The use and value of urban planning

Why do we need urban planners? It is necessary to ask this question, because there is a general feeling that a lot of master plans have not been implemented, and that as a consequence urban planners might not be that useful. A number of people, therefore, wonder if there really is a need for urban planners because, in most cities, planning is done by sectors, (for instance, water, transport, housing, etc) and those sectors are very often managed pretty well.

Why do we need urban planners? It is necessary to ask this question, because there is a general feeling that a lot of master plans have not been implemented, and that as a consequence urban planners might not be that useful.

A number of people, therefore, wonder if there really is a need for urban planners because, in most cities, planning is done by sectors, (for instance, water, transport, housing, etc) and those sectors are very often managed pretty well.

Urban planners are supposed to “plan” across sectors, but the practical use of cross-sectoral planning is not self evident. So the first question to answer would be “why do we need urban planners?”

In the second part of the article we are going to review the performance of planning in different cities, by describing planning success and failures in different parts of the world.

And, finally, deriving from its record of success and failure, we are going to describe an urban planning methodology which, first, will use a cross-sectoral approach; second, will take the impact of market into account; and, third, will increase the chance of success of planning. So, first, let us address the question of why do we need urban planners?

Many cities are using a sectoral approach to planning. That means that a group of professionals is responsible for housing, another one is responsible for transport, water and sewer and another manages urban land. In general, all of those professionals are pretty competent to manage their own sectors. They do what we would call good sectoral management.

Good sectoral management is, of course, indispensable. Specialized professionals know their area very well and usually manage it well, but it is not enough to manage individual sectors.

We also need to have a professional who will have a comprehensive look over the way those sectors interact. And this should be the job of urban planners. In this sense, they are rather unique because they are the only ones who can go across sectors and interpret the problems across sectors.

Unfortunately, many urban planners concentrate just on the planning of land use in isolation from the other sectors, and they do not get much involved in infrastructure planning.

We have, therefore, to address this issue of cross-sectoral problems. In particular, let us take a specific example of cross-sectoral problem. Let us assume that in a city there is a shortage of housing, and therefore there is an overcrowding of some neighborhood, and this overcrowding of the neighborhood creates traffic congestion.

This traffic congestion can be addressed in two ways. 
The sectoral approach would be to widen the streets.

The cross-sectoral approach would be to identify the real problem for traffic congestion, which is in fact due to an overcrowding of a neighborhood, and therefore the solution to a traffic problem might be to build more housing.

So you could really address the problem of traffic congestion in two ways; one, cross-sectoral, which deals with housing in order to solve a traffic problem, or one sectoral, which would just widen the street and deal with the street, without addressing the problem of housing.

This is only an example, not all traffic problems are due to overcrowding.

Let us look at another example. For instance, let’s say we are in a city where there has not been much investment in water supply in suburban areas, and therefore not much new land can be developed in the periphery.

The lack of land serviced by the water supply network creates a housing shortage. As a consequence a lot of people are obliged to live in the city center and to pay a very high rent. There might be several solutions to lower the rent for the majority of households in a city.

One possible solution might be to expand the water supply network in order to develop new land in the suburbs. This will allow developers to build new housing, the increased supply would lower rents for all. We see here an investment in water supply which contributes to solve a housing problem.

This is an example of cross-sectoral approach.
Alternatively, we could adopt a sectoral approach which would have the government directly start subsidizing housing or imposing rent control in order to lower rents.

In this case again, the cross-sectoral approach will be more efficient in the long run. The big advantage of urban planning is to avoid narrow sectoral solutions and to allow a cross-sectoral approach.

Another problem of the sectoral approach is a tendency to minimize costs within the sector, without looking at costs and benefits created in other sectors. Very often attempt to minimize costs in one sector creates a lot of problems in other sectors.

Let us imagine a city located along a river. The people who are managing the roads have a tendency to avoid building bridges because bridges are very expensive, and for the same money they can build many more roads. And from the sectoral point of view, this is correct.

For a given budget they can build a lot more roads if they build few bridges. As a consequence from a sectoral point of view, it would appear efficient to build roads only in areas where no bridges are needed.

However, from the city point of view, the land which is located across the river has a potentially high value, but this value is close to 0 if there are no bridges to get across the river.

If this city has a competent urban planner who understands land markets and is used at looking at cross-sectoral issues, he will very quickly identify the value of the land across the river and find a way to finance the bridges because the cost of the bridges will be very small compared to the value of the land.

