A little more ‘smart growth’ might smart a lot

Balconies_in_TorontoEver notice how often obnoxious ideas are given innocuous names? The Affordable Care Act, it turns out, doesn’t promote affordability or care. “Global warming” suddenly became “climate change” when the world’s thermometers inconveniently stopped cooperating with the alarmist meme. And “smart growth” simply puts a smiley-face adjective where the frowny-face “controlled growth” would be more accurate.

That’s not to say that all smart-growth measures are bad. Salt Lake City has adopted several initiatives embraced by smart-growth adherents that make the city more business-friendly and livable. But most of these measures have had more to do with incentivizing investment than in controlling behaviors. That will change, though, as the smart-growth housing agenda moves forward.

People, according to smart-growth dogma, should take up less room and spend less time in their cars. That means corralling and stacking them near their jobs, their (public, of course) transportation, and their recreation. This sounds wonderful if you’re inclined by nature or nurture to be an urban apartment dweller; but unfortunately most people aren’t inclined that way.

Most people want to have room for privacy, to avoid urban noise, crime and – all too often – failing schools, and to raise their families in a traditional neighborhood environment. That means an affordable single family dwelling and a yard; and most people are willing to accept the tradeoff of a commute to achieve that American dream, or at least would like to have that choice available.

Smart growth’s explicit goal, on the other hand, is to remove that choice in the name of sustainability and reduced carbon emissions. But it falls far short in even those goals, while often trampling on property rights and personal preferences while making cities ever more dependent on outside subsidies and grants.

Smart growth, by design, limits and channels allowable land uses to funnel people into high-density clusters through a combination of land use restrictions (i.e., regulatory takings) and taxpayer-funded subsidies. The alleged goal has evolved from sustainability, a term that means pretty much whatever you want it to, to carbon reduction. Fine and dandy. But it’s not free, and as we do with virtually every choice in our lives, we should be ready to consider the costs of smart growth along with its benefits.

So what are the benefits? Well, according to a recent Cato study by Randal O’Toole, the record isn’t real good from a cost/benefit perspective. San Francisco, for example, spent nearly $20 billion in housing and rail subsidies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by less than 2 percent, not even a pixel on a blip in the national, much less global, emissions picture.

In another example from my previous life in Montana, we found that buying riders their own SUVs would be cheaper for taxpayers and cleaner for the environment than continuing the heavily subsidized bus systems in four cities.

But there is an economic impact. Cities with the highest property prices in the country are also those that most restrict housing development in accordance with smart-growth tenets, pushing the middle class to outlying areas while the smug and wealthy environmentally conscious bask in their forward-looking policies that harm others at little cost to themselves.

There are cheap and effective ways to preserve people’s lifestyle choices and property rights while reducing our environmental impacts, as both of the above-linked studies demonstrate. The difference is that these policies involve removing obstacles to innovation and entrepreneurship and preserving choices and rights rather than imposing ever more centrally planned controls.

I don’t doubt for a minute that most smart-growth advocates and Obamacare advocates and all those other central planning acolytes are motivated by a desire to do good. But as C.S. Lewis said, “This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”

Truly sustainable and effective efforts that honestly look at both costs and benefits invariably result in giving people choices, not taking them away. But that doesn’t require planners or telling people what to do. Where’s the fun in that?

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