https://www.strongtowns.org/ is about the best org discussing these issues and isn't coming from a left- or right-wing perspective but a sane, critical-thinking, research-based perspective.
I'd almost think it is bottom-up not top-down. Top down would imply some central planning, allowance for more space, livable communities, more trees, more parks and trails, mixed zoning etc. I grew up in a Soviet Union and towns and cities were designed top-down. Nice wide streets, electric trolley buses in the city that ran regularly. For all the ills and terrible things it was actually not as a bad as far as the general layout was concerned.
In US it is bottom-up because every developer buys land then tries to maximize their profit by shoving as many houses and cul-de-sacs as they can. Or as many office buildings etc. Every town wants to maximize its property taxes so they have their own interests at work. People who bought the property also now have different incentives so you have zoning and NIMBY. Ideally all these self-interests would somehow magically align to produce something great. But it often doesn't.
Bottom-up planning example would be post-USSR where people converted community gardens into suburbs on their own. Without any central planning or viable infrastructure.
Yeah but they didn't directly design cities the way a top-down developer would do. They are some planned communities in US. I live next to one, and it is a different feel to it definitely. But it is not a common thing at all.
At the federal level there are tax incentives and credits and subsidies and those affect everything but it is still very much a local "maximize my profit" kind of deal. Uncle Sam doesn't care if there are enough play grounds or parks for given area and population density.
I think that you are trying to say that the incentives (say cheap mortgages) and subsidies for oil and car manufacturers resulted in suburban sprawl? But that's more of a nasty side-effect than a direct policy or law. In other words we got the bad part of top-down influence without the good part of it.
> Bottom-up planning example would be post-USSR where people converted community gardens into suburbs on their own.
I jokingly say that overnight they become more capitalist and laissez faire than most countries in the West.
Top-down developer can design it any way he wants. Top-down just means it's planned and not anarchistic like in ex-USSR.
Even policy of not enforcing parks, playground or allowing lesser population density is top-down development. Policy of building highways to accommodate sprawl is top-down as well.
Meanwhile bottom-up in ex-USSR style means ex-community gardens converted into suburbs without central water/sewage, no proper road network etc. While some developers put in over-the-top density highrises in questionable locations. Again, without proper infrastructure to support them. In both cases, it's incentives from people or developers without any support and sometimes even acknowledgement from the government.
> I jokingly say that overnight they become more capitalist and laissez faire than most countries in the West.
I'd say that with 100% straight face. We're definitely much more capitalist than western europe and definitely competing with US on many fronts.
There can be even more structure, but when a town or city simply blocks medium density residential structures, that's pretty top down.
Also, these big developers are sorta top-down too. They are big powerful entities setting things up for the people who actually use the developments instead of iterative development.
There's a ton of ridiculous patterns built into development that relate to the way it is financed etc. and that along with zoning etc. creates insane sprawl.
https://www.strongtowns.org/ does a remarkable job at addressing all these issues, not taking a dogmatic top-down or bottom-up or whatever view.