Research & Commentary: Smart Growth Update

Published August 30, 2013

“Smart growth” refers to a city planning philosophy intended to reduce administrative costs, increase population density, decrease urban sprawl, reduce pollution, and similar goals. The theory was developed in the early 1990s and quickly became popular in municipal development circles. Since then, smart growth has been implemented partially by private developers but mostly via municipal, state, and federal regulation of existing cities.

Today, smart growth advocates are pushing for it to be implemented throughout the country, and they are blaming current urban problems on pre-smart growth planning philosophies. Maryland’s governor issued an order for PlanMaryland in 2011, which will broadly apply smart growth policies to the entire state. The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) claims many of Chicago’s problems stem from the city’s lack of adherence to smart growth principles. They advocate tearing down and reconstructing specific areas along smart growth principles.

Proponents of smart growth argue traditional city design creates inefficiencies that harm the environment, increase transportation time, and raise costs of living. Instead of allowing cities to sprawl into suburbs, smart growth municipalities concentrate populations along public transportation nodes with a mixture of development types (commercial, residential, etc.). Proponents claim this encourages residents to walk rather than drive, thus reducing pollution and creating a more close-knit urban community while cutting government administration costs.

Opponents of government smart growth policies note that they have consistently failed to live up to expectations: the cities tend to have higher per-capita administration costs and increases in crime, and they fail to reach their environmental goals as higher population density increases traffic congestion and thus causes more pollution. In addition, population concentration and discouragement of automobile traffic in favor of public transportation frustrate consumer preferences for open space and transportation freedom.

Free market advocates recognize smart growth as a euphemism for central planning. Instead of allowing market forces and consumer preferences to determine cities’ layout, smart growth advocates assume that the government can run people’s lives better. Smart growth concepts have some merit, but they should be implemented by private developers at their own expense, not by government regulators at taxpayer expense.

The following documents provide additional information about smart growth policies and their effects.

The Smart Growth Scam
Paul Cleveland and Nathan Hart challenge smart growth from a free market perspective. They attack the theoretical basis of smart growth principles, arguing that they completely disconnect planning principles from consumer preference. The authors also examine empirical data points that demonstrate the failure of smart growth municipalities across the country. Smart growth cities tend to create more pollution, more traffic, and higher costs than other cities.

Portland: Smart Growth’s Bad Example
Writing for the National Center for Policy Analysis, Randal O’Toole offers Portland as a case study of a failed smart growth project, especially in terms of reducing pollution and traffic congestion. The Portland city government spent tens of millions of dollars implementing smart growth changes, including building speed bumps and reducing traffic lanes. These changes caused more traffic and more pollution instead of more walking. Worse yet, smart-growth-based housing developments produced extremely expensive and chronically vacant houses in the middle of the city, despite their supposedly optimal positioning beside public transit nodes.

A Critique of Smart Growth
Urban developer Doug Bolter critiques smart growth from the perspective of one who has some sympathies with the philosophy. He argues smart growth policies can be effective in encouraging middle-class residents to move into blighted neighborhoods. However, when applied to already-functioning environments, smart growth frustrates consumer preferences and drives away residents through higher prices, especially for real estate.

Research and Commentary: The Failures of Smart Growth
Heartland Institute Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Glans examines the effect of smart growth on American cities. He relates critiques of smart growth made by Heartland Senior Fellow Wendell Cox, such as that suburban growth does not generally come from declining city centers as smart growth advocates suggest, smart growth reduces homeownership, and urban population density doesn’t increase the amount of walking. The Research & Commentary document includes links to several documents about smart growth.

Median House Size in the U.S. Hits Record High
Wendell Cox of The Heartland Institute documents the declining size of houses in the United States. Cox argues that the trend is not a result of natural market forces but of smart growth strategies which squeeze more homes into smaller spaces. Smart growth advocates claim such policies make urban living easier and more efficient, but in reality it destroys diversity of home size, thereby causing an increase in housing prices and, by extension, a demand for smaller, cheaper homes. “Smart growthers” fail to see the unintended consequences of their central planning, Cox observes.

Maryland’s “Smart Growth” Order Meets Strong Local Dissent
Journalist Cheryl K. Chumley reports on the 2011 PlanMaryland initiative, which broadly reorganizes the entire state according to smart growth principles. Advocates claim the plan will save the state money, preserve land, and simplify administration. However, it is encountering much resistance from residents and lawmakers who see it as a central planning initiative which gives the state too much control. Local lawmakers are especially upset because the plan removes authority from localities and gives it to the state government.


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