The Antiplanner’s Library: Unplanning

Unplanning sounds like a book for the Antiplanner. But the title is deceptive. Author Charles Siegel is critical of the urban planners who, according to the myth, planned and designed the low-density suburbs that most Americans live in today. He supports the high-density, anti-automobile goals of most of today’s urban planners. He just wants to achieve those goals with top-down political action, not top-down planning.

Instead of building new roads, says Siegel, we should build more rail transit. Instead of building low-density suburbs, we should cluster development around rail stations. Instead of speed limits of 45 to 65 mph on urban arterials, he says we should limit speeds to 30 mph.

Like most New Urbanists, Siegel lives in a fantasy world in which people will behave the way he thinks they ought to behave instead of the way they do behave. Siegel presents a circa 1910 postcard of a streetcar suburb, saying “streetcar suburbs were greener, less congested, quieter, and safer for children than today’s automobile-oriented suburbs.”

Has he visited a streetcar suburb lately? (Most of them are no longer suburbs, having long ago been annexed into a central city.) Those things that fill the driveways and line both sides of the streets are called automobiles. Just because you have something that was designed when people didn’t have cars doesn’t mean the people living there will drive any less today.

Siegel also ignores the costs of his fantasies. He says of streetcar suburbs, “Shopping and public transportation were a five-minute walk away.” Yes, and the average grocery store in those days sold 300 different products (compared with 30,000 in today’s average supermarket). If it had any fresh food then, it was seasonal only. The public transportation rattled along at about 10 or 11 mph, only after a long wait at the corner. The nickel fare sounds cheap today, but only white collar workers could afford to live in neighborhoods like this and regularly ride streetcars.

Siegel imagines that, if we had commuter trains instead of freeways, most commuting would shift to rail. Is there any urban area in a developed country in the world in which most commuters take trains to work? Maybe Tokyo and Hong Kong, where urban population densities are several times greater than Manhattan. Not anyplace that looks like a streetcar suburb.

New Urbanism is fine if you want to live that way. Most people don’t. Siegel’s notion that he can somehow make New Urban living acceptable by imposing it through top-down political action instead of top-down urban planning betrays his ignorance of government planning, which, after all, is really just a form of top-down political action.

It also betrays his ignorance of what freedom and democracy are all about. Democracy doesn’t — or shouldn’t — mean freedom to impose your lifestyle preferences on others through some kind of semi-democratic process. It means setting up a system in which everyone is responsible for the costs of their choices and then letting everyone choose for themselves.


29 thoughts on “The Antiplanner’s Library: Unplanning

  1. the highwayman

    Though Rand O’Toole, reality is that you’re “The Autoplanner” and you think every thing should be planned around automobiles.

    If you want to drive fine, though urban planning shouldn’t exclude people that can’t drive or just don’t want to in society.

  2. Frank

    “Siegel imagines that, if we had commuter trains instead of freeways, most commuting would shift to rail.”

    We’ve built more rail in Portland, and what is the result? We still have packed freeways, and TriMet is in the red for tens of millions for the second year in a row and is raising fares, cutting lines, and reducing service on 60% of its bus lines. Avoiding the astronomical costs of WES, the OHSU tram, and the new MAX lines would seemingly have prevented such cuts. WES is a shining example of how commuter trains will not pull people from the freeways; instead, it hurts the poor who depend on buses.

    BUT (and I would like a response from the Antiplanner on this):

    Isn’t what’s happened in some suburbs also “a form of top-down political action”? Take Federal Way, Washington for example. Its “downtown” has been zoned by the local government for big box stores and strip malls. If you click the link I’ve posted and check out the street view, you’ll see McDonalds, Burger King, WalMart, Target, Ross, Red Lobster, Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, PetCo, Best Buy, and just about every other chain imaginable.

    Isn’t this a result of government planning?

    And if you visit the link I’ve posted, you’ll see an asphalt wasteland with more parking spaces than cars.

    Isn’t this a result of government planning?

