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National Planning in the United States


Does national planning exist in the United States? In one sense the answer is no, since there is no person or organization charged with drawing up a physical plan for the nation. There is no national master plan corresponding to the master plan that a city or town or county may have. In fact, when Congress terminated the National Resources Planning Board (NRPB) in 1943, it expressly prohibited any other agency in the federal government from assuming the board's national planning functions (see Chapter 4). No national planning agency comparable to NRPB has been set up since then.

One reason that we do not have a national plan is simply ideological. A national master plan sounds like socialism, and for most of our history that has not been a welcome sound. Another reason may be the formidable nature of the task. A national land-use plan for a small country is feasible. The Dutch do national land-use planning very well. But the Netherlands has a land area of a little more than 13,000 square miles, not much bigger than the State of Maryland. That is quite different from the 3 million square miles of the "lower 48."

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we have a federal system of government in which a great deal of power resides with the states' congressional delegations. That dispersion of power makes the formation of a unified national plan extremely difficult. Dutch-style top-down planning is simply not possible in the U.S. political environment. This is not a matter of democracy versus autocracy, since the Netherlands is just as much a democracy as is the United States. Rather, it is a matter of the degree of centralization of political power.

Although there is not now nor has there ever been a master plan for the settlement pattern of the United States, there is no question that the federal government has engaged in a number of acts that have had a major effect upon the pattern of development in the United States. This chapter briefly describes some of the acts that, to an extent, constitute de facto national planning.

All these acts do not fit together neatly as parts of a single grand design, but there are some commonalities. The federal style, in most cases, has not been to command but to permit and to encourage. In most cases there has been more carrot than stick, the carrot being federal money or federal land. The general direction is set by a system of federal guidelines and incentives, but the details are decided at the state or substate level. Where the federal government actually does the work, as in an Army Corps of Engineers' project, much of the initiative is local.

In general, the federal hand in shaping the pattern of development looms larger as one moves west. Federal ownership of land necessarily made the federal government a major player in determining the pattern of land development. In the immediate postrevolutionary period, most of the land east of the Mississippi was claimed by the 13 colonies, though much of that land came into the union as other states. However, west of the Mississippi, the Louisiana Purchase, lands obtained from Mexico as a result of the Mexican War, lands ceded by Great Britain in the Oregon Compromise, the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico, and the Alaska Purchase from Russia made the federal government a landowner on a huge scale. Climate has also favored a larger federal role in the west. In most of the United States west of the 100th meridian (a line that runs roughly from North Dakota southward through the Texas Panhandle), rainfall is generally under 20 inches a year and is not sufficiently reliable to support agriculture other than grazing.1 Thus agriculture in most of the western half of the country is dependent on irrigation. That dependency makes federal water policy a key shaper of the development of the region.

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