Have American Planners Lost Their Values?

Stephen Ashworth, May 1, 1996

If cynics know the price of everything but the value of nothing, then they may have something in common with contemporary American planners. Constrained by the courts, the planning fraternity sometimes appears to have spent the last decade rationalizing nexuses and quantifying costs without really addressing the social and environmental values that should underpin the planning process. Under assault from those criticizing government, as well as from the property rights movement, the profession seems to have retreated into the land of that dismal science, economics. This allegation has been made in a number of ways over the past few years by critics as diverse as New Urbanist architects and, in England, the Royal Family. Is it really justified?

This article is written from an English perspective and is based on research into the types of planning tools used in the United States to minimize the adverse effects and costs of development or to maximize public benefits. The intention is to adapt the best American practices for future use in the United Kingdom.

A broad analysis of the types of policy processes presently being used highlights an amazing breadth and depth of local policy innovation. The accompanying table outlines the range of policies found, broken down either by the way they have been justified or the process that has been used. This “family” grouping may help in suggesting other types of policies that can be used to achieve similar goals. It may also provide a useful reminder that the policies are always supposed to achieve aims, and that those aims should always be in a constant state of review.

The policies span a wide range. Some are not traditionally thought of as land use or planning policies. Indeed, in many cases the policies are not promoted with any explicit intention of achieving specific land use goals. They are, however, all capable of directly affecting land use patterns and, properly used, can all realize benefits to the community.

Purpose Policies

Harm, quality of life and control policies are all well-accepted planning tools. They work to prevent development in inappropriate areas–on wetlands or in congested districts, for example–or to require development in certain places. For the most part these policies do not offer any new lessons to UK planners. However, their scope is widening. New harms are being defined, such as air quality, lack of public transit accessibility and effects on the water table.

In addition, new, more limited types of land interests, such as easements and deed restrictions, are being used as controls, and new actors are becoming involved. For example, in South Florida the Water Management District is now a major purchaser of land and development rights, working in loose alliance with planning authorities. School boards, forest preserve districts and private utility companies have also become more interventionist.

Nevertheless, the main areas of experimentation are in other family groups. Cost policies are being used more proactively and are being expanded in scope. Fees are being used to either encourage or discourage development in particular locations. In San Diego impact fees in outlying zones have been set at economically prohibitive levels to deter development. In Dade County, Florida, road impact fees are banded and fees increase towards the urban fringe. In Montgomery County, Maryland, certain fees are waived when affordable housing is provided.

Cost policies can also be used to raise revenue to meet off-site costs for nontraditional “infrastructure.” In Boston and San Francisco linkages have been identified between the construction of new offices and the need for housing, justifying the extraction of money sums. In principle the range of these fees could be expanded. The City of San Diego already charges developers for new libraries, fire stations and other community facilities, and includes some future maintenance costs. In rapidly growing areas, the public costs of new health infrastructure, hospitals and clinics might also be considered.

Some municipalities have considered the possibility of charging “disassociation fees” that recognize the cost to the community of development away from central cities. “Historic investment” or “recoupment” fees could account for the cost of past provision of infrastructure. In the case of schools or hospitals, a charge could also be made to reflect the cost of wasted desk and bed capacity in the area from which migration has occurred. Alternatively, fees could be charged for the “softer” social costs of increasing the distance that citizens need to travel to reach open space or to reflect the additional stress that occurs from lengthy journeys through strip development.

Process Policies

Market policies have been described as creating “a currency in the public domain that [can] then be traded.” Unsurprisingly, new markets have developed swiftly, responding to local conditions. These policies generally require zoning that sets limits on development at lower levels than the market would otherwise build. A release from that limitation can then be “sold” or transferred for use either on or off site. Seattle, New York state, Maryland and New Jersey lead the way with policies of this type, creating the necessary currency in the form of bonus floor areas and transferable rights. They also provide “market” infrastructure such as credit banks in some cases. In Florida the private sector has set up profitable “mitigation banks” that reclaim damaged land to create mitigation credits for future use by developers whose projects would threaten wetlands. Private sector sales of “utility credits” also occur.

Fiscal policies are all too often seen as intended simply to raise revenue. Yet they can also guide land uses and capture public benefits from increases in the development value of private land. In some Business Improvement Districts, such as those in Miami Beach and Chicago, increased tax assessment streams have been bonded and the proceeds spent on capital works achieving planning aims. In San Diego’s special assessment areas the cost of new social infrastructure, such as parks and libraries, is borne in this way.

In some areas it is possible to secure contributions towards public works that lead to private benefits, for example when major new transport links or services are provided. In downtown Miami, businesses that benefit from a transit system pay a property assessment that meets the county’s share of the original infrastructure cost.

The final two categories of policies are important for different reasons. Adequate transitionary policies are essential. Politically and legally it is difficult to introduce new policies unless careful attention is paid to minimizing or mitigating the immediate costs. Providing for a lengthy period of introduction, or providing compensating credits, as in Montgomery County, may offer some comfort. In some areas “reversionary” permits have been proposed, where development rights revert back to an earlier or less valuable use if they remain unimplemented for a period of time. The miscellaneous policies provide clear means for enforcement. All too often well-intentioned policies are not rigorously applied. Agreements may allow easier control and greater certainty.


It is clear that a large number of policy tools are available to and used by American planners. The opening criticism questioned their fixation with economics. While economic issues are and always should be part of the planning process, the scope of planning policies itself shows that planning is about more than economics. However, it has also become apparent that planners tend to use only a limited range of instruments, even when alternative approaches might better achieve their policy goals.

For a variety of legal and institutional reasons, municipalities understandably concentrate on those policies that they have already used and that have worked. Notwithstanding that, to an English planner the American system as a whole offers a mouthwatering array of policy feasts. It is a shame that so many planners operating within the system only nibble at the corners of a table that is groaning with the weight of possible delights.

Stephen Ashworth is a visiting fellow at the Lincoln Institute and a Harkness Fellow in a program sponsored by the Commonwealth Fund of New York. In the United Kingdom he is a partner in the firm of Denton Hall, Lawyers. This article is drawn from his research on “Harnessing Land and Development Values for Public Benefit.”