Innovation Briefs
Celebrating our 19th Year  of Publication
Abstracts Cumulative Index Subscribe From the Editor About Us Home  

From The Editor

The Backlash Against "Smart Growth"
(Innovation Briefs, Vol. 14, No. 6, November/December 2003)

The debate about "smart growth" shows no sign of subsiding. Increasingly, however, the Smart Growth forces - long basking in uncritical acclaim - find themselves on the defensive. In Loudoun County, Virginia - the second fastest growing county in the nation - opponents have filed more than 200 lawsuits to overturn tough growth control measures enacted in the late nineties to control sprawl. In New Jersey, builders and developers are mounting a series of legal challenges against the policies of Governor James McGreevey to promote "smart growth." In Colorado, local communities, eager to spur development and increase local tax base, are turning away from previously adopted growth restrictions. In California, the state has shelved legislation designed to shape California's future growth through financial rewards to cities that adopted the "smart growth" vision. Elsewhere, advocates for affordable housing and pro-growth forces are challenging "smart growth" initiatives in South and North Carolina, Michigan, Oregon, and Utah. These are just some of the overt signs of what many see as a growing backlash against anti-sprawl measures enacted in the 1990s - measures which were meant to slow down suburban growth but whose outcome has come to be seen as exclusionary and elitist. Increasingly, the "smart growth" movement is defending itself against accusations that its real motivation in urging denser infill development is to shelter wealthy suburbanites from further urbanization and shift the burden of growth to the city; and that its main consequence has been to raise suburban housing prices, maximize developer profits and deprive low income households and minorities of an opportunity to pursue the American dream of home ownership.


The strict growth controls enacted by Loudoun County supervisors in January 2003 were meant to curb some of the rampant suburban expansion that took place throughout the Northern Virginia county during the 1990s, transforming rural landscapes, necessitating costly school construction and overwhelming the county's road network. But many critics say the supervisors, elected in 1999 on promises to stop sprawl, have overreacted. The new zoning limits development to just one house per 10 acres in most areas and imposes impact fees that make it economically impractical for builders to construct anything but expensive tract mansions. "Smart growth" policies Loudoun County style, charge critics, are nothing more than exclusionary policies masquerading as "open space conservation." They do not prevent sprawl - they just spread it over a larger area. Exurban counties surrounding Washington DC, which a decade ago were primarily dairy farms and agricultural fields, are now dotted with mini-mansions on 10-acre lots. In the meantime, construction of affordable housing on the urban periphery has slowed down to a trickle and in many areas has come to a complete standstill.

Faced with accusations of exclusionary practices and with pressures to provide affordable housing, many communities are relaxing previously adopted anti-sprawl policies. But "smart growth" forces are not about to surrender to populist pressures. Instead, they are going to ridiculous extremes to demonize sprawl by blaming it for all sorts of contemporary problems such as traffic congestion, last years's drought and disappearance of neighborliness. Their latest offensive is to blame suburban sprawl for America's growing obesity epidemic. A report, Measuring the Health Effects of Sprawl , released by Smart Growth America and the Surface Transportation Policy project, purports to demonstrate that people living in low density suburbs walk less and therefore tend to be overweight. "If these results hold up," claimed the report's author, Reid Ewing, "then building more compact communities will become a public health imperative." But critics tend to dismiss these claims as laughable. "This is another attempt by the report's sponsors to spin research showing only trivial weight differences between city and suburban residents into a national crisis requiring land use restrictions," said the Heritage Foundation's Ronald D. Utt. "It sets a new record for political spin [by] manipulating the inconsequential to feign significance," echoed Wendell Cox, a well-known debunker of "smart growth." Other critics point out that obesity is associated more with poor diet than with geography, as witnessed by the fact that the highest incidence of obesity is found among minority residents of inner cities rather than among fitness-conscious suburbanites.

"Smart growth" critics are not beyond exploiting popular public concerns. Cox argues that the recent power blackout in the Eastern United States and Canada is just one more reason to reject smart growth and its advocacy of rail transit and high density. He contends that, unlike downtown New York or Toronto where thousands of commuters were stranded when elevators and rail transit stopped working, car-reliant residents of suburban communities were only mildly inconvenienced by the power outages. In a recent commentary, Cox called the smart growth forces an "anti-opportunity" movement that would "force housing prices up and deprive millions of households of home ownership." His arguments do not go unheeded. "If sprawl allows more people to own homes, keeps housing prices down for middle- and lower-income buyers, and lowers transportation costs and time spent in traffic, why are we against it?" a Montgomery Journal (MD) editorial asked recently.

The perception of elitism is another point on which the "smart growth" forces are vulnerable. "The Smart Growth movement struggles mightily to overcome the suspicion that it is an effort by urban aesthetes and environmentalists to impose their lifestyle choices on the majority who generally prefer a suburban lifestyle," notes Matthew J. Kiefer, a planning critic generally friendly to growth management, in a recent article in the Harvard Design Magazine ("Suburbia and Its Discontents: Notes from the Sprawl Debate," Fall 2003/Winter 2004).

Finally, as architect Roger K. Lewis notes in a recent Washington Post article (October 4, 2003, p. F3), a commonly held view is that "the real motive for proposing higher density is money." These sentiments, he writes, are voiced repeatedly by citizens attending public hearings to fight proposals for denser forms of development. How do you persuade skeptical homeowners, he asks plaintively, that developers who "cram houses one on top of the other" are not primarily driven by greed or that local officials who approve these projects are not mainly motivated by a desire to augment local tax revenue?

In the end, the verbal skirmishes fought over "smart growth" are of little practical consequence, for the "smart growth" movement has no power to reshape America's urban landscape in any significant way. The demographic and economic forces driving metropolitan expansion are too powerful to be reined in or influenced by a planning ideology. As the noted urban analyst, Anthony Downs, points out, the biggest factor influencing future land use decisions is the nation's need to accommodate a 23 percent gain in population by 2020 - a projected increase of some 64 million people ("What Does "Smart Growth" Really Mean?", Planning Magazine, March 2003). It is hard to conceive that this population bulge could be fitted into existing built-up areas where neighborhood opposition to increasing density through infill development already is fierce. Thus, absent some cataclysmic energy crisis, continued dispersal of urban population and economic activity seems inevitable.

The "smart growth" movement is likely to go down in history as yet another planning ideology that has foundered for lack of a realistic understanding of demographics, market forces and consumer preferences.



10200 Riverwood Drive, Potomac, MD 20854-1536
tel: 301.299.1996; Fax: 301.299.4425; e-mail: [email protected]