hear a dissenting opinion even if dissent is less tolerated on campus than it used to be.


Ummm... weren't the parts of Portland and Burlington that everybody likes best established before the strict planning guidelines were put in place?

Before zoning.

weren't the parts of Portland and Burlington that everybody likes best established before the strict planning guidelines were put in place?

Sure. Some of the good things that arose prior to Euclidean zoning are what "Smart Growth" codes are trying to get to - proliferation of the built forms found prior to WWII. More flexibility while trying to obviate market failures.




The market failures of the period before zoning, or the market failures of today's world? I'd hardly call sprawl a "market failure" as there's really nothing remotely market-like about such a heavily subsidized enterprise. But perhaps you were referring to the things that Euclidian zoning tries to remedy, such as factories next to homes and what not...

Nobody would ever agree to abolishing planning

People often complain about the high-handedness of planning agencies, but nobody objects when strip clubs are zoned out of their neighborhood-- and for good reason.

However, I would agree that restrictive zoning regulations are partly to blame for many of our planning woes. For instance, overly restrictive use regulations separate homes from business, thus mandating car dependence. Furthermore, minimum lot sizes exacerbate sprawl and the slightly larger lots, when added up, reduce walkability of neighborhoods. Other zoning regulations also prohibit houses and businesses in new developments from fronting the arterial road, which could slow traffic and turn the roadways into a true network. Height and density restrictions, often demanded by NIMBY activists further exacerbate sprawl when there are plenty of developers willing to build dense developments-- even infill developments.

Though many of these restrictions are implemented by democratic means, the democratic means never consider the interests of those who do not yet live there and the democratic means never consider the interests of those elsewhere who will have to face the consequences of local NIMBY activism. It's easy to protest a three-story apartment building when you already own a house. But if you're looking for affordable housing, you're out of luck: guess which voice will get its way with the planning department?

Loosening up some restrictions could allow the market to satisfy some public goals. Quite simply, we'd see a lot more dense development.

O'Toole and the strip clubs would

agree to abolish planning, that is. But, you have made some good points about the pitfalls of zoning and NIMBYism. Another interesting thing you have brought up by default, is the difference between planning and zoning and land use regulation, in general. Correct me if I'm wrong, but in this case, O'Toole simply suggests eliminating "planning" which is just the process of creating general plans, neighborhood plans, conservation plans, transportation plans, economic development plans, and specific plans. I think it's a fair point. I personally think creating plans is useless because most governments don't have effective mechanisms for achieving these plans which is so many just end up adapting to reality instead of having reality adapt to them. What is most important, in my opinion, is to have effective land use policy which accomplishes social goals of land use conservation and other environmental goals while still respecting private property rights. The planning process, to me, seems irrelevant.

Because of the lawsuit, LA stopped building rail?

"Because of the lawsuit, Los Angeles had to restore bus service and pretty much has stopped building rail lines. "

LA is building on two different lines in different parts of the city today..

Planning should be abolished for criminal neglect

Planning should not be abolished because of smart growth. It should be abolished simply because it is complicit in suburban sprawl. At the root of every ghastly, disgraceful strip mall is some low-paid planner who did not have the guts to say "No" and who gave his OK. 99% of planners are nothing but rubber stamping bureaucrats. This profession is beyond schizophrenic. When will it take responsibility for raping the American landscape by granting its approval for the very suburban sprawl which it pretends to despise? Many so-called planners even live in the suburbs.

Knowledge neglect.

At the root of every ghastly, disgraceful strip mall is some low-paid planner who did not have the guts to say "No" and who gave his OK. 99% of planners are nothing but rubber stamping bureaucrats.

Lemme guess: you're not a planner, have never met a planner or anyone on the other side of the counter, nor do you know anyone who knows someone who knows someone who knows a planner. Nor do you know how code and the law works, nor do you know anyone who knows someone who knows someone who knows how municipal code works.

Surely zoning is much to blame for sprawl, but so is our culture. And if the electeds don't want the zoning changed, nothing a current planner can do to change the zoning or deny the application if it complies with code, else the municipality gets sued & the planner gets fired & the project gets built.

Sorry the reality doesn't fit with your ideology. Planning & zoning of some sort isn't going away, since the vast majority likes it - evidenced by the utter failure of the attempts to eliminate zoning where so-called 'Private Property Rights' initiatives have been resoundingly defeated.



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