So this is an example why minimizing costs in one sector can be very costly and why looking across sectors can bring a lot of benefits to the community.

The use of cost-benefit analysis, rather than cost minimizing, is a very important urban planning tool.

Sectoral approach tends to minimize costs because within a sector there is a given budget, and therefore the less costs you have within the sector, the more you can do.

But if you look at benefits, and at the same time at costs, then the picture becomes very different. A good urban planner, normally, will try to maximize the difference between costs and benefits but not necessarily to minimize costs. Minimizing costs, while also minimizing benefits, is of no value at all.

Let us take a particular example. How do we measure the benefits of building a school? To measure the benefits generated by a school is very difficult. Of course, a new school would allow a number of students to be educated.

We know that this is very valuable for a city to have an educated workforce, but it is very difficult to measure the benefits of education in quantitative terms.

One way to measure the benefits brought by a school to an area it is to look at the change in land rents in an area which had no school and then built one and monitor the change in land rent.

Alternatively one can measure the difference in land rent between an area which has a bad school and an area with a good school. One is generally surprised to see that people recognize a difference in services in an area very quickly, and that this difference will be quickly reflected in rents. Rents will go up when you have more services, and the measure of the change would be a way to measure benefits.

Urban planners are uniquely qualified to measure the benefits of social and physical infrastructure. They should be constantly monitoring the evolution of land rents across the city as it is one of the most useful indicator to calculate costs/ benefits of proposed investments, and to detect in advance land or housing supply constraints.

But, this is the theory. In practice, most planners never bother to monitor land and housing rents. Planners have a tendency to focus on the design of a land use plan in isolation from other sectors. It is a tendency. They don’t always do that, fortunately. That is why we have a few urban planning success stories.

Planners tend to ignore the reaction of the real estate market to their plans, regulations and infrastructure investments. Planners, without even being aware of it, create shortages or create oversupply, because they are often unaware that their actions have an effect on the market.

Very often planners don’t quite understand what is happening or are not even aware of a change in land prices or rents. Planners often attribute changes in rents and land prices to other causes like speculation, when, in fact, negative situations are often due to their own planning initiatives.

We have, therefore, to look more carefully at the role of planners and be sure that they play the right role. Before going into the methodology that we could propose to help planners do a better job, let us review very briefly some examples across the world of success and failures in urban planning.

Cities with high incomes do not necessarily perform better in urban planning than cities with lower incomes. They appear to, but that is not the case, and there is a history of planning success and failure practically everywhere in the world. So let us review first very briefly the successes and then the failures.

European cities that have been very successful in really two areas: First, European planners have been very good at protecting historical neighborhoods, while maintaining their economic vitality.

In many European cities, the historical areas have been not only respected, but at the same time they have been maintained as the prestigious centers of the cities.

In cities as diverse as London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, St. Petersburg, the buildings in the ancient city center have been respected and at the same time have proved to work pretty well as modern office and retail buildings or as apartments. This is rather unique.

Another area where I think that Europe has been very successful is in linking urban areas with a very dense network of public transport, in particular, rapid rail.

This has allowed those cities to have a much larger integrated labour market and has certainly increased their economic efficiency, while not increasing pollution due to transport. Efficient transit linking relatively dense neighborhoods is part of the urban planning success story of Europe.

American cities have also their success stories, but they are different from European cities. I think that one of the largest successes of American cities has been in maintaining a very competitive housing market and having a land development and construction industry which is extremely responsive to the needs of customers.

Developers are able to build very rapidly when demand increases and the industry itself is able to shrink when there is a cycle without creating too much unemployment. That is a big success.

As a result, American households can afford larger houses than their European counterparts for an equivalent income. Another planning success in American cities, and this is not very well known, has been the ability to reduce pollution due to cars by imposing very strict emission standards, which has reduced enormously the amount of emissions per car in the last 10 years.

A car built now in the United States pollutes about one-tenth of what it polluted 10 years ago. That is a big success.

Dr. Peter Butera Bazimya is an urban planner with over 20 years of professional experience in operational urban planning. For 15 years he has worked as a principal urban planner for several institutions. .

The interaction between markets, regulations and infrastructure investments in shaping cities is Dr. Bazimya’s main field of interest. His articles on the subject are available at