'Smart Growth' Not Logical Choice

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

(CNSNews.com) - While most Americans say the quality of their lives is better than ever, they cite "urban sprawl" as the source of most of society's problems and "smart growth" as the sensible solution.

That belief has spawned a host of local and state initiatives and been popularized by Vice President Al Gore, who proposes to make urban sprawl a federal issue, according to a new study by the Cato Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.

In "Critiquing Sprawl's Critics," authors Peter Gordon and Harry W. Richardson, professors at the University of Southern California's School of Policy, Planning and Development, said many Americans see "urban sprawl" as the source of most of society's problems.

Some environmentalists have linked sprawl to a host of social ills, including city decline, increasing housing costs, long commutes, environmental problems, loss of farmland and psychological disorientation.

"The charge that urban sprawl fosters inequality, unemployment, and economic blight is disproven by the fact that lack of human capital, not workplace inaccessibility, is the main cause of poverty," the authors state.

"Moreover, smart-growth plans exacerbate the problem of workplace inaccessibility by increasing housing costs for the poor, making it difficult for them to locate near areas that are growing economically," they argue.

More than half of the nation's governors recently have raised sprawl-related issues, including traffic congestion. Gore, the Democrats' likely nominee for the presidency, has taken it on the presidential campaign trail, where he seems to have stark differences with the GOP frontrunner, Texas Gov. George Bush.

Bush has he favors local control over what type of growth he region prefers. Gore on the other hand blames "urban sprawl" for numerous social ills, including environmental and has said the federal government should help states regulate it.

This reaction to massive construction wrought by the sustained economic boom of the 1990s is looking like it could become a primary issue in local and national elections in 2000.

"'Sprawl' is a meaningless word and virtually every assertion made about it is wrong," said John Charles, director of environmental planning with the Cascade Institute in Portland, Ore., in an interview with CNSNews.com. "That's why there are a lot of publications coming out about it now."

First, planners should define the issue they want to talk about. If they want to talk about the causes of congestion and the cures, they will find it has nothing to do with sprawl, Charles said.

"You can talk about crime, and congestion and commuting and all these things, but you have to un-bundle them from this meaningless word 'sprawl' or 'smart growth' and focus on what it is you really are concerned with," he said.

The government regulation of development "is silly and it springs fundamentally from the wrong impression that we're running out of land and there's a need to compress people in crowded cities," Charles said.

"You have a lot of people in the environmental movement with money and time on their hands looking for something to do, and growth is a perfect all-purpose, amorphous moving target. People latch onto it, it's emotional, there's all kinds of phrases that don't mean anything, smart growth, sprawl, livability," Charles said.

Smart growth has become the broad term used to describe growth management techniques that attempt to address environmental concerns and ensure that the impact of growth enhances a community, its economic base and the environment.

Noting that developers are gobbling up "farmland" at twice the rate of the 1980s, Gore has said he favors smart growth initiatives and other proposals that would provide a significant increase in federal funds to help state and local governments to conserve farmland.

The regulation of growth is also having an adverse effect on prices. First-time buyers face a potential decline in the availability of affordable housing. According to one estimate, 80,000 Portland homes became unaffordable between 1995 and 1997 due to dramatic housing-price appreciation. This rise resulted from the setting of urban growth boundaries aimed at limiting suburban development.