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What Are They Afraid Of?

In Smart Growth's Widening Wake, A Stream of Venom
by Keith Schneider

January, 2004--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.''

The media have almost entirely ignored these positive moves in favor of more spectacular but, in the long run, perhaps less important happenings, and the typical American Dreamer remains generally unaware of their existence.

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.

This is a pack of lies.

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, 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, families in Smart Communities have options that mean less money spent on transportation, less time spent in traffic (and away from the kids), and greater flexibility in where they can live and how they travel.

Take another example, such as 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 gone to highways, sewers, water systems, business subsidies, tax incentives, housing, and schools in an unyielding drive to empty cities and build a sprawling 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 (which means more business and more jobs).

These ideas have proved enormously popular at the polls. Even Houston voters this year approved a property tax increase 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. It's what the people want.

Smarth Growth Grows On

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 and genuine communities that draw people together around American values they can truly share.

Why is the Right fighting this?

Keith Schneider, a regular contributor to the New York Times, Detroit Free Press, and Grist Magazine, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. See more articles from the Elm Street Writers Group.