Do city planners look out for the public interest?

What comes to mind when you think of city planning? Do you think of them as meddlers, incompetants, or capable designers of our urban future?

I’ve read a couple of things lately on property rights in the US concerning all sorts of issues from eminent domain, to our national transporation policy, mostly by conservatives.

The conservatives claim that eminent domain, setting aside nature reserves and the very act of restricting property use through zoning violates their 5th (right to own property) and 14th (due process) amendment rights.

Other conservatives claim that they should be able to use and sell their property as they see fit and contribute to the sprawling of our cities.

Do you think that the idea of city planning is liberal in scope? Are any of you conservatives out there in favor of planning?
I think for a lot of people it breaks down on liberal/conservative boundries; or, democratic/republican - but I’d like to see what you Dopers think.

So do you think that many of these arguments are valid, or do city planners look out for the best of the (liberal) public’s interest?

IANACP but city planning is not about restricting anyones rights, its more about facilitating everyones. Want to build an Ubermall 7 miles out of town, sure no problem. Now we just need to figure out how people will get there and improve roads accordingly. Oh you did want water, sewer, and power to support your needs right. If I understand zoning correctly its more about creating zones “capable” of sustaining the type of use zoned for. An area zoned for single family residential probably does not have the water and sewer capacity if you were to drop in a 50 story high-rise office complex. Not to mention, is that 50 story building 1000 meters from the end of the runway in the approach path for the airport? Its ok, we can just tell the planes to fly around it.

Maybe you could give a specific example? You seem to be painting with an overly large brush. City planning can be anything from the establishment of zoning laws and ordinances to massive urban projects like the Central Artery Project in Boston (AKA the “Big Dig”) or the development of the WTC site.

Cities should be planned by the planning should be done correctly. The right zoning can make the diference between a quaint suburban community and a sprawling nightmare.

I’m not sure what you mean by “meddling” but most large cities need some sort of design and structure.

A lot of people think a lot of things. The government does have eminent domain and does have the right to convert private land to public use as long as they compensate the owner for the fair value of their property.

Everyone says that until someone else wants to build a rendering plant or a steel mill next door.

I don’t really see how it is a “liberal” or “conservative” thing. City planning is a reflection of the values of the planners and the community. It can take a liberal (ie lots of housing projects) or conservative (ie I don’t know…big office towers or something) stance.

I think there is no such thing as the “public’s” best interest. I think there are a million diferent interests that must be addressed and planners attempt to address them as best they can.

Like other folks said, “city planning” can mean a lot of different things.

In its mildest forms, it seems pretty reasonable. For example, I live in a quiet suburban neighborhood. I’m happy that my neighbors cannot legally tear their house down and build a ten-story office building.

At the same time, land use restrictions can get so onerous that they are quite unfair.

Man, ain’t that the truth. “How dare the city require a building permit to let me add a room to my house! I’ve got rights, damn it!”

“Re-zoning the land across the street to permit multi-family housing? That’s agin the comprehensive plan! To arms, gentlemen!”

That’s about my take of it. If anything, it’s a “libertarian versus everyone else” issue, and even then I’m not really clear on the orthodox libertarian take on urban planning. I doubt they recommend doing away with all zoning ordinances. City planning is less about some kind of centrally planned orders on how a city should develop, and more about protecting existing property owners and helping guide development on a path the city can support. Cities can’t afford to build six-lane expressways to everywhere, and no one wants a nuclear power plant in their backyard. And if the “free market” wants to build some non-conforming building, they can always try to get a zoning change.

I’m not a city planner, but I occassionally work with them. I think there are a few of them on this board, and they can certainly give you a better take on what it’s all about than I can.

Urban planning?

Short-sighted, short-term, feel-good, plays well on the front page “projects” that at their best end up not making anything much worse but usually don’t end up that good.

Example: The way that Bart Peterson handed Indianapolis’s water management over to USFilter, a major donor to his political party. They are now filling up the reservoirs with copper salts to reduce all the icky algae. Never mind that copper salts are toxic, nossireee, if you oppose USFilter, you must be one of those evil Republicans who hates Bart Peterson!

Well what if your “room” is a 50’ tall enclosure that covers the entire footprint of the property? Sounds ridiculous, I know, but I never underestimate the ability of people to think of stupid things to build on their land.

Zoning laws are created to preserve the safety, integrity and aesthetics of the community. Now some may argue that people who own land should be able to build whatever they like on it. Problem is that everyone assumes that the other guy will build a normal house.
I don’t see how there’s much debate over whether urban planning is a good idea. There’s good planning and bad planning but generally, most cities require some kind of plan.

At the risk of tearing the OP completely off-track into a question-fest, can I ask for some specifics on US zoning / planning policies?

Is every city / state governed differently or are there any national laws on planning issues?
Is planning consent (from a statutory body) required for any building or amendment to a building? Is there such a thing as ‘permitted development’ in the US?
Are ‘change of use’ applications required to have land re-zoned - say from residential to commercial?
Is there such a thing as land classified as ‘rural remainder’ or 'green belt’ (or the equalivant) for which permission for development is extremely limited or even impossible?

I realse if the answer to question 1 is “yes” then all other answers will be region specific, but thanks for any clarifications on these anyhow.

Zoning was first held as a constitutional use of the police power by the Supreme Court in Euclid v. Ambler (1926). Zoning is a function of municipal government that is delegated to the municipalities by enabling legislation passed by the State legislatures. The scope of the enabling legislation depends upon whether the State is a home-rule State or a Dillon rule State.

As a planner, I’ll hold off on my comments as to whether I look out for the public interest until I see a few more opinions expressed.


I think that the answer is “yes” to both parts of your question 1. Different states and cities have different requirements but there are also federal laws concerning some related issues.

From the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct:

desdinova summed up things nicely, even though she (?) claims not to be a planner.

The OP may want to look at the messages posted on this bulletin board that I run, where most users, myself included, are urban planners. Planners do express some frustration that they’re often thwarted in their task to look out in the best interest of the public, by politicians and others who have a difficult time seeing the “big picture” or the long term effects of a particular action.

I should start an “ask the urban planner” thread. :smiley:

elmwood, AICP