Smart growth vs. stupid growth

A lot of libertarian types regularly ridicule efforts by local governments to control or at least manage their rate and means of growth. Virginia Postrel and the Chronicle’s Jim Barlow are among those who’ve made their cases against “smart growth”. They like to frame the debate as inner-city rail-loving townhome dwellers versus SUV-driving suburbanites. Here’s Postrel:

Harried commuters just want fewer traffic jams. But anti-sprawl technocrats have something more grandiose in mind. They want everyone to live the way I do: in an urban townhouse off a busy street, with no yard but plenty of shops and restaurants within walking distance. Their “smart growth” planning means confining family life to crowded cities so that the countryside can be left open for wildlife, recreation and a few farmers. They crave “density,” which they believe is more efficient and more interesting.

Well, for what it’s worth, Virginia, I live in a house with a yard on a fairly sedate street. There are a few restaurants and shops within walking distance, but I have no plans to give up my car. But that’s not the argument I want to get into right now.

Jim Barlow takes on the same strawman:

For smart-growth supporters, the enemy is the suburb. It’s urban sprawl. Sprawl should go, replaced by more people living in the inner city in multifamily dwellings and putting severe limits on driving.

Here’s the thing, though. Smart growth isn’t just about the inner city versus the suburb. Nor is it just about people who advocate denser population and mass transit. It’s about people who want to live the way they’ve always lived, and who want their children to have the option of living that way. It’s also about the problem of how to preserve a scarce resource that no one owns.

Comal County is a rural part of the state, in between San Antonio and Austin on I-35. Its population has boomed lately, more than doubling to over 78,000 since 1980. It has had to contend with critical water issues as well as a fundamental change in their way of life.

This story in the Sunday Chron does a good job covering how Comal County has tried to manage its growth. What it comes down to is simply this: Letting the market be the sole determinant of how and where communities grow leaves the current residents the choice of accepting what the developers do or moving out. I’d prefer a Third Way, thanks very much.

The other problem, of course, is that the market doesn’t know or care about the big picture. Developers like Perry Homes in Houston are infamous for cramming townhomes and McMansions on ever-smaller lots on side streets. They are not made to be responsible for things like whether or not the street can handle the additional traffic and parking, or whether or not there will be any drainage issues now that there’s more concrete and less green space to handle runoff. It’s not part of their profit-and-loss considerations unless zoning laws make them take it into account.

Similarly, out in the Texas Hill Country, there’s the issue of the Edwards Aquifer. There’s a finite amount of water in Central Texas, and population growth is outstripping the Aquifer’s ability to provide. If you’re a developer in an unfettered free market, it’s rational and profit-maximizing to build as much as you can in the Aquifer area. The question of when the area gets sufficiently overpaved to cause a critical water shortage is not your concern. Would regulation limiting development in this area push up the cost of housing there and make it less appealing to those who would like to live there? Yes, and that’s exactly the point. Overdeveloping that area would impose a cost on everyone. It makes sense to impose the brunt of that cost to those on the outside who want in. Maybe that’s not fair to those who weren’t born there or who weren’t smart enough to move in back when environmental issues were less of a concern. Tough luck.

And finally, as these suburban Houston residents have learned, having no real controls on development may result in your next neighbor being a nasty concrete batch plant. After all, if it makes sense to build houses out where the land is cheap and easy, it makes sense to build industrial plants out there, too. There’s a great irony when a Republican housewife has to turn to a zealous free-marketeer Congressman like John Culberson for help in a battle like this, but I daresay it was lost on both of them.

So when I say I favor smart growth, it’s for a very simple reason. We’ve had stupid growth for a long time now, and it’s caused nothing but trouble. Could we at least try something different?

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One Response to Smart growth vs. stupid growth

  1. alicia says:

    i’d prefer a third way, too. thank you.

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