Land Use Regulations and “Social Engineering”


All forms of land use regulation are explicitly “social engineering”. Full stop. Let’s acknowledge that reality as we move forward. The question is never whether we’ll be engaging in manipulating society through land use regulations, but how and why.

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The typical pejorative reference to “social engineering” includes things like government built subsidized low income housing or rent control imposed on private property. There are large numbers of people who find this sort of thing distasteful. I understand the objections, particularly since so much public housing has been so bad and rent control distorts the rental market. Then again, lots of for-profit housing is really bad and all sorts of other things distort rental markets.

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How about a municipality that dictates all new construction must be single family detached homes with a minimum 2,800 square feet on a lot that’s at least a quarter acre? What exactly is the logic behind that kind of land use control? Well… a particular town might want to “socially engineer” a middle class demographic in and a lower class demographic out. If only large expensive homes are available then the “wrong” kinds of people can’t live there. And their “undesirable” children can’t attend the local schools, etc.

It’s also possible to “socially engineer” a private community so that it only includes people of a certain age… say, 55 and over. Municipal governments love retirement communities because they pay property tax, but don’t burden the town’s budget with school aged children. And most of the social services for retirement age folks are paid for by federal and state programs rather than local government. This sort of thing certainly distorts the local property market as well. So let’s be honest and say that some people like certain kinds of “social engineering” but not others.

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Voters in some areas value the rural agricultural quality of the landscape and don’t want to see the place paved over with new subdivisions, gas stations, and strip malls. Land use regulations are put in place with restrictions like zoning that requires new homes to be built on no less than forty acres. In addition, there are procedures that restrict new construction based on water availability, flood hazards, soil percolation, and so on. These policies work together to keep most of the land unavailable for development. These policies do in fact preserve the beauty of the open landscape, but they also restrict the supply of buildings and drive up the cost of property in the area. “Social engineering.”

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Other areas have pro growth policies that encourage development. Each new shopping mall, housing tract, and car dealership represents tax revenue and progress. There are a host of professional organizations that relentlessly lobby for new growth in order to promote full employment, affordable middle class homes, and a continuation of the suburban lifestyle. As property taxes rise the cost of having land sit idle becomes prohibitive just as potential profits rise. Owners are pressured into selling or developing whether they necessarily want to or not. Individual buildings sell well and bring many immediate benefits, but the long term consequences often destroy the landscape and reduce the quality of life. “Social engineering.”

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These photos show a form of development that is illegal almost everywhere in North America. The buildings all touch. That’s illegal. Some buildings have both commercial and residential uses. That’s illegal. All of these buildings have little or no parking. That’s illegal. Even at just three or four stories there’s still far too much density. That’s illegal. There’s a long list of handicap accessibility inadequacies in these buildings. That’s illegal. The streets between these buildings are much too narrow. That’s illegal. And yet these are highly desirable places to live and command premium prices on the open market in large part because they are so rare. So much so, in fact, that voters introduced rent control and other measures to help keep at least some working class people in the neighborhood. “Social engineering.”

“Social engineering.” Use the term if you wish. But apply it evenly across the physical and political landscape.

John Sanphillippo lives in San Francisco and blogs about urbanism, adaptation, and resilience at He's a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, films videos for, and is a regular contributor to He earns his living by buying, renovating, and renting undervalued properties in places that have good long term prospects. He is a graduate of Rutgers University