Urban planning: Wichita should reject the fads Portland has followed

By Randal O’Toole

Randal O'Toole speaking in WichitaRandal O’Toole in Wichita.

Urban planners say they can make our cities more livable, our downtowns more vibrant, and our traffic calmer. The problem is that urban planners do not understand how cities work, so all of their plans often turn out disastrously wrong.

Many urban planners are quite capable of planning a sewer line, a road, a bus route, or a school. But it is huge leap from “I can locate a water main” to “I should have the power to decide how every piece of land in your urban area should be used.”

That is the power urban planners want. But cities are too complicated for anyone to plan, so giving anyone this power is asking for trouble.

Take my former hometown of Portland, Oregon, whose planners say they are making streets “vibrant” and the city “livable” by encouraging walking and transit ridership and discouraging driving.

To stop “sprawl,” planners told rural landowners around Portland that they cannot build a house on their own land unless they own at least 80 acres and earn $80,000 a year farming it. To promote “compact development,” planners rezoned many neighborhoods of single-family homes for multi-family housing with zoning so strict that, if someone’s house burns down, they can only replace it with an apartment.

Planners believe your only property rights are the rights planning commissions decide to give you — subject to change any time.

Portland has spent well over $2 billion building light-rail and streetcar lines. To encourage transit ridership, planners allowed rush-hour congestion on all major freeways and streets to increase to stop-and-go levels. Doing anything to relieve congestion, planners feared, “would eliminate transit ridership.”

To further encourage transit and walking, planners zoned all the land near light-rail stations for high-density, mixed-use development, so people could walk from their apartment buildings to a cafe or grocery store. When nothing got built — developers said Portland already had a surplus of multi-family housing — the city started subsidizing it, and has so far given around $2 billion in public funds to developers.

The results are attractive if you like the idea of dodging trolleys as you wander through canyons of four- and five-story apartment buildings. But the practical effects on Portland residents are mostly negative.

Planners successfully increased congestion by more than six times since 1982, about the time most of these plans began. But that hasn’t gotten people out of their cars: the share of commuters taking transit to work declined from 9.8 percent in 1980 to 6.5 percent in 2007.

Planners more than doubled housing prices, so a $150,000 home in Wichita would cost well over $300,000 in Portland. But that hasn’t made high-density housing particularly successful: many of these developments have high vacancy rates and several have gone bankrupt.

High housing prices forced many families with children to move to distant suburbs, and the remaining childless households eat out a lot, so Portland has lots of restaurants. But it also has high taxes and urban services have deteriorated as funds once dedicated to fire, police, public health, and other programs have been diverted to subsidies to developers.

Terrible traffic, unaffordable housing, high taxes, and reduced property rights: those are the legacies of Portland planning. That’s the future planners want to bring to Wichita. I recommend you just say no.

Randal O’Toole (rot@cato.org) is senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future. He recently visited Wichita for a series of speaking engagements and meetings.

4 Comments

  • This is a good article Bob. The downtown proponents really need to hear these things.

    This article mentions traffic congestion and that’s something that really hasn’t been mentioned on this blog as a side effect of our local ‘planning’. We know about the parking issues but a good follow up article would be more details about what the Douglas Design District is planning here in Wichita. It’s not pretty.

    I’m going to rant a bit here…

    This Portland example shows people really don’t want to use mass transit. It also shows that no one wants to bicycle anywhere either if for no other reason than in most localities for 9 months out of the year weather isn’t bike friendly. No one wants to walk because frankly the neighborhoods surrounding downtown are run down and far to scary for their target demographic to want to spend much time outside a vehicle.

    I really don’t understand this pedestrian friendly movement here or anywhere else. The only place it even halfway works is where population density demands it out of pure necessity not because anyone likes it. Its an idealistic concept. Meanwhile the target demographic for our local downtown are fleeing Wichita City limits. There’s a lot of reasons for this flight but lack of downtown probably doesn’t make the top 10. (mostly to avoid USD 259 and crime) I wonder who they expect to have left in city limits to tax in the coming years.

    I know Pat will be along shortly, assuming he survived his trek to work in 15 degree weather on his bicycle this morning to remind us all that we must do something to pay off the existing bonds! So here’s my idea…lets do what everyone should do when they are in debt over their heads. Sell remaining assets and buckle down and pay it off. Continuing to plan and get involved in one mess after another would be like using a credit card to pay off your other credit card. Its not sustainable in the long term.

  • “I know Pat will be along shortly, assuming he survived his trek to work in 15 degree weather on his bicycle this morning”

    Lol. :) Nah, I like driving around in my 13 mpg Yukon.

    I generally agree with this particular blog. Wichita does not need to follow Portland’s mess and fortunately, we don’t.

  • What Mr. O’Toole is really advocating – he may not call it this – is what is also referred to as White Flight.
    Let people move out of the core areas of cities allowing them to deteriorate while the outlying areas thrive – who really wants to come in contact with those of a darker skin than they.
    Along the way more roads get built which of course require more maintenance, more miles driven, more commute time, more gasoline purchased, more money out of your pocket.

    There are cities that do this quite well, his city may not have but that is not a reason to try it here.

  • Neighborhoods transition. I have lived in transitioning neighborhoods. This is a natural, evolutionary process that local officials often try to modify, delay, accelerate, and control—often all of these steps at the same time.

    I believe that it is wrong to do so. Free people living in a free country need freedom. The fact that planners, whether they are local, or at the state/federal levels should not have the ability to control a free people.

    So let’s abolish the federal rules for lightbulbs and toilets. Let’s end prescriptive zoning as Mr. O’Toole would favor, and let a free people be free to grow.

    There is a claim of “white flight” would result. If this happens, one of the results in lower home prices in the area. This attracts folks and has happened in a number of major cities like Washington, DC to name just one. The planners want people to behave in the way that fulfills the planning mission. That is the antithesis of a free people engaging in their own private pursuits peacefully.

    That is why Portland is a great example of what NOT to do in government planning.

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