Argument: regionalism = “play[ing] Sim City with residents’ lives”

One critic charges new regional plans in Minneapolis-St. Paul threatens a democratic way of life:

Here in the Twin Cities, a handful of unelected bureaucrats are gearing up to impose their vision of the ideal society on the nearly three million residents of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro region. According to the urban planners on the city’s Metropolitan Council, far too many people live in single family homes, have neighbors with similar incomes and skin color, and contribute to climate change by driving to work. They intend to change all that with a 30-year master plan called “Thrive MSP 2040.”…

While minority residents have been streaming into the Twin Cities’ suburbs for the past 15 years, the Met Council wants to make sure there is a proper race-and-income mix in each. Thus it recently mapped every census tract in the 2,800 square-mile, seven-county region by race, ethnicity and income. The purpose was to identify “racially concentrated areas of poverty” and “high opportunity clusters.” The next step is for the council to lay out what the region’s 186 municipalities must do to disperse poverty throughout the metro area…

The Thrive plan’s most radical element may be to evaluate all future development policies through the “lens” of climate change. Over time, this could give the council a license to dramatically remake the entire metro area…

Once implementation begins, however, Twin Cities residents will likely realize that Thrive MSP 2040’s centralized decision-making and Orwellian appeals to “equity” and “sustainability” are a serious threat to their democratic traditions of individual liberty and self-government. Let’s hope that realization comes sooner rather than later.

This is an argument several conservatives (another example here involving the UN) have made in recent years: the government wants to use urban planning as a means to control people’s lives, forcing them to live in denser areas with people they would not choose to live near. It violates property rights, individual liberty, local government, etc.

Here is an issue with these arguments: they tend to ignore the real issues present in metropolitan areas that involve both cities and suburbs. Adopting a free-market approach to planning, growth, and mobility leads to the outcomes we have today: ongoing residential segregation (both by race and class, affecting everything from school districts to health outcomes to location mismatches between employees and jobs), a lack of affordable housing, local governments that are numerous (and possibly inefficient), often can’t agree with each other and thereby hold up helpful projects or promote unhelpful competition (like a race for the bottom in tax breaks), transportation options that are expensive (whether maintaining a car or trying to make mass transit work in the suburbs), and a general defensive crouch of not wanting to deal with any problems outside of one’s immediate community. All of this reinforces existing inequalities in society: those with resources can afford nicer communities while those with less live in places where it is more difficult to move up.

Is there some middle ground here? To be honest, government is already heavily involved in local and regional decisions and conservatives probably like some of this (such as zoning). And some of the regional options allow for higher levels of efficiency by leveraging certain resources in effective ways. Maybe the real issue is that few residents of urban areas – whether conservative or liberal – want to live near public housing or affordable housing and/or want to retain the right to use their money to move to a more advantageous location should something not work out (like the neighbors).

As a final note, earlier versions of SimCity didn’t allow much control over the lives of individual residents. Similarly, the game was geared toward more urban environments as sprawling communities were more costly and didn’t provide the kind of density that would lead to better things.

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