The Ideologies of Urban Land Use Politics

Alan Altshuler, November 1, 1996

Local governments exercise greater land use authority in the United States than in any other advanced democracy. Yet local governments have themselves evolved piecemeal in the typical U.S. metropolitan area, producing a pattern of fragmented authority. Most notably, as metropolitan areas have exploded outward, the local government system has adapted mainly by creating new suburbs and single-function districts rather than by expanding the boundaries of existing central cities.

Illustratively, when Robert Wood studied the New York metropolitan region in the late 1950s, he counted roughly 1,400 local governments. When Jameson Doig and Michael Danielson examined the same region in the early 1980s, the number had grown to 2,200, of which more than 800 exercised land use regulatory authority.

Critics levy numerous charges against this system. Above all, they contend it invites parochialism and, in dealing with issues of regional scale, gridlock. These failings are particularly apparent when the potential ends of land use policy are controversial. But they are visible in many other circumstances as well—wherever, for example, there is substantial risk that the instruments of policy (from regional overrides of local zoning to the siting of new incinerators) will be highly controversial and no consensus has yet emerged about the severity of a crisis that might justify accepting such risk.

In other respects, however, the system is both adaptive and finely tuned to citizen desires. Numerous functions have been shifted from localities to regional authorities and higher levels of government in recent decades, yet the changes have been highly selective and incremental.

When broad agreement has emerged that a particular function—such as mass transit or environmental protection—requires decisionmaking and management at supra-local scale, the political leaders in many metropolitan areas have frequently crafted new institutional arrangements. They have typically defined the new institutions quite precisely, however, so as to avoid sapping local authority any more than necessary to deal with the specific problems that gave rise to the consensus for change. Where large numbers of voters still favor local control, moreover—as, preeminently, in the field of land use regulation—metropolitan-area political leaders have taken great care to avoid disturbing it.

To be sure, certain objectives are all but impossible to realize through this piecemeal, consensus-dependent mode of institutional adaptation (most notably, greater class and racial integration at regional scale, and prevention of urban sprawl). But others (e.g., the preservation of neighborhood character and vigorous grassroots democracy) are accomplished much more reliably than would be likely in a more “rationalized” system.

Balancing Communal and Individualistic Values

Controversies about this system invariably reflect a mix of conflicting interests and values. Since a considerable body of scholarship exists on the interests most commonly in dispute, let us concentrate here on the values.

Americans consider land use issues within the framework of two disparate ideologies: one communal and egalitarian, the other individualistic and disposed to leave distributional outcomes to the marketplace. In any given controversy, self-interested groups organize their briefs around aspects of one or the other of these ideologies. So it is easy to miss the crucial fact that both enjoy near-consensual support. Americans favor both private capitalism and government action to further collective values–each in its place. The disputes typically arise in situations where parties disagree about which ideology ought to take precedence or about how the differing ideological claims should be balanced.

The land use arena is chock full of such points. Ownership is private. Most development initiative is private. And tradition favors viewing land as a market commodity. But most human activities take place on land; the byproducts of land use profoundly affect every aspect of the human environment; and no one is an owner every place he or she goes. So everyone has a powerful stake in the preservation of some common spaces, in society’s rules for behavior in such spaces, and in some regulation of land use “overspill” effects.

Owners themselves, moreover, are eager for collective services. The value of urban real estate hinges critically on the availability and quality of such services, from highway access to public safety to education. In addition, neighborhood characteristics and the level of investor confidence in the neighborhood’s future profoundly affect real estate values. As a result, whether their aim is development or simply enjoyment of what they already have, property owners are drawn inevitably to the public realm.

Within the public realm, however, communal values–including the presumption of equal access to collective services regardless of income or wealth–predominate. This poses a severe problem for relatively affluent property owners who are reluctant to trigger wide egalitarian claims.

The fragmentation of metropolitan areas into independent suburbs, a problem for some, is for these voters a solution. It provides a means of confining the application of communal norms within relatively small population groups. And it makes available to such groups an instrument of extraordinary power for the pursuit and preservation of homogeneity: land use regulation.

Public Regulation vs Market Forces

Pressures have built in recent decades, nonetheless, for public land use action on a wider scale. Some of these pressures (e.g., for major infrastructure investments and for environmental protection) come largely from property owners themselves and do not pose much redistributive threat even when higher-level governments assume responsibility for action. Nearly all of the centralization that has occurred has been in response to pressures of this sort.

A second set of pressures for supra-local action has come primarily from less favored groups and their political representatives, seeking fiscal equalization and residential integration. There have been considerable shifts of money in response to these pressures. But resistance has been fierce to reforms that might force racial or class integration at the neighborhood level. With rare exceptions it has been successful.

The reform idea with the greatest apparent potential to override local land use parochialism would be a shift of some land use regulatory authority to the state level. Movement in this direction occurred in about one-quarter of the states during the 1970s and 1980s. Except in the notable cases of Oregon and Florida, however, the changes were slight, and the historic pattern of local land use autonomy remained firmly entrenched. Concerns about growth, moreover, rather than concerns about equality or integration drove these state land use reforms. Consequently, with weak real estate markets in the early 1990s interest in them has waned.

The question remains whether shifting land use authority from the local to the state level, if it does occur, will be likely to produce more egalitarian and integrationist outcomes than would the existing pattern of fragmented land use governance. One can plausibly argue that it will, stressing that egalitarian norms tend to prevail within (even if not between) U.S. public jurisdictions. Thinking of the immediate future, however, the likelihood is that such shifts will be rare and that, even when they occur, their egalitarian impacts will be meager.

For better or worse, the overwhelming trend of the 1990s, at all levels of government, is toward greater market deference rather than more vigorous public action to achieve redistributive objectives.


Alan Altshuler is professor in urban policy and planning and director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He is also a faculty associate of the Lincoln Institute, which distributes several of his publications. This article is reprinted with permission from the 1995-96 Annual Report of the Taubman Center.