Does Centralized Planning Work?

5 minute read

August 6, 2001, 12:00 AM PDT

By Richard H. Carson

The Chinese communists used totalitarian power to try to perfect the most centralized land use planning system in modern history. Their failure provides lessons for planners. Richard Carson contrasts state-mandated land use planning in Oregon and Washington.

Rich CarsonI just returned from the People's Republic of China and want to share a lesson I learned about land use planning. For three decades, the Chinese communists used their totalitarian power trying to perfect the most centralized economic, social and land use planning system in modern history. Given the historical plight of the Chinese peasants, it can be argued that this was done with the best of intentions.

However, with the death of Mao Tse-tung in 1976, the new communist regime began to publicly admit that the usefulness of centralized planning had come and gone. They realized that, although they had some national success using this approach, they could not compete internationally against the more efficient decentralized free market system. Indeed their early success was their undoing. The now well-educated and well-fed Chinese people were tiring of the government telling them what they could not buy or do. In the new information age of cell phones, satellite disks and Internet access it was impossible to hide the bounty and freedom of the new global economy.

The important lesson, for those of us involved in making land use planning policy, is that the more centralized the land use planning system, the more dysfunctional it may become. Bigger is not always better. This is especially true for large scale planning areas - like states - where mandated land use planning often proscribes a "one size fits all" planning regime that can preempt local planning authority and workable local solutions. State-mandated land use planning often ignores the major geographic differences in geomorphology, land economics, historical development patterns and cultural beliefs of specific places.

Then why do it? The reason is that a larger planning area - like a state - is a political convenience for special interest groups. Unfortunately, the individual citizen's role is diminished because it is no longer local.

Nowhere is the promise and the reality of state-mandated land use planning more contrasted than in the Pacific Northwest states of Oregon and Washington. Each has taken a dramatically different policy approach in its implementation.

After 26 years, Oregon has developed the most centralized planning program in America. In the 1970s, Oregon experienced rapid population growth from in-migration. To address this problem, a bipartisan state legislature and a progressive Republican governor, named Tom McCall, delegated powerful administrative rulemaking authority to a single autonomous state agency governed by an independent commission.

However, many of the elected officials who created the agency did not fully understand the unanticipated consequence of 16 years of the Oregon voters electing self-proclaimed environmentalists to the Governor's Office. The governor controls the appointments to the commission and can veto all legislative attempts to limit the agency's power. This has resulted in the unchecked policy expansion of a quasi-legislative body that is only accountable to one person.

There are only two viable constitutional venues left to Oregon voters who want to limit the agency's authority - the initiative process and the courts. In the year 2000 election, Oregonians passed a nationally unprecedented statewide ballot measure that greatly expanded the compensation allowed for property takings - even beyond that allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court. This was a vote against the heavy-handed and often indifferent actions of many Oregon cities, counties and regional planning agencies that had used mass down zonings and exactions from property owners in the name of "livability."

The ballot measure was foreshadowed by the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case on property takings that originated in Oregon (Dolan v. City of Tigard). The city of Tigard, like many other Oregon jurisdictions, accepted the statewide planning philosophy that there was no such thing as an unreasonable exaction from a land use permit applicant. In this case, the city demanded a bike path dedication in exchange for approving improvements to an existing plumbing store. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected this practice and held that any exaction must be "roughly proportional" to the actual public need. In other words, the court found it improbable that a citizen would buy a water heater or a toilet, and take it home on the back of their bicycle.

The state of Washington passed its Growth Management Act 10 years ago, but it provides for more local control. First, it only required fast growing urban counties to comply with the act. Second, the state did not create an autonomous bureaucracy to promulgate and enforce legally binding "goals" and administrative rules. Instead they created three regional geographic hearing boards whose job it is to review local land use decisions based on local conditions. This has resulted in some inconsistent decisions, but these are being resolved by the Washington courts.

The latter is important in Washington because the state Supreme Court is elected by voters who favor a more populous approach in its decision-making. By taking the Washington approach, the legislature and the courts have kept tight control over their public policy role and not delegated it away to some unaccountable and untouchable bureaucracy. In Oregon, the state Supreme Court is elected by the same urban environmental ist voters who elect the governor. This has resulted in a court that is more likely to invalidate the will of the voters on property rights issues.

It is ironic that in the mid-1970s communist China started to curtail centralized planning and that at the same time Oregon began to embrace it. The Chinese lesson for the Pacific Northwest is clear. There is a limit to the amount of centralized planning that the people of a place will tolerate.

Richard H. Carson is a writer and planner who lives in the Pacific Northwest. He was the editor of the "Oregon Planners Journal" and an elected official of the American Planning Association (APA). He maintains APA's "Internet Planning Media" and the independent "Planning Utopia" Internet websites. Rich was in Hong Kong, Nanning and Guangzhou in the People's Republic of China from June 14 to June 28, 2001.

View More
Large historic homes and white picket fences line a street.

The End of Single-Family Zoning in Arlington County, Virginia

Arlington County is the latest jurisdiction in the country to effectively end single-family zoning.

March 23, 2023 - The Washington Post

Dilapidated vacant wood slat house painted white in Louisiana

The Quiet Housing Crisis in Rural America

While housing shortages in major cities are grabbing headlines, rural communities are seeing higher rates of growth in housing prices and a silently spreading homelessness crisis.

March 20, 2023 - The Daily Yonder

A view of the Boise skyline, across tress int he foreground. The state capitol is visible amongst other office buildings.

Skyline-Defining High-Rise Potentially Coming to Boise

A rendering making the rounds in Boise depicts a 40-story apartment building that would be taller than all other buildings in one of the fastest growing cities in the United States.

March 20, 2023 - Boise Dev

South of Market

11,000 Housing Units Possible with S.F. Office Conversions, Study Says

A new study by SPUR and the Urban Land Institute’s San Francisco chapter estimates a specific number of apartment units that could be built from vacant office units in the city.

March 29 - The San Francisco Chronicle

Two people riding bikes with helmets on paved park trail

‘Arrested Mobility:’ How Transportation-Related Laws Impact Black Americans

A far-reaching new study highlights the disproportionate effect of biking and walking laws on the mobility of Black Americans.

March 29 - Streetsblog USA


California Attorney General Wants to Get Serious About Housing

A bill sponsored by the AG’s office would give the state’s top attorney more power to intervene in lawsuits related to the state’s housing laws.

March 29 - San Francisco Chronicle

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

HUD’s 2023 Innovative Housing Showcase

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Write for Planetizen

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.