Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Urban Planning


"The one thing you can say about Victorians is they don't like being told what to do, and that's the fundamental flaw with Melbourne 2030 - it's a top-down strategy the people don't own . . . and now we've got a senior academic report saying its unworkable," Mr Baillieu said.
From Today's Age.

Does philosophy have anything to say about Urban planning? The default position might be to let people do as they please with regards to building houses. If you can afford the land, build what you want, subject to planning laws regarding building heights, noise restrictions etc. Anyone can see why you can't just do as you please in the suburbs -- the effect on the neighbours might be undesirable. But why would you want to stop someone from building at all?

A cynic might say that it's a way for individual councils to make a money-grab. More citizens = more rates and taxes = bigger budgets.

A more socially oriented critic might say that it's better to confine cities than to allow infinite urban sprawl. It doesn't make economic sense, and makes for urban wastelands of basic living areas without proper services, puts an unreasonable demand on the road infrastructure, and damages our natural surroundings. If you need to build, then build up.

The government are pegging their position as the latter, but will clearly be getting the benefits of the former. While the citizens are willing to stand for it, they will make more money to spend on their community by having as many residents as possible. However, this can be unsustainable. Ultimately, that money is spent on behalf of the residents. If you link the rates to property values, then market forces will keep you revenue neutral. If someone is willing to pay a tower block's worth of rates to live in a simple house in one of these high-demand areas, then so be it.

This, of course, is not quite how it works -- enter land tax. Land tax is supposed to prevent people from holding onto large reserves of unimproved property, to the opportunity cost of those who would like to develop it. You are, if you like, paying tax on the difference between how much money *could* be made out of a property, and the second-best option you would rather pursue.

Clearly, urban planning is a philosophically complex area. Is it possible to fully internalise all planning pressures into the market? Probably not. Do people want to give up their nice houses, or live next to enormous tower blocks built on the properties of those who do? Probably not.

In order to address these issues more fully, I will put a series of posts from each person's position, rather than trying to cover them all. As we have just seen, such an attempt pays only lip services to the pressures involved.



Anonymous Ben Hourigan said...

"Anyone can see why you can't just do as you please in the suburbs -- the effect on the neighbours might be undesirable."

It might be undesirable, but what level of undesirability does an effect have to reach before it becomes justifiable to legally restrict it, assuming that we're talking about uses of suburban property?

"Anyone" might be able to agree that we should restrict property uses that harmed others' bodies. You ought not to be able to build a toxic waste dump on one's suburban block, for instance, if doing so would make your neighbours ill.

But one of the legal notions on which our civilisation is founded is that of property rights: if you owns a piece of property, it is yours to do with as you like. Putting restrictions on how you can develop your property destroys the freedom and certainty that those rights bring. Not only can you not make your own decisions about what you will do with property, but you can't be sure that what you build, for instance, today, will not be forbidden tomorrow. What you can and can't do is dependent on the whim of the government of the day. One year you may find your local council demanding that you paint your picket fence white, but ten years later the council could demand wrought-iron railings.

Such demands tend to be borne of such notions as "neighbourhood character," and a particular notion of harm that comes with it. You can't build certain things in certain out-of-places, such as an apartment block that looks like a giant robot in a street full of weatherboard houses, because your neighbours might be aesthetically affronted, and because the odd juxtaposition might diminish the value of their own property.

But the law ought not to get involved in this. Taking a less absurd example, let's say someone wants to build a 20-storey apartment block in an area full of one-storey brick-veneer houses on 1/4 acre blocks. The apartments might be out of place, and they might put a few houses in the shade, but using the law to safeguard some homeowner's shade and aesthetic satisfaction with their neighbourhood comes at a massive cost: removing the freedom of all to do as they like with their property, so long as they don't harm the bodies of others. I just happen to make freedom my highest value, but removing people's right to use their property as they see fit also prevents them from making decisions, based on local knowledge, about what building is needed in a particular location. This is bad for everyone in the long run, since it means that cities that suffer planning regulations may not grow organically in the way that suits people best. Neither government nor Bob Birrell should decide whether people would prefer suburban houses or urban apartments: property-owners and developers should be able to decide for themselves.

3/23/2005 11:10:00 PM  

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