Is Smart Growth the Way to Better Cities?

Anthony Flint of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy wrote a Boston Globe op-ed explaining that cities are well placed to become increasingly important centers of population and commerce. This is due in part to the ongoing pattern of national urbanization and in part to the Obama administration’s emphasis on the importance of cities and sustainable development.

20071018-garden_city_detailSmart growth, a policy championed by some people within the environmentalist and urbanist movements, advocates goals such as improving public transportation, protecting the environment, creating affordable housing, and supporting economic development. These goals are hard to find fault with, but the question remains whether federal policy is an appropriate place to be promoting a specific type of urban development.

Flint cites Jane Jacobs as an important thinker in shaping the contemporary ideal of urban living with vibrant mixed-use development that invites pedestrian use. While this sort of development fits in with some “smart growth” objectives, Jacobs emphasized that land use needed to be determined using local knowledge rather than top down mandates. She fought these mandates at the municipal level, and one can only imagine how she would react to development direction from the newly created Office of Urban Affairs.

Flint writes:

Metropolitan regions are poised to benefit from a New Deal-like infusion of investment over the next year, as Congress considers reauthorization of federal transportation spending, with more of an emphasis on transit over highways, as well as climate legislation that rewards sustainable urbanism and smart growth. Cities, after all – places of density and transit and a mix of uses – are the greenest form of human settlement we can aspire to.

This rhetoric makes federal cash injections to urban areas sound risk-free, but looking to history shows us that federal transportation support can create systemic problems. Highway spending fueled the current epidemic of urban sprawl, an unforeseen consequence of New Deal policies. Ex ante, spending on public transit sounds like the antidote to this problem, but maybe we simply cannot foresee the problems that it could create.

In a similar vein, Flint suggests that policy can be designed to promote the economic diversity that Jacobs saw as essential to healthy cities:

There are strategies to ensure economic diversity, such as inclusionary zoning and community land trusts, which remove the cost of land from home ownership. But we need to embrace density, which increases supply to meet the great demand for living in cities, in the places where it’s appropriate and desirable.

Again, it is easy to explain hypothetical, ideal zoning practices, and to imagine flawless outcomes, but the idea such policy would come out precisely as theorists imagine is reflective of nirvana fallacy. When zoning came into practice in the early 20th century, it was touted as a way to protect citizens from living near the dangers of industrial land uses. However, zoning has an ugly history of being abused by policy makers and community activists to oppress groups of residents based on income or race.  A blogger at Discovering Urbanism describes “The Origins of Zoning” and the practice’s unpleasant history here.

In short, policy makers can easily verbalize how their imagined programs could be an improvement upon development realities, but unfortunately history demonstrates that government action often takes urbanities further away from their imagined ideal.  There is no reason to believe that policies in vogue today will have greater success, even if they are championed as “smart growth.”