New Urbanism's Pitfalls

To follow up on yesterday’s post, it has become more clear than ever how land use decisions are the place where every tenant of environmentalism is applied, yet the centrality of land use, like the centrality of population demographics, is rarely the focus of environmental discussions. But if population demographics provide the primary preconditions for environmental challenges we face, land use decisions provide the primary evidence of what ideology and values we choose to apply to these challenges.

From that standpoint, based on the ideology that informs land use decisions today, private property and economic liberty the endangered species, and environmentalist elites are leading the charge. And as we’ve tried to point out, the irony is when private property rights and economic liberties are undermined, the environment is the biggest loser of all.

Land use decisions in the USA are dominated by a coalition of powerful environmental groups, mainstream media, and virtually all entrenched forces within government, whether it’s the professional planners, elected officials, or public sector unions. In practice, the collection of ideologies these interests promulgate – smart growth, new urbanism, carbon offsets, open space, environmental protection & mitigation in myriad formats – is monolithic and dogmatic and presented to the public as beyond debate. While private interests are aware of this mismatch, generally their challenges to the conventional wisdom are piecemeal. They lack the big picture rhetoric that is arrayed against them, rhetoric that employs grandiose terms such as “smart growth principles,” “new urbanism,” and “global warming impact.”

A sad example of how monolithic the smart growth mantras have become was discovered when I challenged the professional arborists on the list serve they have on I love this website – because it has one simple, noble mission, to help people plant trees in the urban environment, where they are needed the most. I have planted trees since I was 12 years old. I have grown from seed and given away thousands of trees; I’ve planted thousands of trees; I’ve been an urban forester for decades. It has been a healthy obsession, a labor of love. Except perhaps for the waves in the ocean, there is nothing more beautiful than a tree.

As I noted yesterday, I have been monitoring TreeLink’s list serve, and couldn’t help commenting on what I felt was a conflict between the smart growth principle of high density housing, and the need to find room to grow trees. And from the responses I got, it appeared the preference among these arborists, most all of whom work in the public sector, was that trees belong on public land, and that people shouldn’t be allowed to own enough private property to allow room for them to have trees. So in the next few posts I am going to share with EcoWorld’s audience some of the comments I made on TreeLink’s list serve.

We will return to green technology in subsequent posts. Because who cares if we clean up pollution if while we’re doing it, we create a society where only the super rich can afford to own a decent sized piece of land? A society where only a government employee can care for a tree – on government land?

4 Responses to “New Urbanism's Pitfalls”
  1. Julia XA says:

    You speak of “private property rights and economic liberties [being] undermined” by goverment agencies, professional planners, etc. and their monolithic ideology. While this is certainly true, you fail to not that this has been the case for many decades.

    To be truly for private property rights and economic liberties, you’d champion different forms of land use and development as welcome additions to the marketplace.

    If a citizen owns a piece of land and has an idea how to develop it that he thinks will make him money, it is land use and zoning laws that are his chief impediment …. if his idea is outside the ideology du jour. This has been the case for 60+ years (if not longer).

    Is it not just as anti-property rights to to tell a property owner he can only build one home on his property as it is to tell him he must build 10? (Also, if his neighbors don’t want 10 homes next door, they are free to buy the property and develop it the way they want).

    Land use and zoning laws are antithetical to free market, period. There is no getting around that. But this is not something new that arrived with NU or Smart Growth or whatever the catchphrase of the day is. So I don’t think you can criticize NU/Smart Growth on those grounds.

    The problem with your argument against monolithic land use policies and ideologies is that you don’t apply it consistently to PAST and current monolithic ideologies.

    In short, there are many valid criticisms of land planning/zoning systems past and present. But anti-property rights criticism is not one of them.

  2. Ed Ring says:

    Julia: I agree with your points. The emphasis on property rights currently is simple – I believe that overall the restrictions on land development are far more pervasive and severe today than at any point in our past. In practice this means infill is the only option available for land development, because the urban service boundary has curtailed if not eliminated all development that isn’t infill. It’s obvious why the land owner outside a development boundary has had their property rights infringed – but the artificially imposed impact the development boundary has on the land owner within the development boundary is just as huge. Their land is artificially made more valuable, and huge artificial incentives and mandates are in place to favor high density conversion. If market demand were allowed to work, it is much less likely high density infill would occur in rural neighborhoods, because values and incentives would generate organically from demand, and therefore, ironically, less zoning restrictions generate a better result in terms of affordability and appropriate development.

  3. Julia XA says:

    But there hasn’t been LESS zoning in rural and suburban regions for decades.

    The zoning/land use control mindset has increased every year since its inception, but that was true well before NU/Smart Growth got underway.

    If supply and demand would generate better results (as I believe they would) the question is WHY did Land Use/Zoning take off after WWII? Why were development controls in rural and suburban areas created in the first place? The answer is that people feel entitled to control other people’s property … and that hasn’t changed with NU/Smart Growth. Only the ideology has changed, not the impetus for control. Same old same old.

    It’s counterproductive to attack NU/Smart growth from a property rights angle, particularly as regards affordability. That isn’t the issue. The issue is how do we allow greater choice in the marketplace?

  4. no_on_L says: Here’s the site that chronicles our hard won victory over a millionaire “new urbanism” developer.


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