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Jewish World Review Sept. 14, 2000 / 13 Elul, 5760

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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Consumer Reports

The stupidity of smart growth -- "URBAN SPRAWL." "SMART GROWTH."

These are the catch phrases in most large metropolitan areas today where battles rage over the direction and pace of development. I live on one of those battlegrounds. For many reasons, including a burgeoning high-tech corridor nearby, I regularly hear the lament of "urban sprawl." One neighboring community just fought, and finally lost, a long, hard battle to keep a farmer from selling his land to a developer. Houses already surrounded his acreage, but his neighbors wanted to preserve the charm of the farm and restaurant he operated there - at his expense, not theirs of course.

I always argued he had the right to sell, but that's not the typical response in this age of "smart growth" - read: suburban growth, if any, that's government directed, managed, and limited.

As Dr. Ron Utt of The Heritage Foundation told me, the fights that are taking place across the country to limit new development are usually the product of an "unholy alliance" between elites who think the suburbs with their strip malls and tract housing are tacky and uncultured; Sierra Club-style environmentalists, many of whom believe that government policies should force people to live closer together to help minimize their use of cars, and tidy Republican homeowners who too often figure hey, they got to their American dream in the suburbs - so now pull up the bridges before the next crew arrives.

Utt, an expert on infrastructure, housing, and urban revitalization issues, has co-edited with Jane Shaw, an environmental expert at the Political Economy Research Center (PERC), the provocative new book, "A Guide to Smart Growth: Shattering Myths, Providing Solutions."

As the consortium of authors in "Smart Growth" show, there's a way to accommodate growing populations and affluence and all the people who choose ample lots with single-family homes in the suburbs - or hope to - and to protect against traffic, environmental, and other concerns.

To start with, they say, the scope of the problem has to be honestly considered. Though there have been some wild claims saying otherwise, average annual development rates in the United States continue at roughly the pace set after WWII. (In fact all development in the United States, the entire "human footprint," takes up less than 5 percent of the entire continental land area of the U.S.)

And often the problems that do exist are caused by government planning itself. Around the country governments have poured tens of billions of dollars into expensive light-rail systems, but not nearly enough people ride them to make a dent in traffic congestion. Think of what that money could do for infrastructure. But then again, particularly when it comes to roads, "don't build it and they won't come" is a fundamental and often successfully pursued tenet of "smart growth" advocates.

Yet the Heritage/PERC study carefully shows that expanding road surface doesn't just entice ever more drivers to the road as detractors claim. In fact in the 1980s and '90s, urban areas that built more roads saw significantly lower congestion increases than those that didn't. (And more congestion means slower cars, which actually increases pollution.) Contrary to accepted wisdom, The "Smart Growth" authors reveal that building sufficient road space is actually the best way, though not the only one, to reduce traffic congestion in metropolitan areas. These authors don't contend that planning and zoning should be thrown out, but that it should be "flexible and open-ended" and that markets, which work by giving people what they want, are better able to determine optimal land use than is arbitrary and often archaic political power.

In fact, it seems developers are already responding to the marketplace and concerns about sprawl. They aren't just building the ever-popular single-family homes on good-sized lots, but also the charming neighborhoods of yesteryear (like those which sprang up a century ago without government direction, thank you) close to sidewalks, stores and work. They are innovating with environmentally sensitive housing, and designs which minimize the need for paved streets and infrastructure like those that allow for common lots ("bay housing") or staggered setbacks and winding streets ("coving"). Ironically, it's often established and draconian zoning laws that prohibit such dynamic new neighborhood designs.

Most important in this debate, however, is to remember that sprawl is only a "problem" when more and more people have the affluence and freedom to make a better life for themselves and their families in the suburbs. I agree with the authors of "Smart Growth." Government mandates to stop such growth just for the sake of stopping it aren't, well, smart.

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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