In an outstanding PHD thesis from 2013 Robert Morrow coins the term ‘Planning by Resistance’.
this dissertation explains the origins and impact of Los Angeles’s slow-growth, Community planning era between the Watts (1965) and Rodney King (1992) civil unrests. …
The dissertation explains how the slow-growth movement was facilitated by the shift from top-down planning during the progrowth, post-war period to a more bottom-up Community planning…
The project illustrates the dramatic land use changes that occurred during this period – first, the down-zoning of the City by 60% in the initial community plans in the 1970s, and the subsequent shifts in residential densities as homeowners shapedlocal community plans. These shifts were strongly correlated to socioeconomic characteristics and homeowner activity, such that areas with well-organized homeowner groups with strong social capital were able to dramatically decrease density as a means of controlling population growth, and areas with few to no homeowner groups (strongly correlated with Latinos, non-citizens, and large family sizes)dramatically increased in density. As such, density followed the path of least resistance.
I argue that this process has produced a phenomenon
of “planning by resistance” – where those communities with
time, money, and resources (including social capital) can resist
change while those unable to mobilize bear the burden of
The changes meant the future growth of Los Angeles was absorbed by low-income, minority communities – communities that were least able to accommodate that growth since they already had overcrowded housing, under-performing schools, lacked park space and other amenities, and in many cases were not served by mass transit.
At heart, the findings illustrate the dark side of social capital and the dangers of equating local planning with more democratic planning. It also illustrates in vivid detail the motivations and impacts of adopting restrictive land use policies. As this case demonstrates, exclusively local planning may empower those with the loudest voices
and strongest political connections, at the expense of the silent majority, leading to unexpected outcomes, including a less socially just, economically secure, and environmentally healthy city. This, in turn, has important implications for planning theory, which has long positioned planners as adjudicators of communicative action.
The homeowner revolution in Los Angeles and the devastating impacts it has had on the City’s social, economic, and environmental sustainability, demonstrates the need for the re-assertion of a professional role for planners, a better balance between local and regional concerns, and the critical importance of implementing a planning process that reflects the will of the majority of a City’s residents, rather than empower only its most strident voices.
It is clear from a UK perspective that even in a primarily discretionary planning system the distribution of protected areas and the ability of homeowners to object to development has produced much the same outcomes. This can produce the perverse outcome that campaigners in poor areas see development in their areas as pushing up house prices whereas the cause is lack of development in more well off areas,
Morrow powerfully attacks the community planning paradigm that has been dominant on the left in Planning since the 1960s. If planners are simply advocates and arbiters not upholders of the public interest then they are simply conspiring in this structural bias against development of meet social needs in the wider public interest and failing to produce social plans that meet these needs rather than the chaos of market forces weakly resisted on a piecemeal basis.