    While I don’t condone Dan’s generalization of all suburbs (and his use of “McSuburb”), after visiting this “downtown”, I see his point. Places like this are soulless, uninviting, boring, depressing, and for me, practically uninhabitable.

    But what are my choices? Seattle is crowded and expensive. Tacoma is dirty and crime ridden.

    And back to my original question: Hasn’t government planning made created ALL these places? To use a phrase from Siegal’s Preservation Institute, hasn’t government forced the poor from the urban cores while transforming the “social environment” of the suburbs into a sprawling wasteland of big box stores with underused parking lots? Isn’t government encouraging excess consumption by promoting these retail chains?

    I would really appreciate a response.


  3. Dan

    Like most New Urbanists, Siegel lives in a fantasy world in which people will behave the way he thinks they ought to behave instead of the way they do behave.

    This is how you know Randal doesn’t have sh– and must resort to strawmen to have anything to say. I know Charles and read the pre-print to this book, and he doesn’t think like Randal’s unreality fantasyland musings at all.

    And IIRC he lives in a streetcar suburb.

    Such fear-mongering as we find above just seeks to mask the wish for rational utility maximizing agents to have more choices – and more choices might mean some consumers might eschew McSuburbs, which is threatening to some, isn’t it?



  4. Scott

    Dan, What fear-mongering & strawmwn? Typical for you to use weasel buzzwords without any support for your “feelings” towards a subject, without reality.
    _ _

    Suburbs created by government? Come on people get off your distortions. Realize:
    People like cars & personal mobility.
    Lower density offers many advantages (easily 20+ solid items, ie more nature, more shopping, more privacy, more community, more homeownership, less noise, cleaner air, faster traffic, newer construction, better schools, less crime, etc.).
    The 2 main items seen as pluses to high density–walkability & more mas transit–are minor, not wanted by all & are pretty much exclusive with many of the pluses in lower density.
    Public transit hardly works for densities below ~5,000. And for widespread use, above 10,000.
    Pockets of higher density (ie apt. complexes) are available in many suburbs.

    The numerous private developments in low densities produce what consumers want, not what gov mandates.
    Look at Irvine.

  5. Borealis

    I am bothered by how many planning success stories are based on NIBYism (Not in My Back Yard). It is easy (though maybe true) to say a neighborhood is saved by fighting off a highway or landfill or such. Georgetown, DC, is cited as a great neighborhood, but they fought off a subway station because they didn’t want the riff-raff getting into their neighborhood. I-395 dead ends in DC because DC didn’t want non-DC people driving through their neighborhoods.

    The problem with NIMBYism is that it is a political weighing of a small area of motivated people against a large number of less motivated people. This will always be a problem for democracies.

  6. C. P. Zilliacus

    Borealis wrote:

    > Georgetown, DC, is cited as a great neighborhood, but they
    > fought off a subway station because they didn’t want
    > the riff-raff getting into their neighborhood.

    I respectfully disagree. The above is, I believe, an urban legend.

    While I am certain that there were plenty of people in Georgetown that did not (and do not) want a Metrorail stop in their neighborhood, there were engineering problems that were deemed too expensive to overcome in an underground Georgetown station, especially if that station was to be on a line linked to Rosslyn, Arlington County, Virginia. See Zachary Schrag’s Great Society Subway (on the Antiplanner’s bookshelf here) for more details.

    > I-395 dead ends in DC because DC didn’t want non-DC
    > people driving through their neighborhoods.

    And certain Maryland politicians were equally eager to pander to NIMBY arguments against roads like I-95 and I-270. See Doug Willinger’s A Trip Within the Beltway for details.

  7. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    > Has he visited a streetcar suburb lately? (Most of them
    > are no longer suburbs, having long ago been annexed into
    > a central city.) Those things that fill the driveways and
    > line both sides of the streets are called automobiles.
    > Just because you have something that was designed when
    > people didn’t have cars doesn’t mean the people living
    > there will drive any less today.

    I just took a look at densities of some (admittedly arbitrary) places around the U.S., with emphasis on places that now have (or once had) urban street railways, and are still enumerated on their own.

