Harry Potter and the Future of Smart Growth

What does the movie says about American living standards?

I was more than a little embarrassed. Owls were desperately trying to deliver Harry Potter’s acceptance letter to Hogwart’s School of Wizardry and Witchcraft, and I was thinking about-urban sprawl!

Harry’s mean-spirited and middle-class adopted family, the Dursley’s, live at number four Privet Drive. The Dursley’s, however, don’t live in the heart of London, or in a middle-class urban neighborhood. Nope, they live in decidedly suburban England, in a townhouse attached to four or five other homes of the same style. Their cluster is buffered by a few trees in the background, and separated from the next cluster by small amounts of grass.

If Harry and the Dursley’s lived in the United States, they would certainly have their own house and a yard to boot. They would also have a garage, probably attached to the house.

What explains the difference? Economics and public policy.

While just 5 percent of the total surface area of the United States is developed, more than a third of England contains homes, offices, roads, and factories. In addition, England has had greenbelts and the equivalent of urban-growth boundaries for decades, funneling rising housing demand into an inflexible, narrow band of land officially designated as “urban.” As a result, land for housing is more expensive, and families of all income levels can afford less of it.

Nevertheless, many Smart Growth advocates believe urban America should forget about the single-family home with a yard that has long been the “American Dream” and embrace tract townhouses, stacked side-by-side.

In fact, the Dursley lifestyle is the kind of urban environment that politicos in Portland, Oregon are implementing. Portland has been hailed as the model of regional land-use planning. But housing prices in the city skyrocketed during the 1990s as housing demand surged beyond the ability of the construction industry to build new homes, pushing thousands of households beyond the thresholds of affordability. Apartments, condominiums, and townhouses surged to almost half of all permits issued by mid-decade, while the total number of new housing fell 21.4 percent between 1994 and 2000. Average lot sizes for new homes plummeted to less than 7,000 square feet.

Survey after survey finds that Americans consistently prefer living in their own homes with yards and not in townhouses. Even in Portland, the size of the lot has as much an impact on the home price as access to a large park and other forms of open space. Multifamily and attached housing is only the preferred option for other families. And even then, only as long as the townhouses aren’t built in their back yards.

This is why Smart Growth has such a tough row to hoe here in the United States. After visiting London and Paris, the countless benefits of living in the U.S. became clear to me. Among other things, I had more housing choice-in style and quality-and could afford a much higher quality of life on a modest income than my colleagues in Europe. I also had more peace and quiet, a luxury provided by a yard and trees that respectfully separated me from my neighbors.

Housing innovation is clearly crucial to increasing the quality of life for all Americans, but who determines housing quality may be more important than what planning boards, architects, planners, and even builders think. Successful Smart Growth strategies will need to build on the principle that consumers and future homeowners are in the drivers seat, not politics or politically imposed ideas of urban design.

If Smart Growth continues to embrace the Dursley lifestyle as its model for human habitation, it will result in less housing choice and a lower quality of life for the vast majority of American households.

Americans don’t want to live like the Dursley’s, we dream of owning single-family homes with yards and a little space to call our own.

Samuel Staley is director of urban and land use policy at Reason Foundation and co-editor of the book “Smarter Growth: Market-Based Strategies for Land-Use Planning in the 21st Century.”