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Up Sucker Creek
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Monday, August 10, 2015

What's local about central planning?

More local decisions usurped by ideological regulators 
Orange County Register, August 2, 2015 
Opinion By Joel Kotkin

In hip, and even not-so-hip, circles, markets, restaurants and cultural festivals across the country, local is in. Many embrace this ideal as an economic development tool, an environmental win and a form of resistance to ever-greater centralized big business control.

Yet when it comes to areas being able to choose their urban form and for people to cluster naturallylocalism is now being constantly undermined by planners and their ideological allies, including some who superficially embrace the notion of localism.

In order to pursue their social and perceived environmental objectives, they have placed particular onus on middle- and upper-class suburbs, whose great crime appears to be that they tend to be the places people settle if they have the means to do so.

Central Planning 

Nothing is more basic to the American identity than leaving basic control of daily life to local communities and, as much as is practical, to individuals. The rising new regulatory regime seeks decisively to change that equation. To be sure, there is a need for some degree of regulation, notably for basic health and public safety, as well as maintaining and expanding schools, parks, bikeways and tree-planting, things done best when supported by local voters.

But the current regulatory wave goes well beyond traditional methodology. It reflects policies more akin to those central planners, who, as Chapman University researcher Alicia Kurimska suggests, dominated city planning in the once-massive Soviet bloc. There, theorists like Alexei Gutnov, lead author of the influential 1968 essay “The Ideal Communist City,” saw the city as providing “a concrete spatial agenda for Marxism.” Gutnov acknowledged the appeal of suburbia – “ideal conditions for rest and privacy are offered by the individual house situated in the midst of nature,” but rejected the suburban model common in America and other capitalist countries. Gutnov favored high-density development, in part, because private homes might encourage people to focus on their families and their property rather than on the overarching collective dream of achieving socialism.

'Smart Growth' enforcers

Sadly, our fair state, California, has become the new Vatican for a similarly minded approach, this one largely driven largely by environmental determinism. Under the provisions of 2008’s Senate Bill 375, the drive to reduce greenhouse gases will not be advanced through gradual technological improvement but by strangling the suburban preferences of the vast majority of residents. In the process, local priorities now can be sacrificed for the predilections of our own central planners and a governor who has made little secret of his detestation of the very suburban “sprawl” that accommodates some 85 percent of residents in large U.S. metro areas.

In the past, the key decisions about density were left up to localities. Yet today, notes Ontario Mayor pro Tem Alan Wapner, powers once reserved for localities, such as zoning and planning, systematically have been usurped by Sacramento. The state determines policies and then employs, bureaucracies such as the Southern California Association of Governments and the Bay Area Association of Governments, to be its “smart growth” enforcers. “They are basically dictating land use,” Wapner said.

For most of the population, residential high density’s benefits are even less obvious. Los Angeles has embraced ever-expanding density for at least a decade. This has occurred as the balance of power has moved from low- and moderate-density neighborhoods to an unholy alliance of developers and planners, who hope to feed on the city’s declining percentage of homeowners and the eroding suburban character of all but the wealthiest enclaves.

Federal Social Engineering

Ironically, this approach may prove somewhat unnecessary and even counter-productive in terms of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. As McKinsey has noted, there is no need to change the fundamental way people live to achieve continued progress on emissions. But this practical approach will not dissuade planners and their allies from seeking to control how people live. More pragmatic policies such as improved vehicle mileage, tree planting and encouraging working from home can certainly reduce greenhouse gases without seriously impinging the majority’s aspiration.

But rather than being just the latest California lunacy, the demise of local control is now going national. A cascading tide of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations already threatens future developments, particularly those that cater to middle-class homeowners. In addition, regulations from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development aim to force communities into inviting a designated number of poor people to achieve greater sociological and racial balance.

This soft Stalinism will be accomplished by suggesting that current housing patterns, despite no evidence of discrimination, have a “disparate impact” on the poor. HUD’s Julian Castro acknowledges that the real aim is to force middle-class communities into becoming instruments of top-down social justice. The Soviet Union may be history, but Alexei Gutnov would be proud.

This assault on local control could, over time, upset the political balance even in Democratic strongholds. This can be seen, ironically, even in the “greenest” areas, such as Marin County, north of San Francisco, where residents have objected to densification schemes, which, they maintain, would undermine the “the small-town, semirural and rural character of their neighborhoods,” noted one opponent, 

Ultimately, the assault on localism should concern not only free-market conservatives or fans of limited government, but anyone who values the basic ideal of personal choice and the right to pursue your aspirations. Such a struggle fostered the first American Revolution, and might well become a rationale for another, more peaceful grass-roots rebellion.

Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University in Orange and the executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism (www.opportunityurbanism.org).  His latest book is, "The New Class Conflict."

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