The Privatization of Cities (2006)


Note from the Editors:

A century ago, facing perceived crises in health, sanitation and infrastructure, a great battle waged between public and private forces to mitigate the impacts of the industrial city. Over the past three decades, this battle has been fought once again, as cities have increasingly turned to the private sector to provide housing, water, waste, transportation, and many core social services. The “public” spaces of the city have become increasingly privately financed, built and owned and, in many of the Sunbelt regions, private communities have become the chief means of providing "public goods". Indeed, even urban planning is now partly a private enterprise as many cities work with consultants on strategic plans, rather than conduct comprehensive plans in-house. A century later, we are re-visiting the relationship between the public and private provision of city services. Has the last century of public planning been an exception in the history of cities? Or is the public sector simply re-structuring?

This volume of Critical Planning, "The Privatization of Cities," examines some of the motivations and consequences of a greater participation of the private sector in the affairs of cities. Much of the debate on the pros and cons of privatization has been deeply polarized, with critics and proponents split along ideological (and political) lines. Proponents of privatization often tout its economic benefits (i.e. an "efficiency" argument), without considering if the social cost is worth the economic savings. Opponents, by contrast, often defend the public sector's role on the grounds that only it can ensure a just society (i.e. an "equality" argument), without appreciating the role that planning itself has played in the production of spatial injustice. Regrettably, the debate is often reduced to either/or propositions of efficiency versus equality, without recognizing the reality that cities are inherently products of public, private, and non-profit sectors. It is our hope that readers will come away with a greater appreciation that the public and private provision of services is rarely as clear-cut as we have been led to believe. Five feature articles tackle privatization across a wide variety of domains -- from housing, international development, cultural planning, city services and urban governance -- demonstrating the extent to which privatization impacts cities.

The first feature article by Arthur Chiang, Guy David, and Michael G. Housman examines one of the most commonly privatized city services in the United States: emergency medical services (EMS). Following a brief outline of the history of EMS, the authors examine some of the factors that cities consider in deciding whether to use privately- or publicly-delivered EMS. Among the considerations the authors explore is a city's density, population age, health status, the likelihood of major emergency events, crime levels, the location of fire departments and trauma centers, and the strength of labor unions.

Isil Çelimli argues that recent shifts in federal public housing policy have changed the role of local agencies, from owners and administrators of public housing, to a more entrepreneurial role after HOPE VI. The author examines the shifting role of the Chicago Housing Authority in the context of its "Plan for Transformation", illustrating how it has taken on the role of a private-sector developer, often to the detriment of public housing residents.

Chris Webster and Renaud Le Goix examine the political, financial and environmental sustainability of private communities, using evidence from Southern California. By looking at the economic rationale and the social costs of private communities, the authors provide a rare look at both the pros and cons of gated communities, and in particular, illustrate the interrelationship needed between private provision and public regulation.

Michelle Espinosa Coulter considers the case of ARGOZ, a housing developer in El Salvador, which has provided affordable housing to a quarter of the nation's population through the private sector. The author explores how the success of ARGOZ was facilitated by the public sector changing its legal apparatus to accommodate an informal private housing market, once again demonstrating the necessary interplay between public and private forces in urban development.

Thomas Puleo examines the redevelopment of San Francisco's Fillmore District as a cultural landscape. Puleo examines the tension between the public-led redevelopment that celebrates the history of Jazz/African-American heritage in the Fillmore and the private use of the Fillmore today as a center of Korean commerce. The author explores the public and private actors that have helped create the Fillmore and the cultural meaning of the area to each.

We end the privatization feature with a lively roundtable discussion that brought together a diverse group of scholars and practitioners in Los Angeles to debate some of the issues raised by the privatization of cities.

Also included are two short pieces specific to the Los Angeles region. Adina Ringler explores how Prop-O intends to tackle non-point source pollution in Los Angeles and ways in which private sector development can use Low-Impact Development to help mitigate run-off. Lily Song explores the case of the Passages Drug Rehabilitation Center in Malibu, which has faced neighborhood opposition.

Finally, the volume is rounded out by three book reviews. Amber Hawkes reviews E.S. Savas' Privatization in the City. Successes, Failures, Lessons (CQ Press, 2005), Genevieve Carpio reviews Eric Avila's Popular Culture and the Age of White Flight (University of California Press, 2004) and Helen Campbell reviews Robert M. Fogelson's Bourgeois Nightmares: Suburbia, 1870-1930 (Princeton University Press, 2005).

This volume would not be possible without the hard work of our editorial and review boards, as well as production staff. We would like to thank them for their efforts, and extend our gratitude to our funders: the UCLA Department of Urban Planning, the UCLA Graduate Students' Association, the Ralph and Goldy Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, and the Dean of the UCLA School of Public Affairs.

Gregory D. Morrow


Table of Contents:

The Determinants of Urban Emergency Medical Services Privatization
Arthur Chiang, Guy David, and Michael G. Housman

Public Housing Redevelopment and the Chicago Housing Authority’s Changed Role
Isil Çelimli

Gated Communities, Sustainable Cities and a Tragedy of the Urban Commons
Chris Webster and Renaud Le Goix

El Salvador’s ARGOZ: A Private Developer Houses the Urban Poor
Michelle Espinosa Coulter

Culture, Economy & Redevelopment in San Francisco’s Fillmore District
Thomas Puleo

Understanding Privatization: A Roundtable Discussion
Gregory D. Morrow

Reducing Non-Point Source Pollution Through Low Impact Development in Los Angeles
Adina Ringler

Trouble in Malibu: A Question of NIMBY?
Lily Song

Book Review: Privatization in the City. Successes, Failures, Lessons
Amber Hawkes

Book Review: Popular Culture and the Age of White Flight
Genevieve Carpio

Book Review: Bourgeois Nightmares: Suburbia, 1870-1930
Helen Campbell