Smart Growth, or Green Bantustans?

It would be an understatement to say we’ve been accused of taking controversial positions on environmental issues – smart growth, global warming, government reform, fossil fuel and nuclear power, to name a few. The problem, however, is these positions are not adopted out of some pathological need to be contrarian, they spring from genuine conviction based on substantial research and thoughtful deliberation.

To keep all this contrarianism in perspective, there is a quote from Mark Twain worth repeating, he said “a cynic sees the cost of everything and the value of nothing.” And being mindful of this quote we respect those who adhere to the conventional wisdom on many of these issues. It is ridiculous to suggest there is no value in the concerns they express, or the policies they advocate. The challenge is to attempt to express the other side of these issues when the other side doesn’t lend itself as easily to emotional appeals. The challenge is to continue to espouse a contrarian point of view despite being easily typecast as having no concern whatsoever for these values that seem so easily fulfilled by following the crowd.

For example, urban planning is an area that truly encompasses many of the values of environmentalism. And in the name of “smart growth,” urban planners have succeeded in creating policy that has drawn lines around our cities, “urban service boundaries,” which make it nearly impossible to initiate new home construction outside these lines. While the purpose of these boundaries is ostensibly to protect open space, farmland and wilderness habitat, not only are those goals only marginally fulfilled, but other negative unintended consequences abound. Consider:

(1) Creating these greenbelts of protected open space mean instead of leapfrog development, you have super-leapfrog development. People who want to get out of the city now build and purchase homes on the other side of the greenbelt. Instead of suburbs on the perimeter of cities, you have exurbs, entire new cities, constructed just beyond the protected areas.

(2) Homes within these cities are concentrated onto tiny lots in order to get as many people into each new development as possible. Often these new developments are imposed in the middle of semi-rural suburbs where the way of life for the people already living there is destroyed.

(3) These dense new neighborhoods are designed to be “pedestrian friendly,” but what they really are is car unfriendly. There is no room to park, inadequate roads, and super expensive light rail that most people can’t make practical use of.

(4) The winners in this smart growth are not the people who want affordable homes, or the environmentalists who want open space. The winners are those land owners lucky enough to have property within these arbitrary boundaries where growth is permitted, and the public sector employees who keep development within their jurisdictions, and collect property taxes and fees on artificially inflated home values.

The original “smart growth” community,
the township of Soweto in South Africa.

As we have calculated countless times, the impact in California of unrestricted suburban growth is not nearly as dire as it sounds.

California, for example, has 40,000 square miles of farmland. If California’s population were to grow to 50 million in the next couple of decades – something that is certainly possible – and if every one of these 13 million newcomers were to live in a new home on a one acre lot, four people per home, it would only consume 5,078 square miles, or about 13% of Calfornia’s farmland. That is an absolute worst case, and extremely unlikely. California’s total area is 158,000 square miles, meaning if every new household were on an acre, disbursed randomly, these 13 million people would only use up 3% of California’s land. Urban sprawl, at least in California’s case, is a myth.

Moreover, most people don’t want to live on an acre. Most people actually seem to prefer high density living. Urban planning and zoning has put far too much of a premium, however, on enforcing “smart growth” in the form of urban service boundaries instead of market driven development.

Often the point is made by the smart growth crowd that it is unaffordable to build the infrastructure for large suburban development. This is only partly true. First of all, retrofitting the energy, water and sewer service to semi-rural suburbs that suddenly have ultra-dense new neighborhoods imposed on them is much more expensive than starting from scratch on raw land. Secondly, the resources and the labor to build new roads would be far less expensive if environmentalists would stop blocking development of new mines and quarries, if government permits weren’t outrageously expensive, and if “prevailing wage” laws weren’t raising the cost of labor to prohibitive levels. Nobody is against paying decent wages – but the current system awards extremely lucrative jobs to a privileged few, while millions of additional construction jobs are financially infeasible and willing hands find no work. And of course, homes are now completely unaffordable. The idea that infrastructure to unclog our roads and bring home prices down to earth is too expensive is also a myth.

“Smart growth,” California style,
if anything, has even smaller yards.

Finally, there is the notion that “greenhouse gasses” will be increased if people live further from the urban centers. There are several ways to debunk this concern.

First of all, a growing number of us are realizing there is less than meets the eye with respect to “greenhouse gas.” But even if this concerns you, consider how much less emissions occur when cars aren’t stuck in traffic, idling for hours every day, by the millions, because we piled everyone on top of each other in ultra-dense “smart growth” communities, and built light rail that hardly anyone uses instead of widening our roads and allowing suburban growth. Also, consider how rapidly the automobile is becoming ultra efficient and clean. The idea that automobile use is unsustainable and must be curtailed is perhaps the most cruel myth of all.

The two images in this post are telling. One is from Sacramento, and is taken from a model “smart growth” community. The other is from Soweto, once the poster child for the most chilling, brutal warehouse for human beings on the planet. Other than somewhat larger individual homes, with presumably better amenities, can you tell them apart? Is this the only affordable option you want left for you, if you want to live in a detached single family home? This is the brave new world we are building in the name of green, green, green uber alles. Perhaps nuance, contrarian views, property rights along with collective zoning, individual freedom along with social imperatives, less planning, more chaos, even that horrible toxic thing called a “free market” is not such a bad part of the political puzzle, after all. With even our most cherished beliefs, there is value in balance, value in seeing the other side of the story.

Related posts:

Principles of New Suburbanism
Lower Density, Please?
Why Homes Aren’t Affordable
Leapfrog Infill
California’s Land Fight
Infill Extremism

2 Responses to “Smart Growth, or Green Bantustans?”
  1. Gösta Oscarsson says:

    You are obviously right.

    As a planner in a Swedish region some 40 years ago I met another version of what you describe. There were environmental friendly people establishing “ecological villages” some twenty miles from the city, where they could live close to nature, recirculate everything and grow carrots. They looked with disdain on more materialistic people. I got in conflict with them when I pointed out that they (almost all academics) actually used a lot of resouces when they travelled to work in the neighbouring city. And in addition every morning there were taxis taking their children to school In actual fact the lived an urban life in a rural setting, which is the worst alternative from an ecological point of view.

    As I said: This was 40 years ago. We learn slowly!

    Gösta Oscarsson

  2. Jack Osenvil says:

    Wow. Don’t you realize that educated people see right through this nonsense? I guess you wouldn’t. Nonetheless, you’re a fool and you will be exposed. No wonder you have no professional reputation to speak of. If only you knew how people saw you…

    Editor’s note: Jack – people often view those of us with controversial positions favorably if they agree with them, and unfavorably if they disagree. Clearly you disagree, but you might at least say why you disagree, instead of just hurling insults.


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