    Note how “new” rail cities like San Diego and Portland were rather similar in terms of population density.

    Place, state, land area (square miles), 2000 pop., density
    Prince George’s Md. 485.00 801,515 1,700
    Montgomery CountMd. 496.00 873,341 1,800
    Fairfax County Va. 395.00 969,749 2,500
    San Diego Calif. 324.30 1,223,400 3,800
    Portland Ore. 134.30 529,121 3,900
    Falls Church Va. 1.99 10,377 5,200
    Annapolis Md. 6.73 35,838 5,300
    Pittsburgh Pa. 55.60 334,563 6,000
    Arlington CountyVa. 25.90 189,453 7,300
    Los Angeles Calif. 469.10 3,694,820 7,900
    Baltimore City Md. 80.80 651,154 8,100
    Takoma Park Md. 2.12 17,299 8,200
    Alexandria Va. 15.20 128,283 8,400
    Washington D.C. 61.40 572,059 9,300
    Philadelphia CouPa. 135.10 1,517,550 11,200
    Mount Rainier Md. 0.65 8,498 13,100
    San Francisco Calif. 46.70 776,733 16,600

  8. Borealis

    To CPZ,

    Thank you for disagreeing respectfully. You may well be right about Georgetown. My information came from long-time DC residents and yet that information may be an urban legend. You are certainly right that DC is not the only place of NIMBYism as I am sure MD and VA had similar power plays.

    I rented a house in a neighborhood along the NE coast where I-95 had been punched through an existing neighborhood left connected by a short bridge over I-95. Interestingly, the result was that by the early 1990s the residents on one side of I-95 were all black and the other side all white. There was not any obvious difference in the quality of the houses or services. There must be quite an interesting urban planning story about the time when I-95 was punched through, but no one really talked about it.

  9. Frank

    I don’t think you did, at least not directly.

    Look, I live in a suburb, and I like it. But some suburbs, like the one I referenced above, are hollow shells with no real sense of place. Government zoned the land around this downtown area for big box stores. Period.

    The Antiplanner talks about lack of regulation and free markets at work, but I don’t see it.

    Even if the case above reflects the local government and by extension, the local populace–although that’s debatable given the cozy relationship between big business and government–there is still more government meddling involved. There is no way the United States, which has the highest per capita retail space in the world, can sustain current levels of consumption and non-production; the government encourages consumption at every turn, whether it’s through the tax code (have babies, buy a house, buy solar panels, buy a new car) or through monetary policy that discourages saving and encourages consumption based on debt.

    So, I don’t believe that in a truly free market that the enormous monuments to consumption such as the one I referenced would exist.

    (This is not to say that suburbs and single-family homes wouldn’t exist; but sprawling parking lots and chain store after chain store after chain store after chain store after chain store, for acres and acres and acres…I doubt it would exist.)

  10. Scott

    Frank, If you want certain “character” or “sense” in places, live where you find it. Ask Andres Duany for leads on where to live.
    You cannot expect all places to meet your desires.
    When you visit people, do you insult their living arrangements & say that you cannot live there?

    Obviously people don’t live in big-box stores, nor is that even near a majority employer, so it doesn’t make sense that zoning only allows big-box.
    What’s the problem with big-boxes? Not sure why you are concentrating on efficient retail.

    Regardless, zoning doesn’t create. Businesses will construct when they think they will have consumers (for shopping, living, working, etc.).
    People are satisfied to shop at large stores (more selections, better prices, parking) & the free market lets other stores fold, if they can’t compete.

  11. Frank

    If you want certain “character” or “sense” in places, live where you find it.

    Yes, and commute.

    What’s the problem with big-boxes?

    The problem is that they have arisen through government intervention in the economy and reflect the push to consume rather than to save. Did you even read my post, including the fact that America has more retail space per capita than any other nation? Our current levels of consumption, as evidenced by our savings rate and national debt, are simply unsustainable.

