Advocates of progressive planning should take a hard look at the interests behind current pro-growth movements in many cities, their mixed motives and doubtful outcomes. In many cases the motives may have more to do with direct financial benefit than an evidence-based approach to affordability, equity or sustainability.
It is a truism that cities change and grow, and that it is better to take a pro-active stance than a reactive one. We surely need to provide new housing for growing cities, even as we promote equity, justice, and sustainable urban development.
On the other hand, cities are immensely complex systems, and we should be wary of “silver bullet” solutions. As Jane Jacobs and others warned, few such approaches are suited to “the kind of problem a city is” – one that is dynamic, interactive among many variables, and prone to unintended consequences.
One of these silver-bullet approaches is what I will call “build baby build” – that is, maximizing the number of housing units that can be built, especially in the cores, with little regard for what may be in the way. The resulting increase in housing will, it is claimed, ease shortages, lower prices, promote equity, and reduce pressure for unsustainable suburban expansion. If a casualty is a significant loss of heritage structures, that is a necessary price of progress. If a casualty is the democratic participation of citizens who are acting too much like NIMBYs, that is their fault and their problem. If a casualty is the rash dismissal of decades of careful planning – for example, of Oregon’s vaunted land use planning system – well, a new day beckons, with new challenges.
Of course, all of this assumes that such a simplistic silver-bullet approach will be effective – a question we should examine very carefully on the evidence. This is particularly true given the dangers of failure and unintended consequences – as I will discuss below.
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