The Rise of Urban RomanticismQuite a while back, someone sent me a link to an interesting white paper from New Zealand's Center for Resource Management Studies titled "The Rise of Urban Romanticism (or The New Road to Serfdom)". I finally got a chance to read it, and I think it has a really interesting perspective. He talks about the fundamental conflict over the last few centuries between the Scientific Enlightenment and Emotional Romanticism, and how socialism, fascism, and communism were all 20th-century "dark sides" of these fundamental movements. Modern Emotional Romanticism movements include anti-globalization, radical environmentalism, and, you guessed it, urban romanticism - i.e. the smart growth movement of density and transit. Romantic movements always revolve around an extremely passionate mission to "fix" some aspect of humankind based on an elite aesthetic vision, whether society wants to be "fixed" or not and pretty much regardless of any collateral damage to the people involved.
He defines an older generation of urban planners schooled in the scientific enlightenment tradition of reason and engineering what the people wanted. Then he gets into the newer generation of planners who have moved to the romantic side based on aesthetics and environmentalism - more architect than engineer. You can guess which side he comes down on. Excerpts:
In his seminal work, The Road to Serfdom, Hayek makes the point that the problem with central planning is that it attempts to form a universal view on matters on which there can be no universal agreement. Therefore any such plan necessarily coerces more people than those who willingly go along with it. Smart Growth is a classic example of this failing. It forces the majority to live where they would not choose to live if given the choice. All those people must be coerced into making second-best choices – they lose their property rights and their liberty.While he starts out mentioning some dark sides of the scientific enlightenment (like socialism and social engineering), later in the paper he seems to categorically divide the world into good science/reason vs. bad romanticism. I don't think it's that simple. Romanticism has produced a lot of good things (like civil rights), and clearly has a place as the balancing yin to the science's yang. But his overall insight is a good one well worth considering.
Sometimes we are asked to choose from three or four of these different “visions” – overlooking the fact that the future contains an infinite number of possibilities. We should ask what happened to all the others. The few alternative visions presented have one thing in common. They all transfer power from the people to the Urban Romantics who will then use those powers to impose their “vision” on the canvas of the region. The rest of us have to do as we are told, and suffer the costs, which are enormous. The Urban Romantics don’t care – they have power and have no concern for the consequences. When did you last hear a “Smart Growth” planner express real concern for, or even refer to, housing affordability.
The other fatal flaw in these “visioning” exercises is that they survey the wrong population. The need to develop the “vision” is always justified by a perceived need to manage the “problem of growth”. Hence the exercise begins with some scary claim that the population of city X will grow by Y thousands or millions over the next Z years.
The Urban Romantic visionary then asks the existing population (or a small and carefully chosen sample of the existing population) where these hordes of newcomers should live. We know that existing people have quite strong preferences about where newcomers should go, but these are usually remarkably different from where the newcomers themselves want to go. Certainly in New Zealand newcomers show little enthusiasm for land around railway stations or other “transport nodes”. Unsurprisingly they prefer the beaches, the mountains, the countryside, or the nearest “Hobbit-like” village.