    But you’re missing the point. If you believe that the current retail situation in America is the result of a free market, you’re delusional. In fact, anyone who believes there IS a free market is delusional.

  12. rob

    Greetings all. If I may, I would like to comment on Frank’s most recent post, because it implies a perhaps significant and fundamental issue beyond the current article and argumentation (sorry if this has already been hashed out in the past). I have been reading the ongoing debates, and would appreciate some clarification.
    The Antiplanner’s stated purpose for this blog is the sunset of government planning. Due to the current and past extensive involvement of government in producing the built environment, this is quite a radical position, and therefore should be justified by presenting some fairly radical supporting evidence or argumentation. Most articles presented to be apparently in support of this stated purpose contain brief econometric analyses supportive of the current or recent state of the local (US) built environment. Logically, in order to produce argumentation promoting the current built environment while simultaneously advocating radical change, a required assumption is all the Federal, State and Municipal governments and their associated planning departments and activities have had little to no effect on the production of the built environment- which is certainly difficult to demonstrate, because such organizations exist and are obviously part of the system. We do not have the luxury of doing controlled experiments to see what would be without these organizations and their associated and rather complex systemic effects. Most articles’ analyses argue in support of the current built environment and paradoxically argue against any type of change, especially regarding transportation- a piece of built environment heavily influenced by governmental policies. Logically, whenever promoting the current built environment, is this not the equivalent of advocating for, as a minimum, the current level of government involvement, for the continuation of Federal, State, and Municipal governmental influences including building codes, zoning restrictions, permitting, legislation and taxation which in any way influenced its production? To support the radical position of eliminating all government planning, would not an Antiplanner blog or resource provide the necessary and sufficient justification of such a position by revealing massive and extensive deficiencies of the current system and presenting a broad range of systemic failings in the current built environment? Is this even possible using econometric analyses, since such analyses are dependent upon existing data, and these data are derived from a system resultant at least in part from governmental policy and influence? Most articles and much of the commentary do exactly the opposite, implicitly holding the current built environment as a type of exemplar and arguing against change. Any clarifications?

  13. ws


    You’re absolutely right. A lot of planning agencies zoned for massive commercial spaces in their cities because they can draw up tax revenues quickly, especially if you’re in a sales tax heavy state.

    Regarding California and its limits on property taxes (Prop 13), it created the need by government to increase revenues and what they did to do so was mindlessly zone for vast commercial areas (power centers or whatever they’re called).

    This is very evident in LA’s newer suburbs.

    That’s not to say that big boxes wouldn’t exist, they just wouldn’t dominate as much as they do now.

    I’m not sure why you asked ROT for an objective opinion on zoning. Houston, the so called bastion of the free market, still requires vast amounts of parking within its codes. Parking requirements are the death of making truly beautiful spaces.

  14. Scott

    Frank, I didn’t gather that part of your point is “too much retail.” It seemed like you preferred small, independent retailers, rather than large retail spaces & chains. Your way has less product choice & higher prices.

    What’s the point in comparison to other nations? US retail is ~20’sq./capita, high, so what?–partly because the US is wealthier. Retail sales per retail area might be relevant, indicating efficiency & lower overhead; however, there are many other factors.

    Suppose there was slightly less retail space. People would still have the same amount of discretionary income. There would be higher sales per each store, on avg. Prices would probably be a little higher, because of less competition. On the other hand, leasing & other overhead costs could be a lower % of sales, but that would change the amount spent.

    Yes, there is a high retail vacancy rate now, because of over-building & the recession.

    It is true that people should save more & use less credit.
    However, people aren’t forced to go shopping & don’t buy or over-extend just because there are many retail options.

    Large retail stores happen naturally, starting over a century ago. Look at the history of Sears & Montgomery Wards. Of course Wards couldn’t adapt. WalMart has outdone other retailers. It’s size & procedures have allowed it to offer an incredible array of products, at low prices. You are not going to find higher wages at competing smaller retailers.

    A business model is not formed to fit zoning.
    Businesses want sales, for whatever products/services offered, obviously. So, companies build where allowed or change zoning to be allowed.

