Owen Courreges: Is “Smart Growth” really smart, or just pushy?

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Owen Courreges

“Smart Growth.” Who could oppose that? The very term implies that the other side a advocates some manner of “dumb growth. “ Want to be smart? Join the bandwagon.

For those not familiar with the term, “Smart Growth” implies a mess of land use controls, subsidies and planning schemes that encourage high density urban development and discourage suburban development (referred to derisively as “sprawl“). It has prominently influenced the politics surrounding New Orleans’ master plan, as it has in countless other cities.

Oddly enough, while Smart Growth is largely unassailable in the political sphere, it does not fare well in surveys. The 2011 Community Preference Survey commissioned by the National Association of Realtors revealed a marked preference for low-density living: 52% of respondents favored traditional suburbs, small towns or rural countryside, while only 8% favored central city living.

Likewise, respondents were more likely to want to live “away from it all” than live “at the center of it all.” A whopping 80% preferred single-family detached homes, while only 8% preferred apartments or condos. And they don’t want these homes to be too close together – 61% chose a place where “houses are built far apart on larger lots and where you have to drive,” compared with 37% favoring a place where “houses are built close together on small lots and it is easy to walk.”

Oddly enough, as I write this I find myself in that minority that prefers central city living where it’s easy to walk about the neighborhood and the houses are close together. I also prefer being in the swing of things. The thing is, I really don’t want to make that choice for other people.

Back in 2004, I wrote a piece for the Reason Public Policy Foundation in which I criticized critics of sprawl, arguing that they are resentful of the fact that most Americans’ preferences do not mirror theirs. Hence, I concluded that they were arrogantly attempting to force their view of lie better way of living on those with an entirely different set of preferences.

The response from the pro-Smart Grown denizens of Planetizen (an urban planning website on which my column was published) was predictable. Many commenters noted, not unfairly, that I was ignoring federal subsidies that have promoted suburban development since the 1950’s, particularly federal highway subsidies.

Others were more unhinged. One suggested that the future would resemble the second “Mad Max” film (The Road Warrior) if we didn’t all move into cramped communities to cut down on our consumption of oil.

None of the comments, I felt, truly addressed the issue I was really trying to raise – whether we should become so involved with our own preferences vis-à-vis housing and urban development that we view them as singularly virtuous and campaign to kill alternatives, no matter how demonstrably popular. It’s one thing to support an end to highway subsidies, but quite another to support urban growth boundaries and zoning changes that fundamentally change the face of suburban development (or put an end to it).

New Orleans is certainly no ranger to suburban expansion. At one time, New Orleans was the largest city in the South. Orleans Parish topped off at over 600,000 people.  Now Jefferson , one of our suburban parishes, has a considerably larger population, and St. Tammany is stepping up to the plate.

Pretending that this shift hasn’t occurred isn’t going to improve matters, nor is a misguided effort to push amenities that people don’t want and can’t afford. Instead of strengthening land use controls, we need to start loosening the reins to see what ordinary people will actually spend their hard-earned dollars on. Call me a misguided believer in the free market, but I believe that appropriate development will follow if we abandon the notion that government needs to set hard and fast rules with respect to land use.

The type of development envisioned by Smart Growth may well happen on its own, but we should be letting individuals engaging in voluntary transactions make that determination, not city officials. To do otherwise would be . . . well, dumb.

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.

12 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: Is “Smart Growth” really smart, or just pushy?

  1. The idea that Americans’ stated household preferences simply appeared sui generis is laughable. So is the usage of loaded words like “arrogantly,” “resentful,” and “schemes” without any reasoned examination of the policy choices and subsidies that might have brought any evidence to this faux debate.

    • alli,

      It’s a short column, not an article in a policy journal. I can’t go over every policy detail, but suffice to say the suburban boom started before the 1950’s and Americans’ cultural preferences are not something we should consider infinitely malleable in any event. What really matters is what Americans actually say they want, not what you say they may have wanted but for the way things have played out.

  2. Interesting subject. Because of its rich stock of classic architecture, New Orleans drains off a lot of people who might ordinarily live in suburbs. This city had master builders in the 19th century who named streets after Greek Muses. Out in the burbs today the contractors put up subdivisions with daughter-sounding addresses like Jennifer Court and Brandy Lane, and the McMansions to match.

  3. You know what? There’s a lot of things I’d prefer doing that I don’t get to do because it is financially ruinous. People prefer living in the suburbs because that’s where most people live these days. That’s understandable, based on billions in subsidies sunk into developing and sustaining suburbs, and a popular culture that pretends the alternatives the suburban lifestyle are the slums or the trailer parks.

