Central planning dooms ‘smart growth’ strategies

Published September 1, 2001

Imagine that almost every city, county, town, and village in the United States has at least one communist on its staff–not a secret communist infiltrator, but someone whose job title is Communist, whose job description is to implement communism in that community, and whose job prerequisite is being a card-carrying member of the Communist Party.

Sounds pretty difficult to believe, doesn’t it? But the most important part of soviet communism is central planning. Now go back to the previous paragraph and replace the word communist with planner, communism with planning, and Communist Party with American Planning Association. Then the paragraph turns out to be the absolute truth.

I’m not accusing planners of being communists. I’m accusing communists of being planners. The Soviet Union might have survived if it hadn’t put planners in charge of everything from how much cement to produce to how many shoes to make and when fishing boats should dip their nets into the sea and when they should pull them out again.

In the United States, many planners agree with architect Andres Duany, who urges land-use planners to write plans “with such precision that only the architectural detail is left” to the land owners. Most planners believe property rights are “flexible,” and that no property owner should be able to do anything with his or her land without government approval.

While conservatives hunted for communists in the State Department, planners gathered enormous power over our lives down at city hall. Despite their scientific pretensions, planners really have no idea how a city or any other economy works. So they rely on fads to tell them how to run our lives. In the 1950s and 1960s, the fad was urban renewal. Today, it is smart growth.

Oregon: Planning’s victim

Smart growth says Americans drive too much, and the large lots on which they live waste too much land. To solve these supposed problems, planners promote all sorts of regulations aimed at reducing driving and forcing people to live on less land.

The smart-growth fad is furthest advanced in Oregon, where planners have passed an unbelievable set of regulations for land use and transportation. Here are just a few of them.

Planners have drawn urban-growth boundaries around all of Oregon’s cities and towns. These growth boundaries contain just 1.25 percent of all the land in Oregon, yet planners hope to eventually force 90 percent of Oregon residents to live within them. Only actual farmers should be allowed to live outside the boundaries, say planners, so the state planning agency passed a rule allowing people to build homes on farm land only if they actually earn $80,000 a year farming it.

Inside the boundaries, planners regulate everything from parking on the streets to the use of church buildings. One Portland church with 400 seats in its sanctuary was told that it could allow no more than 70 people to worship in the church at one time. A growing church in southern Oregon was told it could not expand unless it remained closed on Saturdays and held no more than five weddings or funerals a year.

Religious regulation is an outrageous but minor component of Oregon’s land-use planning. More important is minimum-density zoning, which requires that all development be to at least a given number of houses per acre. To fit a growing population within the urban-growth boundaries, planners are rezoning existing neighborhoods to higher densities. Some neighborhoods of single-family homes have been rezoned to multi-family densities.

If you own a quarter-acre lot in such a neighborhood, you would not be allowed to build a single house on it–even if many other homes in the neighborhood are on quarter-acre lots. Instead, if the area is zoned to 24 units per acre, you will be required to build a six-unit apartment. Owners of large yards are encouraged to build apartments in their backyards. If your house burns down, you will be required to replace it with an apartment.

Planners also want to control the design of people’s homes. They derisively called houses with garages in front “snout houses,” and say that people who own such houses drive too much. So Portland has passed an ordinance requiring that garages be recessed behind the front of new homes.

To further discourage driving, planners are deliberately not building new highways. Their goal is to increase congestion to stop-and-go levels during much of the day, so people will walk or ride public transit instead of drive. Planners are also building concrete barriers and speed bumps on existing roads in order to slow traffic and reduce traffic flows. They call this traffic calming, though the people who must drive on such roads feel anything but calm.

Be careful what you ask for

Smart growth turns out to accomplish the exact opposite of almost everything it promises. It makes cities more congested. Because cars pollute more in stop-and-go traffic, it increases air pollution. Artificial land shortages lead to unaffordable housing. Open spaces are rapidly filled with high-density housing.

Portland planners even admit their goal is to “replicate” Los Angeles–the nation’s most congested, polluted, and one of its least-affordable cities–in Portland. They have come close to achieving this goal. In the last 18 years, congestion in the Portland-area has grown faster than in any other U.S. urban area, while the city has gone from being one of the 50 most affordable to one of the 10 least affordable markets for single-family housing in the nation.

A decade ago, smart-growth ideas were peculiar to Oregon. But now they are rapidly taking over the country. Government officials in such diverse states as Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Washington, and Wisconsin have strongly endorsed smart growth. President George W. Bush’s new director of the Environmental Protection Agency and secretaries of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development have all promised to maintain federal smart-growth policies launched during the Clinton administration.

In retrospect, it is likely that planners in our city governments will do far more harm to our personal and economic freedoms than communists in the State Department. The solution is simple: Fire all the planners. Achieving that solution, however, will require a concerted effort by conservatives, libertarians, and everyone else who cares about urban livability, mobility, and freedom.

Randal O’Toole ([email protected]) is senior economist with the Thoreau Institute (www.ti.org) and author of the recent book, The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths.