I’m reading two books about urban planning, Donald Shoup’s groundbreaking work on parking policy The High Cost of Free Parking, and Cato Institute planning critic Randal O’Toole’s The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future whose agenda is apparent from its title.
A libertarian gave me the latter as a gift, and while I expected to disagree with many of its conclusions, so far (having read a few chapters) I’ve been disappointed at the degree to which O’Toole uses emotional appeals and strident language to attack those with whom he disagrees, like calling many scholars “pseudoscientists” including Robert Putnam, whose influential work on declining civil participation O’Toole completely mischaracterizes and ovesimplifies to an almost comic extent: “Putnam heard that American participation in bowling leagues had declined … [and] declared this was proof that Americans’ sense of community had declined.” Bowling Alone really only uses bowling as a metaphor, and by attacking only the metaphor, O’Toole does disservice to his own point.
The book is littered with emotional language and “scare quotes” (as one Amazon reviewer called it, “a stubborn and ideological stance”) about how incompetent and even dishonest planners are, and how nothing they do can possibly be of any value. This shrillness makes it more difficult to appreciate the substantive points. Such a style of argument isn’t unique to Cato people, of course; I’ve found it difficult to read peak-oil advocate and anti-suburbanite James Kunstler for the same reason even though I agree with many of his beliefs.
Ironically, Shoup also criticizes planners and much more eloquently makes the case for free market decisionmaking by presenting positive ideas instead of belittling planners. One of Shoup’s major points is that cities and towns have caused unintended harm by mandating minimum parking requirements in building codes. Instead of letting each developer decide whether parking is the best use of space or not, required parking forces developers to plan for cars even when creating buildings to which people don’t need to drive. As a result, either the cost of the project and the amount of usable space for living or shopping goes down, or the developer will choose a more car-intensive use for the space than they otherwise might.
In essence, Shoup is saying “we can do parking better, and unfortunately, planners have sometimes unintentionally gotten in the way,” which wins over many more readers than calling people pseudoscientists.