    Zoning can be made to attract or deter certain types of businesses/construction, depending if there is consumer demand. Suppose more “culture” is wanted & there is zoning to just allow that. Do you think that companies will start building museums, art galleries, music halls, etc.? No. There is not enough demand for those types of businesses to exist.

    The average retail spent is about $10,000/capita. Do you really think that will vary by the amount retail available?

    Large retailers & multiple outlets occur because that is more efficient (scale) & there is a large amount of capital, among other reasons. That is true for all developed nations. Look at chains in the G20 & even beyond.

  15. Dan

    ws, the I-80 corridor from SFO to Tahoe is seemingly one big cr*ptacular automall surrounded by cr*ptacular retail space selling the same cr*p as the next cr*ptacular mall up the road, having arisen in the chase for tax revenue in the wake of Prop 13. One of the reasons why I moved from CA. Vacaville used to be nice.

    And Murrica has 7x the retail sf/capita than any other country. Vastly, definitely unsustainable. As we can see.


  16. ws


    Frank’s point about there being too much retail is valid. Ultimately an economy based solely off of consumption (which requires us to export our wealth to other countries to obtain these low cost items) is unsustainable in many ways.

    Our economy needs to be based off of something more than Just that. We actually need to start producing and manufacturing things people want and need.

  17. Scott

    ws, Please learn more about econ. You & Frank make no sense. Even if I type for pages, it’s unlikely that you will comprehend.
    How can there be too much consumption?
    Income has to be earned to be spent.
    Borrowing is another problem.
    Consumption, in retail, is buying tangible goods.
    Other than food & shelter, people like to buy “things” (entertainment too). People should have fewer “things”?
    How would you rather people spend? Why the hell is it your guys’ decision on how people should spend money?

    I think you guys might be getting mixed up with the service sector, that has been increasing, while manufacturing has been decreasing, for decades. That’s true for all developed economies.

    You begin with consumption, then talk about exporting, which is production.

    Trade is great, look up comparative advantage.

    You guys are welcome to not buy imports & pay higher prices.
    However, there are many product types which are not made in the US, as well as foodstuffs. Labor unions can be thanked for that. Also, fungibles (commodities: oil, lumber) are indistinguishable.

    Your guys biggest error:
    Consumption is the largest part of the economy.
    GDP = C + I + G + net trade
    GDP = private consumption + gross investment + government spending + (exports ? imports).

    BTW, the trade deficit is not exactly that, the exchange has to even out, like barter; deficit for products though. That gap is money that other countries use to buy stocks & such, mainly US Bonds, which is financing the Federal Debt. Without that, interest rates would be higher, & more money would be printed–leading to inflation.

  18. Frank

    Scott, your mad ramblings have come to be too much.

    “How can there be too much consumption?”

    There can be too much consumption when consumptions exceeds production. Period.

    Please don’t tell me that I need to learn about econ when: 1) You don’t know my background in economics; and 2) You hit return after every sentence.

    And for once, WS and I are in complete agreement. Rob raises interesting questions about the layers of the onion government. Peel back one layer, and there are several more.

    I didn’t understand all the libertarian infighting before, but now that I read more junk from CATO, I’m seeing more clearly.

  19. Scott

    You haven’t supported any of your claims.
    You fail to understand what consumption is.
    Consumers produce the money used to consume.
    You have restated your position to a different point, as a difference of 2 factors, which is still not true. Please elaborate, unless econ knowledge is lacking.
    Here’s a hint: Have there been any articles that US citizens consume/spend too much? Too many mortgages & credit are true, but that’s a different issue. You never explained why you think that consumers should spend their money on non-consumption & where?

    Structured paragraphs can be easier to read, which has nothing to do with your lack of econ knowledge, as you have asserted.

    Sure there are layers of gov. What does that have to do anything on this thread? Same with libertarian quibbles & Cato. No idea on relevance & what you are referring to.

  20. rob

    Frank, thanks for the comment regarding my comment. I may have been a bit wordy but the basic point I was attempting to make was to ask for resolution of a contradiction I interpret from the articles and discussion. Charles Siegel in his book argues for somewhat of a radical change to the current system producing the built environment by pointing out various real or perceived deficiencies and then proposing changes to address them. Antiplanners advocate for an even more radical change in proposing the sunset of government planning, but they also consistently advocate for the current built environment and almost always argue against any type of change. What am I missing?

    The widespread use of econometric analysis advocates the implicit value that economy (within the reductionistic analyses the apparently least cost option is always presented as “best”) and economic theory should be the sole ends and criterion of evaluation to designing the built environment. Strict reliance on market mechanisms can be considered a form of tyranny of those with disposable income. What those who advocate such a position should realize is this approach is also a value system, it has no inherent metaphysical truth or correctness attached to it. This approach is also desiring the enforcement of one’s value system upon others. In empirical observation we see this effect. Children, the destitute, the disabled and the elderly are all marginalized by the current built environment, especially regarding mobility. In a strict market only system, these people are given no voice, and the voice of any and all is effected by the overall state of the economy. Further evidence for this effect is the restricted demographic which argues about these ideas here and elsewhere. I would be quite interested to hear from mothers, children and seniors regarding some of the information and ideas discussed here. In the context of a severe economic depression the market dominated approach breaks down. Markets are not the opposite of government, empirically markets have co-evolved with the government institutions which enable and support them. To advocate a position based on the elimination of these institutions is to advocate for a system state which has never existed in empirical reality, and requires quite a hefty task of theoretical argumentation to support it. Econometric analysis does not provide justification, because the past and current system has co-evolved with government institutions. Comments?

  21. Dan

    I think the wild DOW adjustments are an indicator of the widespread account imbalances across wide swaths of the globe. From an ecologist’s perspective, this debt has existed for a human generation now. No amount of production or resource exploitation can fix it, as the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment.


  22. Borealis

    I would love to have a serious discussion of what “sustainability” means, but I fear it would just digress into slogans and sound bites. I have two college degrees in environmental subjects, but I have never heard of any subset of an ecosystem that is sustainable. I guess it works as a vague concept, as some things might be more sustainable than others. But a vague concept is not very helpful as a holy grail of planning.

  23. Dan

    Use the Brundtland def. of sustainability. It is just fine.

    And I have never heard of any subset of an ecosystem that is sustainable doesn’t make sense. You may be thinking of ‘stable’, as ecosystems are dynamic rather than static.


  24. Borealis

    Thank you for proving my point

    “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” is trite and meaningless. It could arguably encompass everything or nothing at all. What use is it?

  25. Scott

    Borealis, That’s similar to what I was thinking of.
    Who knows what the future will use?
    Anything used now, could be used later.
    What technology will be available?–especially on recycling, since the molecules still exist.
    Malthusian thinking, how depressing.
    Although caution is good.
    The worlds needs negative population growth, like the natural growth of Japan & Europe (that’s not counting net migration).

  26. prk166

    “America has more retail space per capita than any other nation” – Frank

    I know this sounds really meaningful but I, not be rude, it’s actually pretty meaningless. By many measurements the US is the single most wealthy country in the world. We also have ample amounts of land. Why wouldn’t the richest country in the world without space constraints not result in retailers using lots of space? While I agree that there are some gov’t. policies that encourage consumption (e.g. the 30 year mortgage, subsidized freeways, non-gold standard for currency, et al. ), I don’t see how the sq ft. of retail space in the US is very significant in arguing we consume too much.

    The current account defect is much more meaningful. Yet even that has some shortcomings. But that debate is better left to economists than for me to try to undertake.

    “We actually need to start producing and manufacturing things people want and need.” -ws

    We don’t? In the US the manufacturing sector, if it was a country on it’s own, would be tied with Germany as the world’s 4th largest economy. Only the US (sans manufacturing, China and Japan would be larger. $4 TRILLION in production and we manufacture nothing? Really? Really?

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