A View From The Edge
Issues in Rural and Metropolitan Fringe Planning

Ian Sinclair,
Principal Consultant, Edge Land Planning
Rural and Environmental Planning Consultants

As published in New Planner, The Magazine of the Planning Profession in NSW
Number 43, June 2000
Planning in the USA - The good, the bad and the ugly
Having just returned from a trip to the USA, I thought I would share some of my observations about the planning system in America. My main reason to go was to speak at the American Planning Association Conference in New York City where the paper was on "Preparing Strategies for Rural Land" in a session on "Planning in Rural Australia."
Planning in the USA is very similar to planning in Australia. There are some good examples, there are some bad examples and there are some absolutely ugly examples. I suppose the fundamental difference is that planning in Australia has some State Government control over the local planning and this means that planning can occur in a strategic fashion rather than an ad hoc fashion. In the USA, generally, there is no control or coordination from the State level over local Council planning and therefore in some areas planning occurs in uncoordinated manner.
To understand the planning system one must first understand the system of Local Government and its relationship to the State Government. One of the fundamental differences between the American system and the system we have in Australia is that in the US, Local Governments is the heart of the democratic process and is the basis for the system of Government, unlike here where we basically have the basis for the system of Government at the State and Federal level. This means that the local Councils have a great deal of power over local decision-making without any system of review by a higher level of Government. Local Councils in the USA run police services, fire services as well as all of the other services that we have in local Government in Australia.
Local Government is different in the manner in which it functions. In most states they have County Government, which is a Council that has responsibility for the rural land, and within the County there are often a number of independent towns, which can be ranging in size from 200 to 300 people to hundreds of thousands of people. Each of these towns has its own individual Council. Each town Council can also do its own zoning without any formal relationship or discussion with the surrounding County. It is not on uncommon to have a rural County with some towns in it that have no zoning provisions at all, or indeed even whole Counties may have no planning or zoning regulation. This is particularly true in the midwestern states where individual property rights are considered inviolate and any regulation or control is viewed with suspicion, even hostility. One of my colleagues from the Midwest has been told that zoning is the work of the aliens!
The planning system is very similar to the planning system in New South Wales. They have zoning in most States as well as development applications and the requirements for consent for particular activities. There are however some fundamental differences. The first one is the manner in which rezoning of land occurs. Unlike the New South Wales system where the State Government controls zoning, in America there is no overall control of zonings and the Councils can change the zoning with no reference to a broader strategic plan, following a home rule system.
This can create some problems particularly where a town Council may want to expand into a County area taking up good agricultural land. This can also work in reverse where a County can place development adjacent to a town with no provision for servicing by that town. County Councils can also approve a shopping centre (Wal-Mart is a classic example of this) on rural land adjacent to the town area thereby causing the town's central business district to decline through lack of patronage by the residents.
In America the planners usually have only very limited control over the aesthetics of a building or development. There is also a big reluctance to refuse a development because, for example, it does not fit with streetscape of an area. The situation in the Blue Mountains where they refused an application by McDonald's would certainly not occur in the United States. The system of court review of applications is also different because the person hearing the application, even if it is just a planning merits issue, is a person with legal training rather than a person with planning training.
In summary, I would have to say that the main benefit of having State Government review of planning decisions is that there is some ability to have planning occur in a strategic manner. A lot of my colleagues in United States comment about their frustration of not having the ability at the local level to work to a mandated strategy to ensure that development occurs in a planned and effective manner as well as great reluctance for Councils to work together on a common vision.
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