Questioning the Messianic Conception of Smart Growth

Published July 16, 2012

A new analysis from the United Kingdom concludes that smart growth (compact city) policies are not inherently preferable to other urban land use policy regimes, despite the proponents’ claims.

“The current planning policy strategies for land use and transport have virtually no impact on the major long-term increases in resource and energy consumption. They generally tend to increase costs and reduce economic competitiveness,” the academic article states. It continues: “Claims that compaction will make cities more sustainable have been debated for some time, but they lack conclusive supporting evidence as to the environmental and, particularly, economic and social effects.”

These would not be surprising findings to or FIRE Policy News readers, who are accustomed to similar analyses rooted in economic, demographic, and environmental data. However, this article appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association, under the title “Growing Cities Sustainably: Does Urban Form Really Matter?”

Moreover, the authors are urban planning insiders, including Marcial H. Echenique, a land use and transport professor at Cambridge University, Anthony J. Hargreaves from the Martin Centre for Architectural Studies at Cambridge, Gordon Mitchell from the Faculty of the Environment at the University of Leeds, and Anil Namdea of the School of Engineering at the University of Newcastle.

Neglected Costs

Their critiques parallel those made by critics of smart growth for years. They focus particularly on the concern that smart growth generally has neglected economic and social costs. For example, smart growth policies lead to higher house prices by rationing land (such as with urban growth boundaries). Higher house prices lead to less discretionary income for households, so that there is less money for other goods and services, lowering employment levels. The resulting densification leads to more intense traffic congestion, with resulting economic losses and more intense air pollution, which is less healthful.

Three Alternatives

The authors modeled land use and travel behavior in three areas of England, subjecting them to three land use alternatives: compact development (smart growth), planned development (which I would label “smart growth light”) and dispersal, the generally liberal approach common in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand for decades after World War II (and still in many U.S. and some Canadian markets).

Echenique et al analyzed the London metropolitan region (Greater London Authority, Southeast England and East England), which has a population of 20 million, and the Newcastle (Tyne and Wear) metropolitan region, which has a population of 1,000,000. They also analyzed a sub-region within London metropolitan region, Cambridge, with a population of 500,000.

Their model projected little difference in outcomes between the three land use regulatory regimes to 2031. Predictably, land consumption was less under the compact development, but the variation in land consumed varied no more than plus or minus 1 percent from the trend (base case) in the London area, where only 11 percent of the land is in urban or transport use. Other factors, such as the change in transport energy use, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transport and residences and air pollution varied little between the three regulatory regimes.

Economic costs in 2031 were projected to be the lowest (best) for the dispersed option and the highest for the compact development option, both in the London and Newcastle metropolitan regions. Planned development ranked second.

The compact development option scored best in the Cambridge sub-region, while the planned development option was the highest-cost. The dispersed option ranked second. The researchers attributed the better result for compact development in the Cambridge area to its uniqueness as a low-density, centrally oriented, high-tech, university community and further noted that densification could “reduce its attractiveness over the longer term.”

Undermined Foundations

Based upon their research and review of the literature, the authors proceed to undermine some of smart growth’s most sacred foundations.

    Smart Growth Claim: Smart growth has little or no impact on house prices —

        Echenique et al: “…restrictions on the supply of development land have led to property price increases, penalizing city dwellers by leading to less dwelling space…”

     Smart Growth Claim: Smart growth increases housing choice —

         Echenique et al: “One downside of this policy is a substantial reduction in choice of dwelling types, with new dwellings being mainly apartments.”

     Smart Growth Claim: Smart growth does not increase traffic congestion —

         Echenique et al: The authors cite research indicating that high average density is the main cause of highway congestion in Los Angeles. They also cite Reid Ewing (University of Utah) and Robert Cervero (University of California) who reviewed studies of household travel behavior finding that a doubling of density would lead to only a 5 percent reduction per person, or an increase of 90 percent in travel (Note 1). The authors add: “The obvious conclusion is that an increase in density will increase traffic congestion.”

     Smart Growth Claim: Smart growth reduces air pollution —

         Echenique et al: “It can also increase the overall respiratory disease burden as exposure to traffic emissions is increased.

     Smart Growth Claim: “Empty nesters” (aging households with no offspring at home) will seek smaller houses in the urban core —

         Echenique et al: “There is, however, no substantial evidence that older couples leave their spacious houses and gardens…”

     Smart Growth Claim: Smart growth improves the jobs-housing balance —

        Echenique et al: “One of the main arguments for the dispersed city is that there is no longer a single center where most jobs and services occur. Urban areas, rather, exhibit a dispersed and often polycentric structure, bringing jobs and services closer to residents with a more complex movement pattern not readily served by public transport.

The authors suggest the following “takeaway” —

     “Urban form policies can have important impacts on local environmental quality, economy, crowding, and social equity, but their influence on energy consumption and land use is very modest; compact development should not automatically be associated with the preferred spatial growth strategy.”

Facts Contradict ‘Smart’ Premises

Thus, the Echenique et al research contradicts the thesis that compact development or smart growth should replace (make illegal) other regulatory regimes, including the more liberal dispersed pattern.

     “Smart growth principles should not unquestioningly promote increasing levels of compaction on the basis of reducing energy consumption without also considering its potential negative consequences. In many cases, the potential socioeconomic consequences of less housing choice, crowding, and congestion may outweigh its very modest CO2 reduction benefits.”

The British research is an important step toward focusing urban policies on objectives, rather than means. Cities are economic organisms. They have increased their share of the population 10 fold in just two centuries and have been pivotal to unprecedented economic growth and affluence. People moved to the cities for economic opportunity, not to sample particular urban forms.

Economic Realities

Cities best serve their principal purpose and their residents best when they encourage economic growth. The fundamental objective is to maximize the discretionary income of residents, and this can be done while reasonable environmental standards are maintained. Yet, as Echenique et al and others have shown, smart growth tends to retard economic growth.

In an age of teetering national economies, failing pension funds and the most uncertain fiscal environment in at least 80 years, the world needs cities to be unleashed for the economic growth. Urban policies that ignore economics need to be replaced with holistic approaches strongly focused on the key reason that cities exist: to enrich their citizens.

Wendell Cox ([email protected]) is a visiting professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life. Used with permission from