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Friday 13 December 2019
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Good intentions or generational warfare?

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It is evident that the built environment that we dwell in on a daily basis is a victim of improper development practices, from hillside deforestation, to rampant squatting, to incompatible land uses sitting side by side. Much of this is in contravention of land use regulations by our planning agency.

It is understandable, therefore, why those in charge of ensuring compliance to the regulations could easily view themselves as a last stand in the fight against this runaway situation.

One of these roles, presumably, is to protect the public from evil and exploitative businesspeople and property owners who want to make money, by building apartment buildings and commercial establishments in bucolic single-family residential neighbourhoods.

Of course, there is a high demand for housing, so one must wonder where these guardians of the public interest expect the housing, and associated commercial and other facilities, to be built on a small island. Especially when they zone vast tracts of already limited land for low-density residential only development, and expect every neighbourhood to look and feel like the Brady Bunch could be living behind any of its doors.

It is a matter of conjecture why action is not being taken to address this insanity, but one has to wonder if our nonchalance is a result of what The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal suggests could be a battle between age cohorts, in the insightful piece Why Housing Policy Feels Like Generational Warfare.

Warfare, because it appears to be a fight between the up-and-coming young adults and the established property-owning generations, who seek to keep their neighbourhoods frozen in time with minimal changes.

The longer we wait to analyse, question, and take action, the more the current situation favours the established and economically privileged (predominantly older property owners), while dooming less fortunate generations to an affordability crisis.

This is in direct contrast to the belief held by many of my colleagues – old and the already indoctrinated young – that they are acting as benevolent protectors against predatory capital by limiting development activity.

This disconnect is what urban planner Alain Bertaud touches heavily on in his book Order Without Design. His central argument is that too many urban planners are trained, intentionally or by casual omission, to think that they can plan and design urban areas while ignoring the presence of the market economy.

To Bertaud’s central point, I would add that people who are already established property owners, so could not possibly understand the sense of urgency needed in addressing the crisis, are dictating too many planning decisions. Bertaud even suggests that the performance of urban planners should be measured by the affordability of the housing market.

Even the most far-left political candidate running for the office of President of the United States, a self-described Democratic-Socialist and avid critic of capitalism, Bernie Sanders, has created an ambitious housing policy plan recognising the role of land use regulations. The plan says that federal housing and transportation funds should be contingent upon local planning agencies fixing their land use regulations to ensure equitable zoning.

Equitable zoning includes eliminating regulations such as single-family only zoning, large minimum lot sizes, large setbacks, unnecessarily constrained residential densities and other problematic land-use rules that make it more difficult for less wealthy people to access the formal housing market and lead to segregated communities.

While these things alone cannot ensure a perfectly affordable housing market – and Sanders’s plan includes many other supporting measures – affordability cannot be achieved without it.

Why? Supply and demand.

Through the regulations that they design, urban planners essentially dictate the supply of developable land in the country and the total buildable square footage. They are far from powerless public servants. Their work is akin to that of the creation of the algorithms that control the Google search engine – understated with powerful implications.

For good – usually environmental – reasons, many areas of the country are deemed ill-suited and undesirable for development. That is, there is a limited and defined footprint within which we can legally develop land for non-agricultural urban uses.

It is a design attempt to control what is essentially an economic problem. The million-dollar question then becomes: is the total quantity of building square footage allowed by the regulations within that footprint enough to satisfy the market demand for residential and other urban uses?

If the answer is a resounding no, then people will continue to flout the regulations, and an increasing number of our citizens – typically less well off – will slip into the informal housing market. Supply, due to land use regulations that ignore the market, will be constrained, and therefore high demand will inflate prices.

Who then is least affected by the status quo? Of course, those who are the most financially well off and stable, were lucky enough to inherit property, or purchased when the market was more forgiving. In other words, disproportionately older people. Good intentions by the regulatory guardians, or hidden generational warfare? You decide.

Ryan Darmanie is a professional urban planning and design consultant, and an avid observer of people, their habitat, and the resulting socio-economic and political dynamics. You can connect with him at darmanieplanningdesign.com or e-mail him at ryan@darmanieplanningdesign.com

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