Smart Growth and Environmentalism’s Growing Pains

Observers of the environmental movement have surely noticed a great deal of soul searching of late as it struggles with growing pains; the early, euphoric successes of the movement in the 1970’s are solidly in the rear view mirror as the movement struggles to stay afloat amid waning public interest, a more skeptical political environment, and the challenge of remaining relevant in a context in which the low-hanging fruit of environmental policy has already been plucked. An interesting perspective on this soul searching comes via the Pacific News Service, in which California community activist Orson Aguilar opines on the divide between the environmental movement and those interested in urban socio-economic issues, such as affordable housing and local/community-scale economic development. In “Why I Am Not an Environmentalist,” he writes:

For communities like mine, environmentalism has seemed to be about preserving places most of us will never see. Even when environmentalism has focused on problems that affect urban communities, such as air pollution or lead poisoning, it has pointedly avoided addressing my community’s desperate need for economic development. Environmentalists do not talk about the importance of a living wage or affordable housing because, we are told, those are not environmental problems. Foundations feed this problem by failing to recognize minorities and urban city residents as prominent stakeholders in the environmental arena. While many leaders of the environmental movement have a deep and abiding interest in social and economic equity, that concern is largely absent from their work because it is “not their job.” The same mistake is made by every other progressive movement, including the civil rights movement. We have become trapped in narrow categorical definitions of ourselves instead of developing a comprehensive understanding of what values we stand for.

For those of us that follow the issue of smart growth with a critical eye, tensions like this have been obvious for some time. To a certain extent, the movement has been trying to maintain the veneer of being a big tent in which advocates of many progressive issues can come together to advance a win-win solution. But underneath this veneer lurks a bundle of fundamental contradictions. For instance, on the surface, urban growth boundaries are a favorite policy tool adored by smart growthers, as they aim to focus development within existing communities and urbanized areas while preserving nearby green space. But if you step back and assess the idea critically, the contradictions jump out immediately: limiting land available for new housing results in higher housing prices within the UGB, pricing more and more at the lower income scale out of the area. This then pushes growth further out to more distant areas, which effectively perpetuates the “sprawl” and traffic congestion that smart growth is intended to cure (see here for a discussion about how this is playing out in the D.C. metro area). In effect, the “cure” is worsening the “disease.” So while smart growth is supposed to be all about balancing man, economy, and nature, there really is no balance once you look past the rhetorical flourishes to the actual, real-world policy implications. And that’s why Aguilar’s piece is particularly relevant…because it refocuses the discussion back to finding a true balance between economy and environment. And this opens the door to innovative market-oriented urban and environmental policy solutions better suited to successfully achieving that delicate balancing act.