Cheat-Seeking Missles

Sunday, December 10, 2006

What's So Smart About Smart Growth?

A lot of my clients are building new communities in urban areas and they'r'e very nice -- but I've never bought into the whole smart growth concept.

Not that I don't like the product. A-Town, near Anaheim Stadium, is a place I could live. I told Incredible Wife I'd love a two-story condo on the thrid and fourth floor of a mid-rise, our office on the second floor, and a Starbucks on the first floor. She said "nice," and we bought two acres in the country.

It's the philosophy behind smart growth I hate. That philosopy is simple: "we are smarter than you, so we'll tell you how to live." OCRegister ediotrial writer Steve Greenhut picks up on the theme today:

I'm always dumbfounded when ideologies take firm root among everyone who is anyone, even when those ideologies fly in the face of everything we see around us. During the Soviet era, it was self-evident to most average folks that freer societies were more prosperous, more affirming of human dignity and altogether better places than totalitarian regimes, yet a good bit of elite opinion preferred the promises of left-wing utopias to the everyday reality of the democratic West.

These days, I am a bit bewildered by the degree to which another ideology – granted, one far less noxious than communism – has taken root in America, even though it so obviously stands athwart everything we see all around us. Who you gonna believe, your own eyes or the grandiose statements of ideologues? Well, many Americans, especially those in positions of power, are choosing the ideologues.

I'm referring to the ideology of Smart Growth and New Urbanism.
Greenhut grew up in the crowded row homes of Philadelphia. He finds the suburbs he lives in now to have less crime, better schools, cleaner air and freer-flowing traffic. Plus he knows his neighbors. When he lived downtown, his neighbors scared him.

There is a lot of political power and will behind Smart Growth. Its supporters in government are happy to create no-growth zones around cities and forcing people to live downtown. The problem is, when you stifle the free market, the market bites back. Greenhut again:

Fortunately, there's plenty of evidence to debunk this nonsense. I highly recommend "War on the Dream," by Wendell Cox, an Illinois-based consultant who writes and speaks extensively about transportation and housing. Those who believe that this fracas over urban planning is some ivory-tower debate with little or no real-world consequence need to keep Cox's words in mind: "The principal purpose of this book is to highlight the serious consequences of currently popular land-use policies. The urban planning community is implementing – and proposes to expand – strategies that are already seriously eroding housing affordability and intensifying traffic congestion. This could result in substantial economic reverses, because homeownership is so central to the creation of middle-income wealth and because traffic congestion reduces productivity."

As Cox points out, the restrictive land-use policies advocated by Smart Growthers and New Urbanists result in a dramatic loss of housing affordability. Those cities with the most restrictive rules have the highest housing prices, whereas those with fewer rules have relatively lower prices. Those of us who own homes have enjoyed watching prices, and our equity, soar in California. But the effect is devastating on people trying to get onto the economic ladder. It's always been ironic to me that the so-called spokesmen for the poor and minorities often advocate the most meddlesome government restrictions that make it nearly impossible for lower-income people to buy homes, start businesses and build wealth.

Here's a general rule of thumb for not just smart growth but all smart ideas: If a bunch of academics and etherials gather together and say they know better th an you do about how you should live, there's nothing smart about it.

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