What Are City Planning’s Goals?

In Chapter 10 of Human Transit, Jarrett Walker writes about the contradictory missions faced by many transit agencies:

Coverage: serve all parts of our community.

Ridership: maximize ridership with our fixed service budget.

It is one of the most fundamental insights of Human Transit that, while reasonable and achievable when stated separately, these goals cannot be executed simultaneously. Thus, agencies usually face criticism on both counts: that they are not serving low-demand parts of the city well enough, and that they require too much subsidy per rider. Note that, all other things being equal, it is impossible to improve on both measures at the same time – doing one works against the other.

City planning, as we have currently constructed it, also faces contradictory missions – an urbanism equivalent of “fast, cheap, or good – pick two”. In coastal regions of the US, we have assigned city planners with three primary missions:

  • Stop sprawl: slow the conversion of rural land into suburban developments of single-family homes and low-rise commercial.
  • Protect existing neighborhoods: prevent changes that current residents find discomforting, such as construction of apartment buildings or “McMansions” in single-family neighborhoods.
  • Affordability: ensure that a variety of housing types are available so that everyone can find a place to live without spending a burdensome part of their income.

Any two of these goals can be executed well together:

  • Stop sprawl and affordability: you can do this if you increase density in the existing built-up city. Who does this well? Tokyo. And Toronto! You can buy a brand new condo in a high-rise in downtown Toronto for barely $200,000. Read it & weep, coastal elites.
  • Protect existing neighborhoods and affordability: you can do this if you unabashedly sprawl out. Who does this well? Sunbelt cities, like Phoenix, Dallas, Atlanta, and any place in North Carolina.
  • Stop sprawl and protect existing neighborhoods: you can do this if you don’t give a crap about how expensive your city gets. Who does this well? San Francisco, obviously. London, again obviously. This is where Boston might end up, too.

Notice that I didn’t throw LA, or Houston, into any of these bins. LA’s development pattern until 1990 allowed both sprawl and densification of existing neighborhoods, much like Houston does today. And while “neighborhood protection” has become the NIMBY rallying cry in LA, and some inland cities like Norco and Redlands have “slow growth” regulations, the sprawl outlet is still very much available in Southern California. There’s not much stopping suburban development in places like the Victor Valley or the Antelope Valley – in fact, people like Lancaster Mayor R Rex Perris are out there trying to encourage it. The problem in LA is that the land where it’s easy to sprawl is too far from the locations with high job growth – even given LA’s polycentrism.

Walker writes in Human Transit that “eventually… the reality of the contradiction overwhelms the best rhetorical efforts”.

This is where we are with land use planning in California. Every city general plan, and every politician, will tell you that affordability is important. But when the steel hits the rails, that piece of land is too special to develop, that neighborhood can’t possibly support any redevelopment, and that building is too unique to be demolished. For a while, the terrible economy of the early 1990s and pre-existing housing slack masked the problem in LA, but no more.

Actions speak louder than words. No matter how loudly they claim to care – if they think Expo/Westwood and Expo/Western should stay SFRs forever, if they support the proposed downzoning in Echo Park, if they opposed the seven years and 8,000 page EIR in the making Bergamot Station plan – they don’t care about affordability in a meaningful way. The real world outcomes confirm that: the sprawl gets stopped, and the neighborhoods get protected, but housing prices and rents continue to rise.

Our current policies prioritize stopping sprawl and neighborhood preservation, with little regard for affordability. It’s important that we realize this and have this conversation. If you’re a renter in LA, you need to ask yourself how important it is to you that SFR owners are protected from change. Are you willing to pay higher rents for that? Because that’s the option you’re being presented. If that doesn’t sound like a great tradeoff, we need to do something about it.

15 thoughts on “What Are City Planning’s Goals?

  1. Pingback: Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog Los Angeles

  2. Malcolm

    There is a fourth option for Los Angeles: stop sprawl, protect existing neighborhoods and enhance affordability by transforming commercial “stroads” into mixed-use, livable boulevards. There are endless miles of one-story commercial construction lining busy thoroughfares that are inhospitable to everything except fast-moving traffic. We could generate those 500,000 needed units easily if we transformed those streets into the “Great Streets/Grand Boulevards” envisioned by our Mayor and Move L.A. activists respectively, with 5-6-7 story apartments and condominiums lining them. We can start where they intersect with the rail system and in some of the already built up areas like DTLA and Koreatown, and then move out from there.

    1. letsgola Post author

      Thanks for the comment. While I’d be very happy to see the arterial grid get bus lanes and be upzoned to RAS-4 or RAS-5 (the zones that would allow 5-7 story podium construction w/ option for mixed use), I think there are two questions with this option:

      First, I think it’s pretty clear that the single-family neighborhoods (or at least the vocal NIMBYs) have construed this type of development as unacceptably impacting them. You see this in the opposition to the Hollywood Community Plan, in the downzoning on Sunset Blvd, in Santa Monica’s “Residocracy” organizing against the Bergamot Station plan, in the opposition of Beverlywood residents to a project located literally on top of a future subway stop in Century City, and so on. So implementing this option would still require going against what some people view as “neighborhood protection”.

