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The Dangers of Smart Growth

Mises Daily: Sunday, May 28, 2000 by

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An early photo of Levittown, the first American suburb

One of the major issues for this year's electoral season is "smart growth," which to its advocates is needed to combat current suburban residential patterns. According to the "smart growth" promoters, modern suburbia is a nightmare from hell, with its congested traffic, ugly strip malls, and "cookie cutter" homes.

Such willy-nilly development, they say, not only destroys the American Dream, but also creates pollution, despair, and even violence. It is proof that unplanned private enterprise, if left to its own devices, menaces the very well being of people who originally had fled to suburbia ostensibly to escape what now threatens them.

"Smart growth" advocates, on the other hand, see a utopia on the horizon in which communities will be close knit, people will use public transportation (or bicycles) instead of private automobiles, and population density will increase. Instead of the bourgeois yards (mowed by polluting power mowers), residents will congregate in the numerous "green spaces" provided by the government. Commercial development will be kept at a minimum and large stores like Wal-Mart, along with shopping malls, will either be prohibited or kept far away.

Such are the dreams of modern urban planners. The only problem is that the people they say they are rescuing from "suburban hell" really have no intention of living in these utopian communities. Thus, the planners turn to coercion, but disguise it in the name of "smart growth."

In the days before the automobile, most Americans either lived on farms in rural areas or they lived close to the center of towns and cities. Commuter trains and trolleys in large cities allowed for some people to live in suburban communities, but the growth of modern suburbia did not occur until after World War II, when economic growth exploded and nearly every family owned an automobile.

Numerous "Levittowns" sprang up as middle and upper class Americans fled central cities. At the same time, government was moving in the opposite direction. New Deal legislation created public housing authorities predicated upon the belief that private enterprise would not create "decent and affordable" homes for Americans. Modeled after Marxist housing developments in Europe and the Soviet Union, blocks of government-owned apartments sprang up in large and medium sized cities across the country.

Urban planners, of course, saw these developments as a solution to the needs of poor workers. It was not long before it was obvious that public housing was not a solution, but an even greater problem. A case in point was the infamous Pruitt-Igoe development in St. Louis.

Built in the 1950s, Pruitt-Igoe won architectural awards and the praise of utopians everywhere. However, as the welfare state grew, so did the number of non-working residents and single-parent families. Pruitt-Igoe became synonymous with crime in St. Louis, as the place became nearly unlivable. In 1972, authorities finally dynamited the rodent-infested structures to the ground.

The same government that brought us Pruitt-Igoe and any number of public housing horrors in this country now says that it knows how to make suburbia more inhabitable. Of course, the advent of urban public housing made the suburbs even more desirable both to white and black residents. That anyone even believes government will not botch up the suburbs the way it did the inner city is testament to the power of bad ideas – and powerful interest groups.

Let us look, then, at the new "smart growth" proposals to see if they meet economic muster. At the top of the list is public transportation. We also look at "green spaces" and concentrated housing.

The left has always condemned the private automobile. Most critics say that is because the automobile creates "pollution" through tailpipe emissions, but the real enemy is the personal freedom the car allows. It allows individuals to shop in bulk at supermarkets and other retail stores (carrying home their goods in car trunks instead of holding them on their laps in buses or trolleys), not to mention perform numerous other errands that would not be possible under a strict public transportation regime.

For the most part, individuals have shunned public transportation for the automobile despite the fact that government-subsidized buses, trolleys and trains have been available for decades. There are many reasons for their choices, but suffice it to say that the only way for urban planners to incorporate their transportation "dream" is to coerce people into doing what they would not do otherwise.

Green spaces are modern euphemisms for public parks. Many people enjoy walking, biking, or relaxing in parks, but that does not mean they would give them up for their own yards.

Government-sponsored green spaces also restrict the number of houses that can be constructed in an area, which forces up the prices of existing dwellings. Therefore, in the name of helping people, government drives up housing prices.

These parks are seen as hand in hand development with concentrated housing. Again, most individuals have already demonstrated that they prefer to live elsewhere. It is one thing for people to live in townhouses and apartment buildings voluntarily. It is quite another to restrict the choices of everyone to force them to live in conditions and situations they would not choose otherwise.

Americans today have more housing choices than ever before, thanks to the automobile and modern communications. By its very nature, on the other hand, government acts by restricting individual choice.

That politicians can even appeal to those concerned about their quality of life is a testament to the cunning of the political classes. From Pruitt-Igoe to the morass of rent control and other municipal fiascos, government has made a mess of everything. Even if their schemes are idiotic and harebrained, one must admit that the modern politician has been a master salesman.

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William Anderson teaches economics at North Greenville College. Send him MAIL.