This past week I had the opportunity to attend the lecture of a man who is part time university professor, part time mayor of a small town in Utah. He recounted a meeting in which he and city board members were presented with a development proposal that had fulfilled all zoning requirements. One disgruntled board member, however, asked the mayor if he could deny the proposal anyway. His reason: the project did not meet his tastes. City planning, though not always this corrupt, is still greatly hindering both our economy and society.
A few months ago I stumbled across New Urbanism, a city planning movement seeking to develop self sustaining clusters of homes, businesses, and municipalities connected to each other by extensive public transport. New urbanites decry suburbia and claim their methods will revitalize failing city centers, improve safety, and develop stronger communities.
First, urban sprawl is a charged phrase carrying all sorts of negative connotations that are largely unfounded. Secondly, while tighter communities might result from New Urbanism, planning is still not the answer. Artificially developed communities will never be as strong as ones allowed to grow naturally through free real estate markets.
It is deregulation and accountability that will revitalize downtowns, and possibly satisfy the New Urbanists as well. Take for example charter schools. Being leniently regulated and held more accountable for results than traditional schools, charters provide a unique experiment in community development. Charters have taken a number of steps that have fostered social and professional partnerships including contracting with local shops for food services, providing dorms on site for employees, providing educational programs for area adults, and sharing facilities with churches and other nearby schools. The result has been safer schools, more involved parents and neighbors, better education, and stronger communities.
Rather than focusing on urban sprawl, the result of citizens seeking safer streets and better schools, cities need to focus on those factors that drove people away. By seeking first deregulation, cities can foster communities that attract people, rather than forcing them inward by increased measures against subburbs.
Adam Rule – MCPP Intern