“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.