      Second, I’m all for podium construction wherever it pencils out, but it’s more expensive to build them than accessory dwelling units, duplexes/triplexes/fourplexes, and small dingbats. Building a 100-unit podium building requires more intensive design, slightly more capable contractors, and a construction loan in the tens of millions. Building a few ADUs is something an individual homeowner can do, and that borrowing market is more accessible, so many more people could participate in the ADU market. When you look at the breakdown of apartment construction in LA, there’s almost nothing being built in 2-4 unit structures – the supply we have is the legacy of construction decades ago. So, I think we’re leaving some of the most affordable housing options out of the mix if we don’t try to create a space for them.

      1. LAifer

        You’re absolutely right that some of the best solutions to this conundrum are some of the simplest. That doesn’t exclude upzoning where it makes sense along transit-friendly corridors. For instance, the blocks immediately adjacent to many Metro stops are filled with one-story single-use development directly abutting major thoroughfares. This simply doesn’t make sense – either for the city’s housing needs or for the long-term viability of the Metro which relies on passengers to fill its coffers.

        But, yes, moderate-density development ought also be a staple in our communities. It’s absurd that in the middle of an urban environment there’s still so much spread out along our city streets. We can infill where it makes sense and in a way that adds to the neighborhood fabric rather than harming it.

  3. Jake Wegmann

    Some excellent insights here. That three-part tradeoff is a great way to state the problem.

  4. Joseph E

    “Stop sprawl: slow (or in extreme cases like Portland or Marin County, stop) the conversion of rural land into suburban developments of single-family homes and low-rise commercial.”

    Portland Oregon has not stopped sprawl. Not only does Clark County, Washington State (city of Vancouver and exurbs) have no urban growth limits, the Urban Growth Boundary around Portland on the Oregon side does not stop sprawl.

    The law requires Metro, the regional government, to add enough land to the Urban Growth Boundary every few years so that there is a 20 year supply of land for expected development demand. The boundary prevents leap-frog development and severe exurban sprawl, but Portland’s metro area has continued moderately-low-density sprawl for decades.

    “Since the late 1970s, the Portland metropolitan area boundary has been expanded about three dozen times.”
    See: http://daily.sightline.org/2012/07/18/new-report-rural-sprawl-in-metropolitan-portland/

  5. John A. Mozzer

    I believe the City of Los Angeles is likely still drastically over zoned. According to an article published in 1989, it was once zoned for more than 10 million people. After the AB283 consistency program, is was still zoned for over 8 million people.

    Reference (not available free on the web, as far as I know):

    Rezoning Los Angeles: The Administration of Comprehensive Planning
    Francine F. Rabinovitz
    Public Administration Review, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Jul. – Aug., 1989), pp. 330-336
    This article consists of 7 page(s).

      1. letsgola Post author

        That sort of highlights the inadequacy of housing plans as we do them in California. Nominally, zoning will support 308,000 additional units. In practice, development of many of these sites is not feasible for a variety of reasons. Some are in locations where they cannot be developed profitably at market rents in the area. Some sites already have profitable commercial development on them or have commercial development proposed, like parts of Century City. The 60,000 units in Canoga Park (Warner Center), representing nearly 20% of the total, would probably have to be developed over many years due to both NIMBYism and developer needs to avoid saturating the local market.

  6. neil21 (@neil21)

    The Garden City – and much New Urbanist thinking built on it – seem to be a way to square that circle. i.e. Ensure new settlements are built as clusters of complete (daily needs) neighborhoods (5-minute walk) connected by (eventually transit) boulevards; plan for gentle densification of existing neighborhoods and/or for a public space (mostly streets) repair process tilting the bias in favour of ‘place’ over ‘flow’; zone for at least three tzones within a neighborhood to encourage diversity of form.

  7. neil21 (@neil21)

    Affordability is either about
    – availability, e.g. many NU towns being too pricey because they’re rare and nice
    – land taxes
    – wages
    And the latter two are much bigger issues than planning. Important yes, but to my mind outside of the domain of the urban designer or land regulator.

  8. calwatch

    Simply legalizing existing ADUs and allowing the creation of more second units would be helpful. This can be done at the state level, to drastically restrict regulation of granny flats and second units. For instance, in most cities, second units require their own parking space in addition to the two parking spaces required of the original house. How about the state forbidding cities from requiring additional parking spaces to be created for a second unit? Or, allowing micro housing, including prefabricated structures, as a means for owner-occupied property holders, many of whom are underwater, to obtain a source of income that could help pay for the rent? http://digitalcommons.law.ggu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1094&context=gguelj

    1. letsgola Post author

      Agreed, those actions would be very helpful. And the state might be in the best position to do those things – immune enough to local NIMBYs that stymie action by cities.


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