Ceaucescu: Father of Smart Growth

Published November 10, 2003

Urban planning was a big part of Nickolae Ceaucescu’s “vision” of a better Romania for himself and his elite circle of friends. The late dictator set about dismantling the villages and dwellings that sprawl across the countryside and herded less-than-happy ex-inhabitants into the concrete apartment blocks that were the staple of communist cities.

The dirty little secret is that “smart growth” as promoted in the U.S. today requires exceedingly high densities to make a difference. Smart growth leaders realize that forcing people to live next to and on top of one another is no more popular in the suburbs of Portland or Phoenix than it was in Romanian villages. As a result, they generally discount the crucial role of density.

In weaker moments, they trot out the Sierra Club-inspired charts showing that Mumbai (Bombay) or Calcutta densities lead to less use of the automobile (“the Great Satan”). But more often than not they espouse images of happy people walking and biking in neighborhoods no more dense than the sprawling suburbs of Paris or Los Angeles and where it never rains or snows.

Yet the smart growth prescriptions are clear. Given the choice between authoritarian solutions and more direct, less-intrusive approaches, they opt for Ceaucesuist authoritarianism.

  • Well publicized smart growth research says that central city residents weigh less than suburban residents because they walk more. Even this questionable research finds perceivably lower weights only in the most dense locales, all within sight of Manhattan. Smart growth’s solution? More land use regulation–instead of trying to get people to drop their daily intake by 100 calories, which according to the Centers for Disease Control would solve the nation’s obesity crisis (two-thirds of a can of soft drink daily would do it).
  • Sky-is-falling projections that market-based development will cost the nation $250,000,000,000 more than smart growth over the next 25 years cry out for the smart growth land rationing. Or so they do for those who think that a lot of zeros makes any number big. But $250,000,000,000 is only $30 annually per capita (the average reader will have taken 350,000,000,000 nanoseconds to read from the beginning of this article to here). Much more could be saved, say, by limiting annual government employee compensation increases to that of the private sector. Ceaucescu would be proud–given the choice between the cost of a dinner for two at the Ponderosa steak house and forcing people to live closer to one another, smart growth would tell people where to live.
  • As their bogeymen (loss of agricultural land or that higher density reduces traffic congestion or air pollution) are exposed as phantoms, the advocates of smart growth turn to other issues, such as water quality–an important issue (an opponent I recently debated referred to water quality in Michigan as “third-world”). Smart growth advocates claim lawn fertilizer pollution is wrecking our waterways, and thus we must end our suburban lifestyle. People in Manhattan high-rises or Bucharest apartment blocks don’t have lawns. What if, presuming there is a serious problem, we simply addressed it … rather than telling people where they can live?

Probably most smart growth advocates have no idea that their principles would require no less than forced abandonment of much that is currently developed. But it is true. If, for example, material amounts of demand are to be shifted from autos to transit, then the urban area must be compact enough for transit to serve more than just downtown and the core. Hong Kong, at 12 times the density of Los Angeles and 25 times that of Portland, will do the trick. The transit system that can affordably replace the automobile in the urban areas of North America or Western Europe simply does not exist. More to the point, it hasn’t even been conceived.

Smart growth is driven by platitude, not achievable vision. A light rail line here and a cutesy yuppie district there may be treasured by their comparatively small clientele, but they are swallowed up with little trace in the modern, automobile-oriented urban areas of the western world.

Make no mistake about it. Achieving the ultimate ends of smart growth would require a no-less-comprehensive repopulation strategy than that conceived of by Nickolae Ceaucescu himself.

Wendell Cox is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute; a consultant to public and private public policy, planning and transportation organizations; and a visiting professor at a French national university. His email address is [email protected].