Good Urban Policy Is Mostly Invisible Too

By Paavo Monkkonen, FCL of Global Urbanization and Regional Development, Professor of Urban Planning 

“Good design, when it’s done well, becomes invisible. It’s only when it’s done poorly that we notice it.” – Jared Spool

This well-known adage about design also applies to urban policy. Politicians are often lured by large stadium construction, iconic buildings, or flashy waterfront developments, but scholars have shown these projects generally fail to produce much social benefit. On a smaller scale, local planners often build new roads and rail rather than maintain existing networks, or invest in less-visible alternatives, with lackluster overall results. A clear example of this tendency – according to Mexican urban scholar Alfonso Iracheta – is found in Mexico where municipal officials focus excessively on building elevated road intersections, rather than investing public resources in planning and infrastructure that would facilitate urban growth.


Two of the most obvious “invisible” urban policies, with major impacts on the quality of life in cities, are the regulation of land use and the structure of local public finance. The density and uses permitted on parcels of urban land shape cities, and shape lives within them. Almost by definition, strict land-use regulations create informality in housing. More important, and less visible are the secondary impacts of land-use regulation that derive from the interconnectedness of land within an urban area. Low-density zoning, for example, has been shown to make housing less affordable by pushing the edge of the city farther out, and to make cities more socioeconomically segregated. Beyond the regulations on the books, it is often the selective enforcement of regulations – an even less visible urban policy – that should be considered by scholars and policymakers. In fact, the idea of ‘flexible’ land-use regulations, or zoning codes within which variances are regularly granted, is itself a hotly debated topic that parallels the issue of selective enforcement.


The structure of local public finance, invisible to most because of its complexity and potential to induce sleep, is perhaps the most important yet least discussed facet of urban policy area. Local public finance shapes quality of life through the funding and provision of public services and infrastructure investment. The source of local revenues can ameliorate or exacerbate economic inequality through various channels – school quality being one of the most central. Property tax financing has great potential to improve urban areas, but many countries have very low property tax rates and collections. This has been connected to unsuccessful decentralization programs and represents an untapped source of funds to improve urban areas in a more equitable way. Local revenue generation through land can also stimulate economic growth more generally. Some of China’s economic success derives in part from the way it finances local infrastructure investment. Property taxes also affect urban land use decisions and can induce higher density urban development. Moreover, they have long been connected to redistribution and efforts to tax the unmerited profits landowners receive from society’s collective labor.


Low-density zoning and adequate property taxation are just two examples of important but almost invisible urban policy. These two areas – along with urban design – form the cornerstone pillars of the UN Habitat III Implementation Agenda. Yet there are many more. Scholars and planners must do their utmost not only to understand and work within these constraints, but we must also do more to inform the public about the real costs of ‘invisible’ urban policies.


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