Smart Growth

H. William Batt

[A report on a conference held in Albany, New York, 1999]

A major conference was held in Albany last week on smart growth, the newest buzzword to counter urban sprawl. Since no one is in favor of dumb growth, it was being called a love fest as early as the first panel session. Rather than address problems substantively, bromides and truisms issued in abundance.

Only one panelist even mentioned, and only in passing, the costs sprawl imposes on society in added infrastructure requirements, greater automobile dependency, loss of community and destruction of nature and farmland. There was no mention, for example, that a byproduct of all the extra driving is highway crashes costing society an astounding 8 percent of our GDP. No mention either that our love affair with cars and suburbs means US highway transportation costs are a full 25 percent of same, resources otherwise available for education, healthcare and other needs. This is double Europe's with the same standard of living and almost triple Japan's. No one mentioned economist Herman Daly's fundamental distinction between growth and development, a difference between quantity and quality. The concept of sustainable economics didn't even come up.

Nor was there any attempt to explain the economic dynamics of sprawl; how, for instance, higher land value in urban cores results because of society's failure to recapture socially-created economic rent from what gains otherwise redound to speculators. No explanation even of what economic rent is! It was as if people should accept, simply as given, that the centripetal forces of development at work in sequential concentric rings of ugly suburbs are inevitable and inexorable. A few planners even put up graphic maps forecasting where the spread would extend by certain dates! Since this was destined, we should plan for it! No one pointed out that sprawl is due also to the fact that drivers pay only 10 percent of the true costs of their highway use, the rest unjustly passed off to society as if it were entirely a public good.

Only one panelist, from the metropolitan New York Regional Planning Association, offered any solutions to curb sprawl at all, and then admitted they were only nostrums. The reason why there was little analysis of the phenomena and even fewer solutions is because the one group that could have shed light on the problem was excluded: those who understand land economics. The program was completely in the hands of planners and lawyers, the very ones most responsible for the problem in the first place. Planners have given us the system of zoning since 1916, which by general consensus and many official reports has been a failure. Lawyers profit by the enormous burden of litigation and negotiation this path necessitates. Both were there now to call again for more planning and more stringent and comprehensive law. There was lots of talk of stakeholders, an interesting metaphor reflecting notions of real property not different from adherents of the wise use movement.

Command-and-control and fiscal mechanisms, the latter were nowhere discussed. This despite increasing scholarly discourse about how pricing methods can foster sound solutions. Yet concepts such as impact fees, site value taxation, value capture, exactions, benefit districts, efficient road pricing were unknown to the presenters, and unrecognized when they were mentioned from the floor.

Love fest indeed! That's not hard to achieve when any who have different approaches to suggest are excluded from the discussion. The sponsors and leaders of this conference are bright, able and committed people. But sadly they failed to shed any new light on the problem; it was a total bust.