Planning in Other Nations

With co-authors Sonia Hirt and Johann Jessen[1]

In this chapter we look briefly at planning in other nations. Much of the chapter focuses on Europe, not out of "eurocentricity" but because planning practices in the United States and Europe share many common elements and have exerted considerable influence on each other. Thus European experience can be an enlightening reflection on planning in the United States. We look first at several Western European cases and then briefly at the present situation in Eastern Europe. The chapter concludes with a brief note on planning in Asia. It is clearly not possible to present a systematic review of planning practice around the world in a single chapter. This chapter is just a sampling.

Planning in western Europe

Before we look at particulars, let us note a few background differences between the United States and the Western European planning scenes. These differences are generalizations, and not all apply to every country.

1. To understand the history of European planning in the second half of the twentieth century, one must take into account the effects of World War II. In many nations there was enormous destruction of urban areas. Thus in the early postwar period, there was a big emphasis on reconstruction and on rebuilding the housing stock destroyed in the war, particularly in inner-city areas.

  • 2. In the last two decades or so of the twentieth century, the planning scene in Europe was affected by another continent-wide force, this time a peaceful one. This was the coming of European unification. The European Community (EC) is increasingly becoming a single nation economically, at least until the European debt crisis of 2011. (Items 1 and 2 are related, since it was the experience of two world wars beginning only a quarter-century apart that provided much of the push for European union.)
  • 3. Socialism was a major political force in many European nations at various times in the second half of the twentieth century, whereas the United States has never had a powerful socialist movement. That ideological difference carries with it a different set of ideas about what are the proper prerogatives and obligations of government. Another way to make this point is to note differences in the share of gross national product (GNP) spent by the public sector.1 In the United States that percentage is in the low to mid-30s. For most of the states of Western Europe, it is up in the 40s or 50s. That larger role for the government in the general life of the nation usually also includes a larger role for planning in particular.
  • 4. Most European nations have higher population densities than has the United States. The "lower 48" states have an average population density of about 100 persons per square mile. Great Britain and Germany have over 600 people per square mile, the Netherlands almost 1,200, France about 280, and Switzerland about 470. Thus in many European nations, there is more of an emphasis on concentrating development and on using land more efficiently simply because there is less land per capita.
  • 5. Most, if not all, European nations take a less expansive view of the rights of property owners than do we in America. Thus a degree of control over the use of private property that would not be tolerated politically or legally in the United States is tolerated in Europe. Recall the safeguards for property rights embedded in the U.S. Constitution (see Chapter 5). The greater degree of control that government can exercise over the use of private property in Europe clearly strengthens the hand of the planner.
  • 6. In the United States only a very small part of the housing stock is publicly built and owned (see Chapter 3). By contrast, in many of the nations of Western Europe, a very substantial share of all housing is publicly built and owned. (Generally it is referred to as "social housing.") This ownership gives government a powerful role in shaping the human-made environment.
  • 7. In a number of Western European nations, particularly in Scandinavia, large amounts of urban land are publicly owned, thereby giving the municipality absolute control over when and how that land is developed.
  • 8. In many Western European nations large numbers of middle- and upper-class people seem content to live in apartments rather than in the single-family suburban or exurban house which, at least until recently, has been the preference of very large numbers of Americans. Then, too, European tax systems are not structured to favor homeownership as is the case in the United States (see Chapter 17).
  • 9. In Europe there is generally more reliance on administrative decision and less reliance on the courts to adjudicate planning disputes than is the case in the United States. Thus municipal governments in Europe are less inhibited by fears that their actions in regard to regulating the use of privately owned land will be reversed by the courts.
  • 10. In most European nations, with the exception of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, political power is much more centralized than in the U.S. federal system. The higher degree of political centralization in Europe allows national governments to require that local plans be in conformance with the national plan.
  • 11. Finally, there is the matter of physical size. The greater land area of the United States makes the development of a national plan more difficult than would be the case in a smaller country.

  • [1] The section on Eastern Europe was written by Professor Sonia Hirt of Virginia PolytechnicInstitute and State University, and the section on Germany by Professor Johann Jessen of theUniversity of Stuttgart.
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