The Vast, Right-wing Sprawl Conspiracy?

Smart growthers misunderstand free-market approach

Leading critics of “Smart Growth” and advocates of market-oriented planning recently held a conference in Washington D.C. to share their views on growth-related issues and to discuss ways to convey their message more effectively. Not surprisingly, some Smart Growth advocates took a dim view of this conference, reflected in the articles below:

The above articles reflect the fondness of some ardent Smart Growthers to disparage dissenters and to paint the free market vision of land development as an aspiration to the status quo; they mockingly refer to free marketers as the “sprawl lobby.” But this is purely a diversionary tactic used to polarize and dumb down the debate.

As in most public policy matters, the reality of the debate is far more complex and nuanced. For example, one author mentioned (in the same sentence) the desire of free marketers to “end zoning” and to “ensure that sprawl survives.” It is certainly true that most free marketers want to replace traditional segregated-use zoning codes (which separate residential and commercial land uses, for example) with more flexible codes designed to encourage mixed land uses and innovative development design. However, it is ironic that the author fails to mention that this is a goal also shared by many in the Smart Growth movement. The author also fails to see the obvious contradiction in their statement; if one was truly interested in ensuring that sprawl “survives,” then they would certainly want to preserve the type of archaic zoning that created it in the first place.

Smart Growth skeptics are also often painted as enemies of public transit. It is certainly true that the free marketers (along with taxpayer advocates and others interested in good government) often take a skeptical view of some public transit projects, particularly investments in new light rail systems. This is largely the result of a past history of enormous sums of public money spent on new rail projects nationwide, despite flat or declining transit ridership. Rachel DiCarlo’s recent piece in the Weekly Standard provides an excellent overview of this issue.

But free marketers recognize that rail transit makes sense in some dense urban areas (like New York City) and little sense in others. They are also concerned that many communities are making enormous investments in rail transit when other forms of public transport (such as bus rapid transit) would be cheaper for taxpayers, flexible enough to adapt to community change, and potentially more attractive and accessible to riders located away from rail stops and stations.

Yet, despite the many disagreements on both sides of the Smart Growth issue, there is actually a great deal of common ground between the two. As mentioned above, both sides are interested in scrapping outdated development codes. Both sides believe that the costs of infrastructure to serve new development should be borne by new residents, rather than being subsidized by existing residents. Both sides share concerns about the need for affordable housing and the preservation of critical habitat and sensitive open spaces. Both sides are interested in removing obstacles to inner city redevelopment and revitalization.

The common ground between the seemingly disparate groups was also evident at the American Dream conference, as noted in the following article:

  • Debate between Wendell Cox and Andrés Duany,” by Laurence Aurbach, Assistant Editor, The Town Paper.

    This article offers a transcript of the exchange between researcher and Smart Growth skeptic Wendell Cox and prominent New Urbanist guru Andres Duany at the conference. In stark contrast to the one-sided responses from Smart Growthers presented above, this exchange clearly shows that there is much opportunity for mutual understanding and agreement between the two camps.

What Smart Growth advocates need to recognize is that the free market vision of the American Dream is grounded in the issues of mobility, consumer choice, and opportunity for homeownership (hardly an “extreme” agenda), along with a genuine concern for the challenges posed by traffic congestion, unaffordable housing, and restrictions on private property rights. Free marketers do not buy into “Smart Growth” simply because they have legitimate concerns about the potential for such policies to increase traffic congestion, make housing less affordable, and place unreasonable limitations on what ordinary citizens may do with their properties.

Instead of smearing opponents and belittling their concerns, perhaps Smart Growth advocates should try to acknowledge the shortcomings of their approach, engage in dialogue with skeptics, and build on mutual areas of agreement with the free market community. True believers on all sides need to come to the table, as the American public deserves an honest and balanced discussion of this important policy issue.

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