Sprawl vs. Smart Growth in Atlanta

Atlanta Journal-Constitution deputy editorial page editor Jay Bookman opines on sprawl vs. smart growth in the Atlanta area:

First of all, the free market, left to its own devices, produces dense development, not sprawl. Developers want to put as many units as possible on their property, because that’s how they make the most profit; you don’t see them going to court demanding the right to build fewer homes per acre. Sprawl is possible only through intense government regulation. It is an artificial growth pattern achieved by laws that frustrate the free market’s tendency toward density. The free market, left to its own devices, would never produce five-acre minimum lot sizes, or 2,500-square-foot minimum house sizes, or bans and moratoriums on apartments. The free market, left to its own devices, would produce growth patterns more like “smart-growth” policies.

I’d have to generally agree with the above point. The cental part of Houston is a great example of a city with minimal regulatory restrictions on development currently experiencing a densification as the result of market forces.

In fact, smart-growth alternatives impose fewer restrictions on developers than does sprawl-inducing zoning, and infringe less dramatically on developers’ property rights. Philosophically speaking, it ought to be a conservative’s dream.

While it may be a conservative’s dream to get rid of segregated use zoning and let the market work, I’d have to disagree with the idea that smart growth alternatives – at least as currently put into practice – impose fewer restrictions and infringe less on property rights. Just take a look at smart growth Mecca Portland, OR or any number of other areas for counterexamples.

The claim that critics of sprawl are elitist is equally hard to swallow, given that one of the hallmarks of sprawl is economic segregation. Go to a county commission meeting and you’ll see owners of $500,000 homes on five-acre lots protesting the construction of $250,000, one-acre homes nearby, and owners of $250,000 homes fighting against apartments and town houses. Sprawl is not a rejection of elitism; it is the expression of elitism. It is people using the power of government to protect “us” against the incursion of “them.”

This appears to be conflating “sprawl” with NIMBYism, which is unfair in my book. NIMBYism is homeowners’ self-interest run amok, not an embrace of a sprawling development pattern. And to the extent that smart growth proposals tend to include calls for greater public participation in the development process, one might expect NIMBYs to gain even louder voices under such a scenario.

That is not, however, an argument in favor of trying to eliminate suburban growth patterns or the suburban lifestyle. Such things are ingrained in metro Atlanta, and are a large part of the region’s success. Here in Georgia, only the most zealous of smart-growth advocates want to ban large-lot zoning and other sprawl-inducing mechanisms. Instead, they ask only that zoning laws be relaxed enough to allow smart-growth developments to compete for customers, so that people can be given a real choice. Given the success of smart-growth projects around metro Atlanta, when people are given that choice, they jump at it.

The last bit may be somewhat true; there’s certainly an increasing demand for new urbanist-style developments, and they target a growing market niche. But the statement that preceeds it seems a stretch given the push by smart-growth advocates elsewhere. Just look at Loudoun County, VA, where smart growth advocates pushed through severe large lot zoning restrictions that effectively preclude all but the most minimal development in the western third of the county. One other thing to note: Bookman doesn’t touch on one of the biggest drivers of what is termed “sprawl”: overwhelming consumer preferences for low-density residential living. While I would certainly agree with him that there should be no regulatory obstacles to smart growth developments, we’ll have to agree to disagree on the point that smart growthers feel the same way about low-density suburban development. From what I’ve seen, a majority of smart growthers would love to see low-density development legislated out of existence, at least as far as future development goes.