    That’s why I find studies like that about as insightful as asking five year olds what they want to be when they grow up.

    Then try this: ask anyone who prefers that suburban lifestyle what their main concerns are on a week to week basis, and they’ll tell you “traffic” and “gas prices.” Ask them how many of their neighbors they know, and how far they have to commute to see other members of their family or close friends. Ask those same people how much of their local and state tax dollars were needed to support the infrastructure surrounding their most recent big box retailer.

    Because you know what? It would all be fine if they were just willing to deal with traffic and gas prices and outrageous infrastructure costs as a natural, market-based result of their preferred lifestyle choices. But they don’t. They continue to howl for additional subsidies and government support for their preferred lifestyle.

    That’s the problem. Smart growth is about managing resources more efficiently. The voluntary transactions you’re talking about would absolutely happen as soon as we turn off the money spigot that is required to underwrite the preferred lifestyle.

    • agree 100%

      This is a perfect example of why our country is broke.

      People don’t realize the “total cost” of where they decide to live. Most people you meet who live in St. Tammany now are complaining about the cost of gas for their commute and traffic on 2 lane roads not designed to handle the density they now have. When everyone acts in their own best interest(biggest house/yard for least money!) without considering the costs to the community for the infrastructure needed to support it we end up with sprawl.

      That doesn’t even count the cost of time lost commuting/traffic as well as increased medical costs associated with obesity because in suburbia you can’t even leave your house without getting into a car.

      Smart growth isn’t the American dream but it is much more cost effective for a broke community. Walk to the store, know your neighbors, maybe get rid of the second car? Lose some weight because you are walking more, less total healthcare costs? Luckily if you live in New Orleans you could probably do most of these already, however there are some sacrifices.

      Ideally many more would live in Orleans but to get off street parking, a little bit of a yard to BBQ and +/- a pool is almost impossible for most families. To get the “American Dream” the media sells them you have to move to the burbs, and thus we have sprawl. Do the right thing and don’t buy what they are trying to sell you! Take a walk, meet your neighbors, build your community and invite some over if you BBQ!

  4. Your post illustrates why it is named “Smart Growth” so well!

    You’re spot-on about your assertion about what opposition to normal, common-sense planning, (that has existed for generations) implies!

    Your post os so full of nonsense, factual inaccuracies and absurd panic-driven and fear-based thinking it’s hard to no where to begin to respond to such uninformed nonsense.

    Keep talking – you’re laughable.


  5. Interesting how the website for the National Association of Realtors, reporting on this study, stated:

    “Americans favor walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, with 56 percent of respondents preferring smart growth neighborhoods over neighborhoods that require more driving between home, work and recreation. That’s according to a recent study, the Community Preference Survey, by the National Association of REALTORS®.”



  6. In order to discuss results of a survey, you should show the age breakdown of the respondents in this “Survey commissioned by the National Association of Realtors”. There is absolutely no doubt that many of the respondents of this survey were people in their 40s and 50s. Meaning people who have already purchased homes…and very much stuck in their old ways. If you showed the age breakdown, the numbers would show a starkly different story. People in the age range of 25-35 have proven to consistenly want walkable neighborhoods (not necessarily living in the city…but walkable neighborhoods compared to sprawling suburbs). Additionally renting is on the ride for multi-use apartment buildings. Here is the proof:


  7. @Peter, @Angela, @Jain- Glad you guys posted. I thought I was the only one that noticed these inconsistencies! Apparently, the author is confusing the current land use regulation policy with the free market as well. Jonathan Levine says this is a common mistake in his book Zoned Out.

  8. I have worked as an urban planner in two cities that have urban growth boundaries (UGBs), and the growth boundary does not put an end to suburban development but controls where those developments go. Within the UGB there is a 20 year supply of developable land. The UGBs exist to ensure that the new development is adjacent to the existing development. This reduces the cost to government and society so they do not have to provide infrastructure (roads, utilities, police/fire protection, etc) out to a development that is far away from the existing infrastructure. Because of this failure of the free market, regulation is necessary.

  9. Regardless of how you plan for growth in the suburbs, it’s absolutely essential that we DON’T allow suburban-style development into inner cities like New Orleans.

    The insane width of Claiborne, Carrollton, and Tulane… 60mph traffic on Tchoup… strip malls with large parking lots… none of this belongs in our neighborhoods.

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