“Smart growth” is a concept that I have long derided. Reduced to its essence, smart growth is an ideology borne of a single idea (that the rise of the suburbs is somehow evil), and dedicated to forcing people to live in dense cities. Their boogeyman is sprawl, which they condemn endlessly.
Oversimplified? A bit, sure, but then the rhetoric and policy proposals from smart growth advocates strike me as simplistic and single-minded.
Thus, it should come as little surprise that I was not among the approximately 800 people who attended the eighth annual Louisiana Smart Growth Summit held last week in Baton Rouge. I wasn’t there to discuss unrealistic plans for regional passenger rail, or to hear Councilwoman Palmer drone on about streetcar expansions and “Complete Streets” when half our streets are barely possible.
There was, however, at least one interesting voice. Andres Duany, a planner who helped create “Plan Baton Rouge” for planning the redevelopment of downtown Baton Rouge, gave a keynote address in which he pitched what he has dubbed “lean urbanism,” a form of “New Urbanism” that emphasizes cutting red tape, cutting bureaucracy, and making laws clearer and more accessible.
Duany’s position tends not to be shared by smart growth advocates, who more often favor heavy-handed zoning and other measures that invoke the police power to force density.
In the past, Duany has also addressed an issue very dear to my heart, what I have called the “neighborhood veto” whereby neighborhood organizations are effectively given control over development decisions, particularly with respect to non-residential uses. In 2003, during a debate with conservative planning consultant Wendell Cox, Duany observed that when a new development is proposed, “neighbors who are in fact affected can basically pack the room, and actually prevent something which is again the common good.”
Duany then recounted a discussion with a man from Perth, Austrailia. Duany noted that there was a newer beach club for nonresidents, and wondered aloud: “How’d you do this? Don’t you have a democracy here?”
“Yes,” the Perthian responded, “but we don’t confuse a democracy with the immediate neighbors.”
Duany proceeded to explain how Perth went through a process not unlike jury selection to select a group of citizens for public discussion. In this way, Perth ensured a wider scope of viewpoints and interests were represented. “[T]he basic principle is,” Duany explained, “the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.”
I personally wouldn’t favor the system described by Duany, but it’s far better than what we have now in New Orleans. Now, if a neighborhood group says “jump,” a council member responds “how high?” Uptown is victim to some of the worst of this. Councilwoman Guidry has become downright notorious among business owners for her deference to neighborhood organizations.
This wouldn’t be so much of a problem were it not for the fact that neighborhood groups are not democratic, but the result of self-selection. The type of individual who engages with a neighborhood group is far more likely to want to control development decisions. Live-and-let-live types won’t invest their time discussing new businesses and new developments, while busybodies won’t shut up about them.
In practice, this is where a great deal of the red tape comes from that holds back growth and renewal. All the talk of preserving neighborhoods and fostering a vibrant urban environment goes out the window the moment anybody actually wants to do something.
I don’t agree with everything Duany says. Like most planners, he can be a bit of a slave to trends; for example, his statement at the conference that Baton Rouge needs young people with a “nose for cool” was downright cringeworthy. You don’t need to make assumptions about the type of commerce a city will attract to justify making a city more attractive to entrepreneurs.
However, Duany is absolutely correct that we need to cut the bureaucracy and red tape, and put the power back in the hands of those who are actually trying to start a business or develop a property. We don’t need more government-backed mega-developments so much as we need a groundswell of smaller players with the ability to make things happen.
That’s the way forward for cities like New Orleans. That’s a type of “smart growth” actually worthy of the name.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.