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In Smart Growth’s Widening Wake, A Stream of Venom

Movement to draw people together seen as threat by critics

November 26, 2003 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Kelly Thayer

Across the country, light rail lines are expanding and new ones are under construction as an alternative to driving. Passengers are rediscovering the Smart Growth utility in safe, economical, and convenient public transit.

Given the tide of worrisome events in Iraq, the unpredictable economy, and even the unfathomable preoccupation with the owner of the Neverland Ranch it’s understandable that America hasn’t yet grasped one of the rare and singularly inspiring cultural trends of our time. Smart Growth has become a broadly popular and truly bipartisan national movement to strengthen economic development and make America a better place.

In Massachusetts pro-business Republican conservative Governor Mitt Romney named a prominent environmentalist to be his chief of development and in September approved a $479 million South Shore commuter rail project to serve Boston. In Michigan, centrist Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm has embraced rebuilding cities, curbing sprawl in the countryside, and conserving natural resources as central elements of her economic development strategy. In the Deep South, Republican Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina last summer signed a neighborhood school bill, which rescinds school acreage requirements and will speed the construction of new schools in existing neighborhoods.

The new law, said Mr. Sanford, ''makes sense from a learning standpoint, an economic standpoint, and it makes sense if you want to have schools that are part of a community's fabric as opposed to part of its sprawl.''

Attack from the Right
Don’t, however, include development interests and libertarians among those who’ve failed to note Smart Growth’s rising influence. The coast to coast work to help communities become cleaner, greener, safer, and more economically competitive is now seen by important sectors of the American right as one of the central threats to the conservative political base. And they’re firing back with rhetorical bazookas.

Business interests, led by state home builder associations, claim that Smart Growth weakens property rights, limits choices about where people can live, will kill off the auto industry, and make it harder for developers and road builders to earn a living.

The right wing’s libertarian think tanks also are weighing in, arguing that Smart Growth invites more big government, is akin to Romanian style centralized planning, is a disgrace to the principle of free markets that is limiting choices for consumers, is causing home prices to rise to unaffordable levels, and will end the American dream not only of home ownership, but also liberty and freedom.

A Critique Without Facts
Let’s just say right here that not a single facet of the right’s critique — not one — is based in fact. Take housing, for instance. By calling for communities to build a mix of housing choices in closer proximity to transit, schools, jobs, shopping and recreation, Smart Growth is providing consumers more choices that can lower their family expenses. Instead of being marooned in distant and costly subdivisions and dependent on a fleet of expensive vehicles to move around on ever more congested highways, Smart Growth gives families options that mean less money spent on transportation, less time spent in traffic, and greater flexibility in where they can live and how they travel.

Take another example, like the libertarian view that Smart Growth is an attack on the free market. Again, there’s not a shred of truth to the claim. Urban sprawl is, arguably, the purest expression of government interference in the free market that America ever produced. Over the past two generations trillions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on highways, sewers, water systems, business subsidies, tax incentives, housing, and schools in an unyielding drive to empty cities and build a spread out and increasingly uncivilized civilization.

Sprawl could not exist without such a penetrating distortion of the free market. Yet die hard free market libertarians who loathe government spending are among the most earnest defenders of the big government spending programs for roads and sewers that support sprawl.

Say What? Libertarians Want More Government Spending?
Why are libertarians and home builders united in opposing Smart Growth? They say it’s about protecting American values. Nonsense. It’s about money; specifically the river of taxpayer cash that has flowed for decades out of Washington and state capitols to spread new development ever farther from city centers.

Libertarians say such taxpayer largesse lies at the heart of the American dream, which they define as a home in the suburbs and three cars in the garage. Development interests are just plain determined to keep the government money flowing to the business parks, subdivisions, shopping centers, and strip malls they have planned for the growth zones at the metropolitan edge.

The national Smart Growth movement has sturdily worked its way up from the grassroots to convince state lawmakers to begin guiding taxpayer-financed inducements to growth inward toward cities instead of outward to natural areas. The change in public investment direction is yielding new community initiatives such as housing people can afford, schools that kids can walk to, transit lines that are safe and convenient, and parks, new streets, real neighborhoods and more thriving downtowns.

These ideas have proved enormously popular at the polls. Even Houston voters this year approved a $645 million bond to expand a new light rail line in order to give people an alternative to the region’s congested roads. In Michigan, voters in liberal Ann Arbor approved a property tax increase to conserve 8,000 acres of farmland around the city. Voters in conservative Grand Rapids approved by a two-to-one margin a property tax increase to strengthen that region’s public transit system. Nationwide, some 80 percent of the Smart Growth ideas on the ballot in November were approved, most by wide margins.

Piece by piece and place by place, Smart Growth advocates in and out of government are gradually slowing the engines of sprawl and producing prosperous places that draw people together around American values they can truly share.

Keith Schneider, a journalist, columnist, and editor is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, one of the nation’s largest state-based Smart Growth organizations. For more commentary by members of the Elm Street Writers Group see the Institute’s Web site at www.mlui.org. Reach Keith at keith@mlui.org.

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