Smart Growth's Hidden Agenda

This is part two of a series of comments and responses posted on’s listserve, as part of a discussion regarding whether or not it is futile to try to have a viable urban forest given the “smart growth” trends towards ultra high density cities. Part one is entitled “Smart Growth & Housing Prices.”

Remember the natural evolution of low
density suburbs along the urban fringe?
Now an “urban service boundary” surrounds
every city – with ultra high density right to
the edge. Goodbye trees, goodbye gardens,
and goodbye property rights and freedom.

There is no shortage of land in California. California could add another 4 million homes onto one acre each and it would only use an additional 4% of California’s 158,000 square miles of land.

There are also few genuine examples of “stressed ecosystems” in California so dire that development must be severely rationed and regulated.

The reason, for example, the California delta’s ecosystem is arguably threatened is because farmers purchase water at extremely low, grandfathered rates that they lose if they market their water to industry or residential users.

Hence farmers have a disincentive to market their water and adopt water efficient irrigation techniques – about 75% of California’s water consumption is for agriculture. And with a 20 sverdrup California current just offshore, why aren’t we building desalination plants?

Regulations aren’t the only reason home prices are too high. Environmentalist lawsuits increase costs to the developer, as well as greatly increase the cost of virtually all construction materials. Municipalities – who are heavily influenced by public employee unions – became financially dependent on building fees – which in California in some cases have been over $100,000 per home – to support their compensation & benefit agreements which are far above market rates paid employees in the private sector. And affordable housing mandates have been proven, ironically, to increase the price of homes wherever they are enforced.

It is pretty much impossible to have a development with 20,000+ people per square mile and have an expanding tree canopy. It would be very useful to see a realistic and nonbiased analysis of this – but common sense should be enough. Once you get up around 7-8 homes per acre, planting trees in private yards becomes very problematic, the homes overwhelm the lots and there isn’t room for trees. If you want trees, you’ll need to hold at 5-6 homes per acre, and if you want trees and photovoltaic arrays, you’ll need to hold at 3-4 homes per acre.

It is totally unrealistic to try to get people out of their cars. People love cars. People don’t automatically want to use mass transit. While there are advantages, it’s not as safe in terms of personal security, and it can be more unhealthy – ride the train during flu season! Rail corridors are far more expensive to build and operate than roads. Attempting to coerce or socially engineer ways to get people out of their cars will backlash, and new communities designed to overtly discourage cars will eventually become slums. For every 1.0 gigawatt of extra overnight output onto the electricity grid, you can recharge one million commuter cars. Cars are on the verge of being completely green. The war on the car is ridiculous. Build more roads; build more freeways. Use busses for mass transit – save rail for high-speed intercity.

Balance is the key. There is a market for high density developments in the urban core, and that market should be allowed to function. But to build new housing developments with 20,000+ people per square mile in outlying suburbs – hoping they will ride light rail to work – is totally unrealistic. Worse still, to destroy semi-rural neighborhoods with high density infill plopped arbitrarily on every large lot whenever ownership changes is completely disrespectful of the wishes of the people who already live there – and forget about planting more trees in these places.

As for the difficulty of providing services to low density developments – it is actually far more expensive to retrofit and upgrade sewer lines and other infrastructure to accomodate infill. And if public sector employees averaged two weeks vacation and retired at age 65, which is the around the average in the private sector, and in their retirement received social security and medicare – there would be no problem whatsoever financing growth in the public sector and growth in public sector services. One of the reasons for “infill” is to keep down the budget for public services – at the same time as the overall “smart growth” agenda raises home prices and property tax revenues – but the agenda underlying this is grotesquely self-serving. If every American worker – public or private – got the same deal when they were old, we could make the public sector solvent and able to expand services in an equitable way, instead of one that is essentially corrupt.

Another point worth considering is the cost of creating publically maintained stands of urban trees. Sure it’s rewarding and creates public sector jobs, but trees on private land require zero input of taxpayer money, and last time I checked, trees on private land were just as likely to provide canopy etc. as the public ones…

To reiterate: There is no shortage of land. There are not nearly as many “stressed ecosystems” as environmentalists claim. Housing is artificially overpriced because regulations and fees invented by self-serving municipal governments and environmentalists have artificially restricted the supply.

One Response to “Smart Growth's Hidden Agenda”
  1. Mike Davis says:

    Ed: on this one I agree with you. Having watched So.Nevada since the mid 50′s until I left 2 years ago and spending time in Cal I saw a lot of what you are saying. The canopy is important if only for the cooling effect around a home and the canopy if done properly will also help with winter utilities as it also raises the ambient temp in the yard. As a telephone man by I spent a lot of time in many yards and noticed the differences and used what I learned when designing my own landscapes. When I upgraded to a new home I always looked for the largest lot with the best orientation. Now that I am retired I bought 57 acres of forrest to keep it from being divided into a housing tract so I could watch the trees grow. I appreciate yor site. Thank you.


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