Separation of Church and Urban Planning


Recently, the Journal of the American Planning Association (JAPA) published research that directly challenged prevailing views in urban planning. In an article entitled Growing Cities Sustainably, Marcial H. Echenique, and Anthony J. Hargreaves from Cambridge University, Gordon Mitchell (University of Leeds) and Anil Namdeo (University of Newcastle) found that compact development (smart growth) had only a marginal impact on sustainable development and should not "automatically be associated with the preferred spatial growth strategy" (See Questioning The Messianic Conception of Smart Growth). This was particularly unsettling to the powers-that-be in urban planning, who have struggled for years – predating the current greenhouse gas emission (GHG) reduction concerns – to make anything but smart growth virtually illegal.

The Reaction

Soon after, the JAPA editor (Randy Crane of UCLA) was criticized by fellow academics in the "PLANET" listserv for permitting publication, at least partly because the research questioned the value of compact development (smart growth) in achieving environmental sustainability.

In early November, a session was held at the 53rd Annual Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning conference in Cincinnati entitled "Spinning Wheels and Witch Hunts: Debating the Merits of Planning Research," devoted to discussion of what at least some considered the heresy of Echenique, et al. The conference program description of the session included questions such as the following:

"What are the dangers of applying the “scientific method” in planning?"

My comment: Any dangers are problems of planners, not the scientific method

"How do ethics, politics and normative values factor into what gets published?"

My comment: It is hoped as little as possible, which is why concern is expressed here.

"On the issue of compact cities, are we spinning our wheels, or are we provocatively challenging conventional wisdom? Is the problem of sprawl still an open question? Do these debates ever end, or, with JAPA’s help, do they keep going indefinitely?"

My comment: The debates must continue until perfect knowledge has been achieved and all relevant information has been objectively considered (with or without JAPA). Neither condition has been satisfied.

A Report from the Front

Professor Lisa Schweitzer of the University of Southern California provided comments on the session in an article entitled ACSP Reflections #1 Should Researchers be Allowed to Question Smart Growth?. Professor Schweitzer describes only the beginning of the session, indicating that she left because the room was too crowded and out of a concern that the authors would not be represented. This is despite the fact that the purpose of the session was, in effect, to discuss whether the researchers were "out of bounds" in raising the issue. Even abbreviated, Professor Schweitzer's account raises substantial concerns, which are described below.

The session began with a critique of the Echenique, et al research by Professor Emily Talen of Arizona State University. Professor Schweitzer characterized Talen's criticism as boiling down to "practitioners have a tough time convincing people to pursue smart growth."

Censoring Criticisms of Smart Growth?

Professor Schweitzer continues: "The problem with Talen's idea is that it suggests researchers 'owe' it to practitioners to only inquire within the framework that compact development is unambiguously meritorious and sprawl is ambiguously not." Professor Schweitzer rightly questions how compact development can be considered "unambiguously good" if it is not examined closely.

In fact, there is no room for icons or the sacred in academic inquiry. The imperative to question is the very justification for publication of the Echenique, et al research.

Avoided Issues

Indeed, there is considerable evidence that compact development has not been examined closely enough. For example, urban planning research has usually discounted, ignored or even denied the association of compact development with inordinately higher house prices relative to incomes – despite massive evidence to the contrary. This is because housing is the largest element in the cost of living, higher house prices necessarily reduce discretionary incomes and increase poverty.

This is an issue not only for high-income cities but also for developing ones. New York University Professor Shlomo Angel expresses concern that: ...strict measures to protect the natural environment by blocking urban expansion could "choke the supplies of affordable lands on the fringes of cities and limit the abilities of ordinary people the house themselves." (See: A Planet of People: Angel's Planet of Cities).

Similar concern is raised by Brandon Fuller of Charter Cities: ... if governments respond by trying to contain urban expansion with greenbelts or urban growth boundaries that artificially restrict the supply of developable land, the result will be prices and rents higher than many arriving families can afford.

The association between higher densities and more intensive traffic congestion is also avoided in much of the planning press. Echenique, et al are an exception, citing research showing that when density rises, vehicle travel rises almost as much. This is no small matter, since expanding mobility throughout metropolitan areas means more economic growth (read more affluence and less poverty). This is before considering the negative impacts of greater traffic intensity on localized air pollution and health.

Sanctioning Objective Inquiry?  

The need for greater openness in academia also caught the attention of Australian transport and urban development consultant Alan Davies (in Will Compact Cities Deliver on the Environment), who wrote:

There needs to be more consideration of evidence-based research by those interested in cities. One reason why there isn’t is illustrated by the reaction to the Echinique et al paper by some members of the US Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSA).

On a similar note, Professor Schweitzer noted that it is common for advocates of compact development to charge skeptics with unethical behavior. This creates an environment that is not conducive to developing objective and reliable strategies that effectively addresses objectives such as environmental sustainability.

Back to the (17th Century) Future?

Open minds have always been a threat to dogma and its proponents. Progress comes from the objective application of science, which is the very opposite of dogma.

Yet, there is a long tradition of sanctioning thought and publication that questions the conventional wisdom. It is not an honorable tradition. In the 17th century, Galileo was bold enough to challenge the doctrines of the Church about the relationship of Earth to the sun. The Church determined that it was inappropriate for him to publish such views and Galileo spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Of course, doctrines change, especially when exposed to the light of new or ignored evidence.

Researchers like Echenique, et al should not be confined to an ivory tower equivalent of house arrest. Their work and that of researchers disagreeing with them should be roundly debated in an open, academically free environment. All of this requires a separation of church and urban planning.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.”


Photo: Sather Tower, University of California, Berkeley (by author)