How Not to Create a City

Damascus, Oregon, was supposed to be a great experiment in urban planning. A rural community just outside of Portland’s original urban-growth boundary, in 2002 it became the largest addition ever to the land within that boundary. Yet it has had almost no new development since then, and it appears local opposition will lead to the disincorporation of the city, supposedly only the fourth city ever to dissolve in the history of Oregon.

Looks like the perfect spot for a transit-oriented development. Flickr photo by Ian Eure.

The problem is that urban planners don’t understand how cities work. Here’s how a private developer creates a city. First, they buy land. Then they divide it into neighborhoods of commercial, residential, and other uses, then subdivide each neighborhood into lots. Then they put in infrastructure to support those neighborhoods. At some point along the way, they either incorporate a city or a service district to provide a mechanism for maintaining and expanding the infrastructure and create a process to allow the people who live there to democratically elect officials to oversee the government.

This method of creating new cities has a long and distinguished history (as well as some notable frauds) in the United States. For the past six decades or so, such cities have been called master-planned communities and include such places as Irvine, California and the Woodlands, Texas. But many such cities were also created in the nineteenth century, often by land promoters working in concert with railroads that would provide transportation to the new city. Portland, Seattle, Denver, and most other large cities in the West can trace their history back to a story something like this.

Here’s how Oregon urban planners create a city. First, they find other people’s land. Then they incorporate a city embracing that land. They provide no infrastructure, but they do write plans to change the uses of other peoples’ land whether the owners like it or not. They arbitrarily deny the right of some people to develop their land while practically mandating that other people develop theirs. They create barriers to uses that people want and try to coerce uses for which there is little market.

Part of the problem is that Damascus was the wrong place to put a new city. When Oregon counties first zoned their land in the 1970s, Clackamas County (where Damascus is located) overzoned for residential and underzoned for industrial, while Washington County did the reverse. As a result, most job growth in the region has been in Washington County. Because most of the congestion in the Portland area lies between Damascus and Washington County jobs, it would actually be faster to commute to those jobs from Seaside, 75 miles away on the Oregon Coast, than from Damascus, which is less than 30 miles away. Of course, this could easily be fixed by adding more industrial land to Clackamas County, but the planners didn’t want that.

A second problem was the lack of infrastructure. In most master-planned communities, the developer borrows money to build the infrastructure and then arranges for land-buyers to repay their share of the loans over 30 years, so the infrastructure cost does not become an up-front barrier to homeownership. In contrast, Portland-area planners typically charge homebuilders $20,000 to $50,000 per home up front to pay for infrastructure, adding significantly to the cost of new housing.

The third problem was planners’ arrogance in dictating who got to develop their land and how they had to do it. The planners envisioned a New Urbanist paradise with high densities, mixed uses, and walkable neighborhoods. All the local residents could see was massive congestion created by the influx of people and inadequate services to support them.

Planners object to the old way of creating cities because it often resulted in “leap-frog development” because developers could only find large blocks of land to purchase and develop some ways away from the urban fringe. This seemed inefficient to the planners. But it turns out that it is far more inefficient to try to impose your ideas on people who don’t want to be a part of your urban paradise.


7 thoughts on “How Not to Create a City

  1. Frank

    “The difference between soviet planners and Metro planners is that soviet governments claimed ownership to all the land”

    At least the soviets were honest and direct. Face it: government owns all the land. Just stop paying rent (in the form of property tax) and you’ll find out first hand who really owns all the land.

  2. metrosucks

    “Just stop paying rent (in the form of property tax) and you’ll find out first hand who really owns all the land.”

    Ditto, that’s what I always said to my brother!

  3. Ohai

    Here’s how Oregon urban planners create a city. First, they find other people’s land. Then they incorporate a city embracing that land.

    No evil planners made Damascus a city. They voted to incorporate themselves as a city in 2004. Or are the residents of Damascus themselves a bunch of urban planners?

    A second problem was the lack of infrastructure.

    From reading the Antiplanner’s own link it sounds like that was also the fault of the residents of Damascus:

    A small group of statewide anti-tax advocates, seeing the chance to establish a foothold for their limited-government views, helped place measures on the ballot to severely limit how much the city government could spend without asking voters for authority. As a result, the type of projects any other city would routinely embark upon – paving streets, developing a transportation plan, forming a police department — still remain impossible in Damascus.

    This sounds more like a libertarian utopia and less like the urban planning folly the Antiplanner makes it out to be. Did he get it mixed up with someplace else?

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