Wichita should reject the fads Portland has followed

By Randal O’Toole. From February, 2010.

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.


3 thoughts on “Wichita should reject the fads Portland has followed”

  1. Randy, I would agree that Portland is not a model to follow, but it’s a stretch to think that will be the case here. We are a property rights community, meaning that the property rights of owners are strongly considered. Secondly, one of the assets that Wichita has is affordable housing. There are many in the community that work very had to maintain that asset. Nevertheless, your warning is well-heeded.

  2. Portland is a great example of what happens when the statists get control. I’m glad that I don’t live there.

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