Planners Network

The Organization of Progressive Planning

Progressive Planning Magazine back issues

Alternatives to the Growth Machine

September 12, 1999 by Administrator in September/October 1999

By Dick Platkin and Ben Rosenbloom, Guest Editors

This issue of Planners Network is on the Urban Growth Machine, a popular model for understanding the development of land under capitalism. As presented by William Fulton in The Reluctant Metropolis, the growth machine is a cabal of lenders, local boosters, newspaper editors, home builders, contractors, construction unions, Democratic party officials, and public agency managers who work in concert to promote continued suburban and urban real estate projects.

Although the growth machine is associated with suburbia, it also contains a lesser-known but growing central city component. In the shadows of relentless suburban sprawl, the central city component has escaped serious analysis, even though its projects could offer local and regional benefits because of their higher densities. Our contributors demonstrate, however, that this trend is hardly intended to create a more sustainable city. Nor does it signal a change in the capitalist imperatives to maximize profit and maintain continuous growth. Rather, this change derives from growing barriers to suburban investment and increased public subsidies for central-city investments.

Our contributors elaborate on this critique of the growth machine. Dwayne Wyatt discusses the changing economic situation facing real estate investors in New York and Los Angeles and the growth machine’s response: the Çdiscovery’ of central city sites for infill shopping centers, amusement parks, and replacement athletic stadiums. Aaron Golub reports on the critical role the U.S. automobile industry played nationwide in fostering the suburban and urban growth machines. Rod Green brings the field of Marxist political economy to bear on the growth machine, demonstrating how it operates under the strictures of capitalism and how radicals can successfully, but not easily, take on the growth machine. Karina Ricks shows how race, and the failure to confront it, is a factor in the regional movements that would regulate growth.  Opposition to the Growth Machine

The contributors offer a critical view of the growth machine and guide the reader to liberal or radical opposition. We would like to argue that even the most successful forms of liberal opposition cannot result in cities and regions that meet human needs.

The primary liberal approach to counter the growth machine accepts its underlying premises while extracting concessions, such as local jobs, higher design standards, and off-site traffic mitigation. While this strategy is sometimes expedient, its project-by-project tactics leave the systematic irrationality of urban development unscathed. Although these reforms may present models for redeveloping cities and regions, they actually have a regressive impact. They reinforce metropolitan fragmentation and uneven development, increase cleavages between have and have-not areas, and buttress the illusion that the city can be reconstructed locally, without addressing regional issues and the fundamental social, economic, and political relations of capitalism.

A variation of this approach at the national level is the incorporation of anti-sprawl rhetoric in the campaign of Vice-President Al Gore. Linked to his themes are advocates of the New Urbanism and the heavily publicized Smart Growth movement. They counter urban sprawl through private projects based on higher densities, mixed use, pedestrianization, public open space, and sustainable design.

Some public sector unions have broken ranks with organized labor and switched allegiances from pro-development elected officials to community groups critical of the growth machine. This political turn pulls the unions away from the growth machine by realigning them with its critics. Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club have increasingly opposed selected growth machine projects, both suburban and urban. A notable success has been the creation of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which added acres of parklands to Los Angeles’ severely limited stock of public recreational areas. Homeowner groups from affluent neighborhoods often oppose infill projects because of traffic congestion and threats to small businesses. They are matched by community groups from poor neighborhoods which sometimes oppose infill projects because they bring no community benefits.

A second kind of liberal opposition comes in the form of proposals for structural change in municipal finance, automobile subsidies, and regional governance and planning. These reforms, which must be implemented on a regional level, are the structural preconditions for any sustainable urban reconstruction. They would have a far greater impact than any local initiatives. One example is the creation of region-wide planning mechanisms to allocate private and public investment in light of local needs and impacts. Land use and transportation planning would, therefore, be linked as a truly unified process. Region-wide public transportation systems would re-densify development along fixed-route lines, while serving suburban areas with a mixture of modes. Another example is the elimination of public subsidies to private cars so automobile use would be accurately priced and demand for public transportation would increase. Other proposals for structural change include the creation of metropolitan and state-wide level planning processes, such as those already functioning in Toronto, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, and the establishment of revenue sharing between cities and sub-regions, as in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region.

The Limits of the Liberal Approaches

The potential power of liberal reforms can be seen in these rare cases. But even though these reforms occasionally impose constraints on the growth machine, their failure to do so broadly is no anomaly. It stems from several inherent weaknesses. First, the advocates of structural reform offer no political program for their implementation. Secondly, like the liberals who opt for concessions from growth machine projects, they also offer no explicit critique of the growth machine’s economic roots in capitalism. This is no small omission because human settlements which meet human needs are rare under capitalism; they run contrary to the need to maximize profit.

Third, the site-specific liberal approaches do not make major contributions to housing affordability, racial and economic integration, or public sector investments in long-neglected communities. Instead, they make large, new private projects more attractive and allow them work financially. Meanwhile, nearby neighborhoods suffer from the typical deficiencies of big cities: inadequate schools and parks, treeless parkways, rampant zoning and building code violations, and gangs and drugs. Thus, well designed projects condemn cities like Los Angeles to become a desert of urban decay with oases of new development.

Towards a Radical Critique and Program

The mere advocacy of thoughtful planning policies and programs is inconsequential when disembodied from an analysis of capitalism and a program of action. It cannot be reduced to describing the growth machine, fine tuning its projects with esthetic and environmental veneers, or prescribing structural fixes. At best such approaches only yield modest results when they coincide with market trends (witness the $mart Growth slogan). At worst, they produce deep cynicism and paralysis. In either case, these trends do not constitute a coherent critique or a well-organized, long-term program to negate the growth machine.

It is difficult to develop a convincing left response to the growth machine because of the overlap of liberal and radical critiques. Their shared concern for creating sustainable environments and reconstructing community can easily confuse the major differences between the two approaches. The radical critique of the growth machine argues that project-specific concessions do not alleviate the broad regional-level damage of the growth machine. The alternative, structural changes, can only be achieved in a post-capitalist planning environment.

The focus of the left should therefore be based on advancing the anti-capitalist content of anti-growth movements, not simply reaching compromises with developers and politicians. The left’s approach must ground the growth machine and broader urban problems in an integrated critique of the social and economic relations of capitalism. This critique should target the commodity and consumerist cultures and demonstrate how they are antithetical to sustainability. It would also have to counter the despair of popular culture and much academic discourse. Finally, it must be able to address and coopt the ideology of “freedom” held dear by so many Americans.

For starters, we need top agitate to publicly expose the capitalist mechanisms responsible for the growth machine, including the way land is used and abused, the nature and costs of capital flight, and the causes and consequences of public underinvestment. We need to engage in informed finger pointing at those politicians and lobbyists, regardless of their political affiliation, who promote growth machine projects.

Beyond this lies a great amount of thought and action in constructing a coherent radical view and movement. In this vein we have tried to spark a dialog among left-liberals and radicals about reformist and radical strategies for opposing the growth machine. It is our modest hope that this special issue of Planners Network is a step in that direction. Our success will be measured, in part, by your comments and contributions.


Dick Platkin rplatkin(at)aol(dot)com is a city planner in Los Angeles and member of the Planners Network Steering Committee. Ben Rosenbloom benrose(at)aol(dot)com is a city planner and architectural designer in Los Angeles.

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Planners Network is an association of professionals, activists, academics, and students involved in physical, social, economic, and environmental planning in urban and rural areas, who promote fundamental change in our political and economic systems.