Study Finds Smart Growth Policies Are Ineffective, Unpopular

Published October 31, 2014

Supporters of the use of government regulations to guide “green” development argue that zoning laws and other mandates are effective tools in driving economic growth towards preferred outcomes. Despite the economic and political arguments levied against such experiments in social engineering, the question of just how frequently such regulations are actually enacted remains largely unanswered.

Another important question surrounding government-directed developmental planning is the determination of how cities actually seek to achieve such goals. Supporters of zoning deregulation claim that “smart growth” policies are intended to increase population density through coercion, while green policy advocates point to the claimed benefits of tightly-packed housing zones, such as the encouragement of urban artisanal business districts or revitalized urban historic neighborhoods.

This month, University of California-Irvine Department of Economics doctoral candidate Kristoffer Jackson and Touro College’s Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center Associate Professor Michael Lewyn released a working paper, intending to find the answers to these questions.

Jackson and Lewyn sought to determine whether cities’ efforts at directing and managing population growth had the intended effects, or if such green efforts fail to achieve their stated policy goals.

Examining the zoning regulations of 24 “medium-sized” cities across the nation, Jackson and Lewyn focused on three types of urban planning regulations: parking, population density, and “green building” regulations.

In general, American cities’ attempts at regulating development focus on enforcing artificial restrictions on the number of parking spaces and green building codes, while population density regulations are relatively rare.

Maximum parking requirements — such as those enacted in Austin, Boston, Jacksonville, or Seattle — have the stated goal of encouraging pedestrian traffic and driving customers to visit small businesses with storefronts along the sidewalk, but may actually cause discourage customers’ patronage, in favor of “suburbs with more permissive parking regulations.” 

Additionally, international studies have shown that businesses do consider parking regulations when making decisions. In 2006, University of Leeds transportation professor Greg Marsden studied London’s transportation and development policies, concluding that 36 percent of surveyed business cited either parking conditions for staff or customers as a “key influence” in siting decisions.

While supporters of green social engineering point to the potential benefits of minimum-density policies, Jackson and Lewyn’s study notes the negative side-effects of these initiatives. While “smart growth” engineering “might” help reduce traffic jams and population, the negative effects may also “deter development,” as “an overly restrictive minimum density development” in area would prompt “developers to build in sprawling suburbs.”

Of particular note, however, is the study’s suggestion that strongly enforced smart-growth policies, such as the “urban growth boundaries” in Portland, Oregon, have much less impact on population density than one may suspect.

These types of artificial density-forcing policies, intended to limit the evolution of suburban areas, have instead merely slowed residents’ migration from close-quarters urban areas to more roomy suburban areas; despite Portland’s policies, the Oregon city has only 4,490 people per square mile, or less than one-fourth of San Francisco’s density.

One of the most commonly enacted smart-growth policies, according to the study, is “green building” ordinances, requiring developers’ projects to meet certain standards of energy efficiency, such as the United States Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. While only four studied cities explicitly require new projects to meet the non-profit organization’s recommendation, municipal governments often “nudge” the private sector into enacting suggested policy goals by giving favorable regulatory treatment to compliant projects.

Such government interference does not come without cost, though. Some estimates suggest that LEED compliance inflates developers’ construction costs by between 4 and 11 percent, potentially creating an economic situation in which new urban development is more expensive than development in suburbs without such additional costs.

Concluding their analysis of the application and outcomes of American “smart growth” policies, Jackson and Lewyn describe the dilemma faced by governments as a trade-off between ineffectiveness and outright discouragement of business activity.

“If regulations are only slightly more restrictive than what an unregulated market might produce, they may not do very much good,” the scholars warn. “But if regulations are significantly more restrictive, they may encourage development to shift to less environmentally sensitive municipalities.” 

Jesse Hathaway ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.

Internet Info:

“How Often Do Cities Mandate Smart Growth or Green Building,” Michael Lewyn, Mercatus Center: