What is urban policy, anyway?

Today, I’m going to give a “quick and dirty” summary of the main aspects of policy, using a few examples from the urban and non-urban contexts.

The Oxford English dictionary defines the word policy as “a course or principle of action adopted or proposed by an organization or individual.

In essence, in the typical use in political discourses and the media about them, policy (such as housing policy, energy policy or urban policy) can be thought of as the course of action undertaken by the responsible political body to reach specific goals. Urban policy is put in place to reach a variety of goals, including controlling housing prices, increasing homeownership, reducing the spatial concentration of poverty, decreasing the amount of motorized traffic, improving air quality, reducing noise pollution, increasing economic productivity and many more.

I should probably make a caveat at this point that I am a landscape architect and a geographer, so my explanation may or may not touch on the usual political science keywords. This is also not an exhaustive summary, just a general overview. For those interested in exhaustive studies, I suggest reading any of the many, many works on public policy available in your local bookshop or online.

So, with that in mind, here we go…

Policies are based on the assumption of rational action. In order to develop a policy to guide the decisions of my citizens, I need to know a few things, including:

  • what tools I have at hand (price caps, subsidies, taxes, tax write-offs, etc.)
  • a reasonable assumption of how I think people will react to particular incentives and deterrents, including how intensity will affect outcome (i.e. what difference does it make if I raise a penalty from 20 to 200€?)

The “reasonable assumption” about someone’s reaction to a particular policy may vary greatly, depending on which principles are behind my assumption. One of the best examples of this is the broad range of policies to encourage economic growth. Does one support from the bottom up, trying to increase productivity in the working-class base by increasing social services, or does one reduce the tax burden on companies, assuming that they will then invest and expand? These two very different approaches are both hailed as possible paths to economic growth, albeit by different ends of the political spectrum. These assumptions will greatly affect the models that I generate and the estimates that I get from them.

Policies can have a variety of effects, both intended and unintended. If a city establishes a growth boundary, for example, which limits the physical extent of the city (in an attempt to limit sprawl), they may be able to successfully create a higher urban density within their city limits (intended effect) but also contribute to growth just outside their city limits, where the policy is not in effect (unintended effect). The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy presents a really nice, succinct case study of Boulder, Colorado, a city which has implemented a combination of a growth boundary and other policies in an attempt to control sprawl.

In order to be evaluable, policies are usually formulated following SMART criteria. That means that they are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. Since the goal of policy-making is to guide behavior, it’s important to think about how we can measure whether and to what degree we’ve achieved our stated goals at the outset. An example from a number of big cities might be: did this rent cap slow the increase in the average rental price in a specific district within the specified time frame?

However, policies are subjective and “fuzzy.” Since it’s usually not possible to test policy effects using control groups or identical situations (in the cases in which it’s possible, that form of testing would usually raise serious ethical concerns), evidence about whether a policy did in fact affect behavior is usually inferential. In fact, the change may have been brought about by some mitigating or correlating circumstances. Since we can’t exactly replicate the situation and the outcome, or test alternatives, it’s very hard to determine cause and effect definitively. In our rent control example, other factors may have played a role in the rate of increase of the average rent price, such as immigration, emigration, increasing social segregation in the city, a change in the quality of building stock or even just personal preferences. Post-war suburbanization in the United States is a good example of the intended, unintended and spillover effects of policies (in this case, the GI bill), and how they can combine synergistically with changes in personal preferences to have serious spatial effects.

In addition, policies assume rational behavior, but humans don’t always behave rationally. Many policies are predicated on economic rationality in particular, i.e. placing a tax on something will reduce the consumption of the thing we are taxing. However, often people don’t react to economic incentives and detriments to the expected degree or in the way we expect. In this case, there may be other things at work, for example personal preferences and symbolic value of the thing in question. Living in a high-priced neighborhood which is qualitatively similar to a less-expensive neighborhood should rationally be less attractive, since it’s more expensive. However, living in a high-priced neighborhood may give the tenant intangible values, such as prestige, which justify the higher price in his or her mind. In fact, pricing something higher may even lead to it being interpreted as more valuable. In our example, premium pricing of selected luxury apartments could artificially raise the average rent price.

As you can see, urban policy is complex and the development of our metropolitan areas can be affected by policies made in other sectors as well. Urban policy can not only be used to guide the development of our cities, the effects of policy (in particular the unintended effects) can help us learn about the value structures of our citizens and residents, which can then help to shape future urban policies.

Seen from the other side, analyzing policies and their stated and unstated goals can help us get a clearer picture of the implicit and explicit norms and values that are guiding policy-making and the development of our cities. Considering how many people live in cities and how many are proposed to live in cities in the future, urban policy takes on a central importance in the lives of an increasing number of people worldwide.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this very quick summary. I’ll be using this site to examine specific urban policies and their effects. Feel free to suggest ones you’re curious about!




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