Recasting Planning and Housing in the Twenty-First Century?

Whilst the housing challenges outlined throughout this book—inequality and poverty, demographic change and environmental risk—have deepened in the early decades of the new millennium, confidence in the power of public intervention through urban planning appears weaker than ever before. From the USA to Ireland, Australia and now the UK, it seems that the spirit and purpose of planning as a means for improving urban life has been reduced to a set of regulatory barriers that must be cleared to liberate the housing market. Yet countries such as Ireland and Spain, still recovering from the devastating social, environmental and economic effects of almost unrestrained housing development in the early 2000s, stand as a cautionary tale. New supply is critical for any housing market—but we argue that the quantity, configuration, location and price of new supply must respond to underlying local and regional demographic need for appropriate housing above and beyond capricious (often global) economic demand for housing as a residential asset or commodity. We hope that the research and examples presented in this book provide a basis for identifying and dismantling deliberate and inadvertent exclusionary planning practices, wherever they are found to exist. Strong regional, state or central government level oversight, with the capacity to negate local level barriers to diverse and affordable housing types appears to be critical.

Central level oversight also seems important for driving greater diversity in the forms of new residential development. However, there is a growing tension between the economic value of new housing production and investment overall and the financial viability of particular dwelling typologies and products. This is evident in the apparent mismatch in the inner and middle rings of global cities such as London or Sydney between, for instance, what is perceived to be the most economically profitable housing form in the short or longer term (often a multi-storey tower) and the demographic and socially defined local and regional housing needs and preferences which are often for larger, family-style accommodation with access to private open space. In contexts where lower-density housing forms have predominated for much of the twentieth century, the same type of dilemma also presents a barrier to achieving more diverse forms of attached and medium density accommodation in outer metropolitan and regional settings. Developing cost-effective and financially viable forms of densification for existing and new residential and mixed uses neighbourhoods will become an increasingly significant challenge for American and Australian cities in the future, over and above potential planning system constraints.

Countries such as Australia and the USA were always characterised by dreams of home ownership, and city building by property speculation. However, within a century, the meaning of home and the qualities of place have been almost perfectly monetised, such that the global elite can have houses in San Francisco, Sydney or Shanghai, whilst rates of overcrowding and squalor slowly climb once again. The sudden market disruption presented by internet-enabled ‘sharing’ platforms such as ‘Airbnb’ exacerbate the dichotomy—whereby the business tourist can feel at ‘home’ in an apartment or townhouse in central London—whilst a teacher or train driver finds a flat to share on the outer periphery. In our view, the best foil for the seemingly inexorable financialisation of housing is the existence and growth of new institutions dedicated to the provision of homes for resident communities rather than for financial profit—these include traditional housing associations, housing co-operatives, community development corporations and community land trusts. But these institutions take time to evolve and depend on secure and consistent policy, fiscal and regulatory settings. As demonstrated in several of our case study countries, urban planning can also play an important supporting role in developing this third sector of the housing system.

But it is not simply enough to reduce regulatory barriers to affordable housing, whilst remaining blind to the processes by which spatial disadvantage manifest in particular places and the extent to which planning systems might offset or exacerbate inequalities of property-based wealth. In our analysis, the real measures of a planning system are not found in cliched metrics of decision speed or certainty. Rather, performance is reflected in the extent to which public planning processes enhance the urban living environment for the majority rather than the few. This means that the value created by ‘good’ planning—provision for attractive shared spaces, diverse housing types and a high-quality natural environment; as well as public investment (such as accessible public and active transport networks) cannot solely be capitalised into land values for the benefit of existing property owners, but should also leverage wider social inclusion. England’s long-standing targets for affordable housing inclusion provide one example, if imperfect, of this ideal. The integrated process of government land ownership and supply, infrastructure provision and public housing development in Hong Kong, provides another. Approaches to embed affordable housing as part of the development process in Massachusetts and to institute mandatory inclusionary zoning in the high-value city of New York are also emblematic of what planning for housing should be. This then remains the true challenge for planning in the twenty-first century: to address and offset deepening inequality and poverty through spatial interventions which improve the conditions of urban life by fostering and securing decent homes for a diverse and changing population.

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