Smart-growth takes hits

Published January 1, 2002

Since the September 11 attack on the densest part of America (when counting job density), numerous commentators have pointed out the idea of density suddenly doesn’t seem so attractive. Smart-growth advocates have come up with rather lame responses to this.

University of Pennsylvania urban planner Mark Alan Hughes, for example, says terrorism proves we should live in high-density cities so we can be close to hospitals when terrorists attack. That is hardly reassuring–especially if the roads between you and the hospitals are gridlocked.

Smart growth bad for salmon

Aside from terrorism worries, smart growth has suffered blows from other quarters. In the Northwest, for example, it turns out smart growth is incompatible with saving salmon.

According to National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) biologists, protecting fish requires that no more than 10 percent of new developments should be “impermeable,” i.e., covered with pavement or buildings. Implementing this rule, admits NFMS officials, will require “sprawl.”

This calls into question Oregon’s strict smart-growth rules. “In most areas,” says NFMS biologist Spencer Hovcamp, Oregon land-use policies “have little likelihood of success” in helping to recover salmon.

In response, Mike Burton, the director of Metro (Portland’s regional planning agency and a leading smart-growth supporter), says state agencies and the legislature need to “take a second look at Oregon’s land-use policies.” This comment has the effect of deflecting any blame for harming salmon habitat to someone other than Metro.

Suburbs attracting minorities

Meanwhile, the idea that low-density suburbs unjustly concentrate poor people and minorities in the cities is being blown away by 2000 Census results. In the Portland area, for example, the Census has shown that “growing numbers of Latino, African American, and Asian families bought homes in scattered Portland and suburban neighborhoods during the 1990s, increasing racial and ethnic diversity throughout the region.”

From 1990 to 2000, the share of the region’s African Americans concentrated in Northeast Portland (the area people called “the ghetto” in the 1960s) fell from 60 to 48 percent–which means the rest moved to the suburbs or other Portland neighborhoods. The number of African-American families who owned their own homes grew by 27 percent. Hispanics and other minorities are also dispersing. I am sure similar numbers can be found for other urban areas.

Portland planning “is in trouble”

A recent draft report from a Portland State University professor says, “The urban transportation planning process in Portland is in trouble.” The report, A Critique of the Urban Transportation Planning Process: The Performance of Portland’s 2000 Regional Transportation Plan, is by Professor Kenneth Dueker of the Urban Studies and Planning Department.

According to Dueker, Portland’s Metro predicts transit’s share of regional travel will double over the next 20 years. Many other metropolitan planning organizations are projecting a decline in transit’s share, and the average projection for similar-sized urban areas is just a 14 percent increase. “No other city comes close” to Metro’s estimate, which Dueker considers to be “wishfully optimistic or unrealistic.”

Dueker observes Metro plans to make capital investments in transit equal to $1.18 per projected transit trip, while investments in highways will equal only $0.05 per auto trip. The result, Metro projects, will be “a 560 percent increase in congested hours in the PM peak period.” This plan is “unsustainable,” says Dueker, because “people will not tolerate” that level of congestion.

Portland “planners have a faith in new urbanism that is blind to what reasonable forecasts tell them.” Dueker predicts Metro’s plan will lead to “backlashes,” including “opposition to upzoning proposals, the flight of families seeking the space they need and can afford, and ballot initiatives to finance and build roads.”

Congestion leads to more roads

Is Dueker’s prediction accurate? We can get an idea from another growing region that decided to stop building roads in order to discourage growth.

Years ago, Santa Cruz County, California, decided not to expand the four-lane Highway 1. The policy didn’t do much to curtail traffic: In the past decade, highway traffic grew by nearly 40 percent. The result was “agonizing stop-and-go conditions” that overflowed into neighborhoods, sometimes “trapping residents in their homes for hours at a time.”

In response to pressure from a variety of sources, the county commission recently voted 8 to 2 to expand the highway by two lanes. Among the supporters of expansion was the county’s transit district, which is enthused the new lanes will be bus-and-carpool lanes.


Smart growth is still the dominant political force in many states and metropolitan areas. But the cracks in the movement’s facade are growing wider.

Smart-growth advocates express concern about congestion and housing affordability. But as more people realize the real effects of smart growth are to increase congestion to discourage driving, and increase housing costs to discourage low-density development, support for the movement will eventually fade away.

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