A Choice of Visions

We have a clear choice between the visions of Metro's 2040 plan and the Thoreau Institute's People 2000 toolkit. To understand this choice, we must take care not to confuse means with ends. "If you are not for Metro," they say, "then you must be for sprawl, congestion, and pollution."

As someone born in the Willamette Valley and raised in Portland, I want to protect Portland's livability, scenery, and open space, and reduce congestion and pollution as much as anyone. But I want tools that work, not plans that don't, and programs that safeguard freedom, not ones that increasingly regulate the public.

The Absurdity of Metro's Vision

Metro's plans will not only fail to reach these goals, but the means it proposes involve many absurdities:

The Paradox of Planning in a Free Society

Planning professors Peter Gordon and Harry Richardson note the "astounding paradox" of the "simultaneous dismantling of the command-and-control regimes of eastern Europe and the introduction of command-and-control policy approaches at the local level in the United States." But it may be no paradox. People demand security and stability. Central planning failed to provide that security and stability; it couldn't even provide basic necessities--in the late 1980s, the average Soviet grocery store had just twelve different products for sale. So people demanded change.

Ironically, the growth spurred by our decentralized society can appear just as threatening and unstable as the stagnation produced by central planning. As Joel Garreau notes, the adjective people most apply to the fast-growing edge cities is "chaotic." Garreau's own first response when he discovered an edge city is instructive:

It seemed insane to me. It was a challenge to everything I had been taught: that what this world needed was More Planning; that cars were inherently Evil and our attachment to them Inexplicable; that suburbia was morally wrong; and that if Americans perversely continued to live the way they have for generation after generation, it couldn't be because they liked it; it must be because They Had No Choice.
As a good reporter, Garreau researched and wrote Edge City to "get to the bottom of this." What he learned, Garreau says, can be "summed up in the wisdom of Pogo. I have met the enemy. And he is us."

While preparing this report, I met many people who share Garreau's earlier faith in planning. "Oregon's land-use planning is wonderful," one woman enthused. "Developers have proposed a high-density development near where I live, but I am sure the planners won't let them build it. It would create too much congestion." In fact, planners probably support the proposal and may even be using her tax dollars to subsidize the development.

The Risks of Planning

Giving planners the power to run your cities carries with it very serious risks. First is the risk that the cities planners create will be cities that many would not want to live in. Everyone has a different idea of how they would like their city to look. By entrusting cities to planners, we end up with their limited visions, which may please, at best, only some.

A second risk is that planners will create huge surpluses of some things and shortages of others. Metro's plan creates shortages of highways and surpluses of rail transit; shortages of single-family housing and surpluses of multi-family housing; shortages of large retail centers and surpluses of small specialty shops. Who knows what shortages and surpluses will happen by accident?

A third risk is that planning will produce serious unintended consequences. Metro's 2040 plan, for example, may create a new class of people permanently trapped in multi-family housing. The "American dream" of owning your own home is still accessible to nearly everyone. But the 2040 plan could easily create a class of low-paid workers in tax-subsidized factories who are barred by shortages and high prices of single-family housing from ever living anywhere but in tax-subsidized apartments.

The final risk of planning is that once you give up your freedom it is very hard to get it back. When the first regulations fail, the regulators want more and more control, giving you less and less freedom. If Oregon's land-use planning is such a success, then why does the state need to pass increasingly stringent rules to prevent sprawl? If Portland's transit system is such a success, then why does the state need to set driving-reduction targets and impose on employers the duty of changing their employee's driving habits? If high-density living is so wonderful, then why does Metro need to subsidize it, impose it on neighborhoods, and encourage it through increased urban congestion?

Growth and Free Choice

The tidal wave of growth that is washing over Portland and other western and southern cities is the result of several forces in our economy. First, people like living on their own large houselots. Lot sizes are increasing nationwide and the West and South are especially attractive because land is less expensive.

Second, people like the freedom and convenience of driving their own automobiles from wherever they are to wherever they want to go. The West and South tend to be less congested and thus more auto friendly.

Third, people like to have the freedom to choose their own lifestyles. While dense inner-city areas can be found almost anywhere in the country, many Midwestern and Northeastern cities offer few other affordable choices. Western and southern cities give people a choice between low and high densities and even offer their mobile populations the benefits of both.

We have a choice in how we respond to this growth. Metro and the New Urbanists offer us a vision of nicely designed yet incredibly congested cities; stupendously expensive transit systems whose main purpose, apparently, is to spur high-density neighborhood redevelopment; and increasingly restrictive rules and regulations aimed at reversing long-term historic trends that arise from people exercising their freedom of choice.

A Vision of Freedom and Livability

It doesn't have to be this way. People 2000 offers a different vision: a vision based on letting people choose how they want to live--but making certain that they pay the full costs of their choices. Under People 2000, neighborhoods are controlled not by distant planners but by the residents and landowners in those neighborhoods. Congestion and pollution are managed with incentives and user fees. Open space and scenery are protected with a funding mechanism that insures that those who most value scenic views will pay a larger share of the cost.

People 2000 can no doubt be improved in many ways. But a vision based on freedom of choice, incentives, and neighborhood self determination is far more likely to create a livable city than a vision based on regulation, subsidies, and regional control.

If you live in the Portland area, you can still influence the 2040 plan. One key is the south-north light rail, which will be on the statewide ballot in November. If the state votes it down, planners may have to rethink much of the 2040 plan.

If you live in another fast-growing city, then you have an even better chance of influencing events because few have progressed as far as Portland. Remember that there are over 300 metropolitan planning organizations, and no doubt one of them is near you wishing it had the power of Portland's Metro.

Just as Portland's planning is considered a model for other cities, this issue of Different Drummer provides a model for reviewing your city's plans. Starting with the People 2000 package, you can create a proposal that will help you preserve the livable, congestion-free cities that you want for your future.

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