August 9, 2013

The One-Plan-to-Rule-Them-All — Or the Chinafication of the Bay Area

By James S. Burling Vice President for Litigation

We’ve been reading a lot lately about the ghastly news out of China wherein the Party has decreed a new mass migration – this time of 250 million rural residents into newly built high-rise cities to be scattered throughout the land.  There is so much wrong about this it is hard to know where to begin.

First, it smacks of crony-capicommunism gone mad.  When I last visited China in 2011 as part of the Brigham-Kanner Property Rights Conference, I was struck by the frenzied building boom wherever I went.  I saw more construction cranes in one city that I saw in the entire United States at the height of our pre-bubble frenzy.

And now we read, as in today’s Wall Street Journal article, of the empty “ghost cities” scattered across the Chinese landscape.  But these aren’t the empty suburban tract-home neighborhoods of America’s post-crash hangover, these are empty cities of high-rise apartment buildings.

So what’s a local communist party administration to do with all the row after row of empty apartment buildings – and a desperate need to build more to keep the planned economy churning?  Well, in a totalitarian society that’s easy: you just force the rural residents to abandon their homes and villages and move into the new urban centers.  Maybe even some jobs will follow – which hasn’t happened so far.

The Chinese leadership, being rather elitist, sees this only as a good thing.  Rural peasants are China’s past.  Besides, peasant life is unhygienic and backwards.  Or, as Li Yongping, who is charge of shoving 2.4 million peasants into cities, put it in a New York times article, “they need to shower more often, but how can they shower on a dirt floor?  If you don’t shower a lot, that’s no good. Put simply, we want to teach ordinary Chinese people to bid farewell to several backward ways of living.”  Yet, the article points out that China’s new urbanites remain too poor to pay for electricity to heat their new apartments, so they are lighting fires in the apartment complex courtyards for heat.

No more dirty peasants!  No more rural poverty! In America, land planners speak in glowing terms of “new urbanism” wherein growth is directed to new urban centers, replete with coffee shops and comfortable desk jobs.  Apparently, China is embracing “new urbanism” with a vengeance – but with noodle shops and no jobs.

If this doesn’t appall you, then welcome to Plan Bay Area!  This is the “One-Plan-to-Rule-Them-All” (officially known in planspeak as “One Bay Area“) concocted by the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.  It is designed to ram “sustainable development” down the thoats of all the counties and cities of the Bay Area whether they or their seven-million citizens like it or not. Now, this blog has already explained that we’re suing to stop this plan with this lawsuit because it’s illegal and environmentally ill-considered.

But what might be even more interesting than the legal infirmities is the striking parallel between the imposition of “stack-and-pack” housing on the hapless masses in the Bay Area and the helpless masses in rural China.  It’s not a communist versus capitalist thing and its not even a grand conspiracy thing – it’s just the mind set of planners everywhere.

There is the omnipresent disdain for those boobs (like me) who actually want to live in the dirty countryside (China) or the sterile suburbs (United States.)  The urban-centric planning elites apparently want to breed more urban elites by creating more urban living.  The problem is that people who want to raise families would prefer not to raise them in crime-infested high density housing projects in cities run by dysfunctional city governments.  The correlation between crime and density is real, the sport of corruption in city governments is blatant, and the good sense of parents to escape to the ‘burbs is irrefutable.

So what’s a planner to do?  It’s easy.  In China the planners have the power of the police; in the United States the planners have the “police power.”  In China you can make people move by forcing them out of their rural shacks at gunpoint while in the United States you can simply keep people from building new suburban tract homes through “sustainable” zoning – which is what the Bay Area Plan is all about.  With a vast majority of undeveloped areas being zoned into inutility, and most new housing being zoned into high-density housing near transit centers, there will be nowhere for new families to go other than to another region (until stack-and-pack arrives there) or to go up – into a new urban high-rise.  But we would never bulldoze homes like they do in China just to fullfill the fantasies of the planners, would we?  That couldn’t happen in America, could it?  But according to economist Randall O’Toole, 169,000 single-family homes will have to be bulldozed to make way for the new high rises in the Bay Area.  And, he says, the new homes will be unaffordable to many of the new urbanites.  Fortunately, the area’s air quality regulations will prohibit the burning fires in their courtyards for heat.

Rural cleansing, suburban cleansing.  It’s all the same thing.

Emerging for the horrors of the planned economies of the Soviet Union and Germany, Friedrich von Hayek wrote his classic “Road to Serfdom” in the early 1940s.  His thesis was simple: for a planned economy to operate it must operate by force through the power of the state.  In China, the peasants have moved from feudal serfdom to the serfdom of totalitarian communism and now to the serfdom of new urban planning.  In the Bay Area, we’re moving from free market housing development shaped by supply and demand to what?

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