The "Smart Growth" Debate Continues
The debate about managing metropolitan growth shows no sign of subsiding. After years of listening to anti-sprawl rhetoric, critics of "smart growth" have passed on the offensive. At a recent Washington conference "Preserving the American Dream" organized by Randal O'Toole of the Oregon-based Thoreau Institute, a diverse group of conservatives and libertarians heard speakers lambast "smart growth" as a doctrine that promotes "dense urban development, restrictions on rural development, ineffective and expensive rail transit, and barriers to auto driving." Conference participants discussed ways of countering the "smart growth" polemic with their own brand of rhetoric, centered on promoting "the American dream" of mobility, affordable housing and protection of property rights. Highlighting the conference was a debate between the well-known "smart growth" critic Wendell Cox and the celebrated architect Andres Duany, founder of New Urbanism. As columnist Neal Peirce observed in reporting on the conference, the debate revealed a wealth of facts and assertions that the smart growth camp would do well to take seriously.
One of the things that Wendell Cox sought to debunk in his conference address was the cult that has grown around Portland, Oregon-a place that smart growth advocates have anointed as a "smart growth city." According to Cox, Portland's land use, automobile usage and suburban densities are no different from those of any other American city. This gave rise to a spirited post-conference debate online.
The exchange began when a leading smart growth advocate rose to rebut Cox's assertion. "The body of evidence on policy and performance," he argued, "sets Portland apart from virtually every peer American city... If Portland is not a smart growth city then who is?" he asked rhetorically.
This prompted one conference participant to retort: "The assertion that Portland is a smart growth city may elicit sympathetic nods from the planning theoreticians but it leaves the average observer entirely unconvinced. Having recently visited Portland and driven around its suburbs, I am in complete agreement with Andres Duany's observation that, once you step out of the downtown, you find yourself surrounded by a typical suburban landscape, indistinguishable from that of any other sprawling city. There is no such thing as 'smart growth cities.' What exists are small pockets of somewhat higher suburban density, such as Kentlands, MD... But Kentlands does not make Washington DC a "smart growth city" - any more than Portland's attractive downtown makes it a smart growth city. The trend toward suburban dispersal and decentralization is universal and "smart growth" on a metropolitan-wide scale is a chimera." (full disclosure: the conference participant in question was your editor)
Another response came from Andres Duany. Replying to the question "if Portland is not a smart growth city who is?" he remarked "Well, here is a contender: Miami-Dade County - Smart Growth from hell....Miami-Dade is by most of the indices as good or better than Portland. It is denser and growing more densely. It is permeated by transportation and transit; and it has enviable social diversity." After citing some statistics on transportation, demographics, and density, Duany went on to say: "Now, what should we conclude? Well, that such statistics don't seem to be enough. Most of Dade-County is still an ugly, rude, dysfunctional, traffic-congested place. ... The reason I point out this phenomenon is that the New Urbanism is close to being dominated by statistics as the primary criteria of judgment. But the New Urbanism is not just about traffic, transit and regional boundaries, all of which amount to nothing if the details at the community scale are not right. What really should count for the New Urbanism is urban design at the neighborhood scale. That is what affects people's daily lives..."
Three cheers for Mr. Duany. Kentlands, MD and Seaside, FL, two exemplary New Urbanist communities, are paragons of livability even though they possess none of the attributes of Smart Growth - they are quintessential upscale suburban bedroom communities with higher than average auto ownership, no transit connections, no urban boundaries and only slightly higher average population density.
There is much to admire in the New Urbanist philosophy. Its emphasis on good urban design makes suburban communities more livable and pleasing to the eye. Its emphasis on a variety of suburban housing choices is commendable.
Mr. Duany complains that the New Urbanism is being dominated by statistics as the primary criterion of judgment. A more accurate observation would be to say that the New Urbanism has been hijacked by Smart Growth advocates who are trying to re-make it in their own image.
Many in the New Urbanist movement, like Andres Duany, are beginning to realize that "smart growth" has nothing to do with improving people's daily lives. Rather, it is an elitist anti-suburban, anti-automobile ideology that, in its single-minded desire to "prevent sprawl" (and make open spaces safe for those who already inhabit them), would deny people the freedom to choose where and how they wish to live, and would deprive young families of an opportunity to share in the American dream of home ownership.
New Urbanists are wise to draw distance between themselves and the anti-sprawl camp. Indeed, listening to the debate between Messrs Cox and Duany, this observer came away with the impression that the New Urbanism shares a great deal with the American Dream coalition. Both movements rebel against an ideology that attempts to prevent people from living the way they choose - which, for a great majority of Americans to the great chagrin of the smart growth ideologues, means living in suburban communities and enjoying the freedom of movement conferred by the automobile.
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