The Human Face of Smart Growth Opposition

Concerns of smart growth skeptics given more weight

Smart growth still dominates public discussions of urban growth and development, but a few recent articles indicate that the concerns of smart growth opponents are being given more weight.

A recent USA Today article describes the growing backlash against anti-sprawl efforts nationwide. It warns that building moratoria and heavy-handed growth management policies are leading to reduced housing affordability in many parts of the nation. Of course, economists have long understood that limits on land use and housing only serve to increase housing demand, resulting in higher home prices and reduced affordability.

Fortunately, the media is starting to grasp this as well. Unfortunately, it takes hard luck stories of everyday people who are increasingly unable to find affordable housing near their places of work to bring this issue to the public’s attention.

Another article in Insight magazine examines African-American farmers in Richland County, South Carolina who are concerned that the county’s smart growth plan, which prevents the development of much of the county’s farm and forest land in the interest of curbing urban sprawl, poses a major threat to their property rights and economic prosperity.

Many families in this area are descendants of slaves and sharecroppers who faced tremendous obstacles to acquire their land decades ago. Now they face a new obstacle in politicians, planners, and environmentalists who, in the name of growth management, are effectively trying to prevent them from realizing the economic potential of their land. Interestingly, the current debate in South Carolina has pitted traditional political allies against each other, with the state chapter of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH coalition and the local NAACP chapter on the landowners’ side and the Sierra Club and other smart growthers on the other.

Richland County farmer Joe Neal summarizes the issue succinctly: “What little land we now have represents wealth and potential wealth— When you take that from us, when you take wealth and potential wealth from these people, then you’ve robbed them of everything that they’ve slaved and labored for all those years, which is the promise that somewhere down the road, this property might produce wealth.”

From listening to smart growth advocates, one could easily gather the impression that people opposed to smart growth are “pro sprawl,” right-wing ideologues, anti-environmentalists, or have vested interests in the home building, real estate, auto, or road building industries. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

For example, Joe Neal, the farmer quoted above, hardly fits the stereotype of the anti-smart growth crusader. He is an African-American Baptist minister, a Democratic state representative and chairman of South Carolina’s Legislative Black Caucus. His outspoken defense of private property rights and rejection of smart growth may seem incongruous with the traditional views of his party, but the issue of smart growth has never broken cleanly along partisan lines.

In fact, skeptics of smart growth share many of the same concerns that its advocates have about future growth and development – traffic congestion, environmental degradation, reduced housing affordability, outdated planning codes that prevent innovative developments, to name a few. The difference is that the smart growth skeptics are not willing to buy into a “grand” solution to these challenges.

And why shouldn’t they be skeptical? After nearly a century of urban planning, the latest solution to the planning mistakes of the past and challenges of today is-you guessed it…more planning. The last major urban planning fad – the nationwide urban renewal efforts of the post-WWII era – was sold with the promise of dramatically reinvigorating cities and improving urban life, but the actual result was the wholesale destruction of vibrant urban neighborhoods and the large-scale stifling of inner city economic opportunity. It is not unreasonable to be wary of the latest planning fad, especially when so much is at stake for our families and communities.

Both of these articles help to illustrate that smart growth is not the universal win-win its proponents make it out to be. But perhaps more importantly, the articles put a human face on the opposition to smart growth policies that, while certainly well-intentioned, can have very real, unintended consequences on peoples’ lives and livelihoods.


Haya El Nasser, “Anti-sprawl fervor meets backlash,” USA Today, August 25, 2002.

John Berlau, “‘Smart-Growth’ Plan Riles Black Farmers,” Insight on the News, August 26, 2002.

Leonard Gilroy is a senior fellow in urban and land use policy at the Reason Foundation