Why smart growth isn’t as smart as it thinks it is

Sam Smith, 2009 – Liberals  hate tweaking things until they work right. That’s why the Department of Housing & Urban Development ended up as a corrupt, ineffective monster. That’s why affirmative action didn’t turn out the way it should have. And that’s why smart growth isn’t going to be what its advocates think.

I work on the Lucille Goodwin principle, laid down for me by public housing activist Goodwin when I was covering the War on Poverty in the 1960s: “Anyone who comes into this neighborhood with nothing but good intentions is going to get their head knocked off.”

Good intentions only get you as far as the bus stop. At some point, even the best notion has to be tested by experience. The reluctance to follow this logic may be related to the number of liberal leaders who were taught intellectual theories in college but never taught how to test them out.

Smart growth is a case in point. It sounds great but there are a number of things wrong with it:

– It disses the very people it is trying to help, disparaging the communities where they bought or rented as being places of “sprawl” and other disparaging characteristics. That’s not a good way to go around helping people.

– It assumes that planners have the right answers and once they offer the right answers, those who oppose them are NIMBYs and worse. The problem is that what smart growth is trying to reform was actually designed by previous generations of planners and liberals. From the 1940s federal housing policies that discriminated against urban dwellers, and blacks in particular, to the first urban renewal disaster approved by the Supreme Court in a decision written by William O. Douglas, liberals have stormed ahead on their planning crusades without listening the people involved.

As I noted in The Great American Political Repair Manual:

“The idea, Richard Sennett has written, goes back to the 1860s design for Paris by Baron Haussmann. Haussmann, Sennett suggests, bequeathed us the notion that we could alter social patterns by changing the physical landscape. This notion was not about urban amenities such as park benches and gas lighting or technological improvements such as indoor plumbing but about what G. K. Chesterton called the huge modern heresy of “altering the human soul to fit its conditions, instead of altering human conditions to fit the human soul.”

“Eventually this idea would produce waves of urban renewal, freeways, convention centers, stadiums, subways, pedestrian malls, aquariums, waterfront developments. and, most recently, proposals for casino and riverboat gambling — all in the name of urban progress and a happier tax base. Few of these schemes would ever come close to realizing the claims made on their behalf. Few were little more than a false front on a city’s declining core and fraying soul.”
– Smart growth advocates continue to emphasize mobility over access. Thus they continue to push the expansion of things like Washington’s Metro, ignoring the subway’s role in creating the very sort of development they don’t like. They praise the virtues of mass transit, but ignore the fact that while the subway largely serves the suburban community, that community has not shifted out its cars much. A much higher percentage of transit users remain in the city who found their bus service deteriorate in order to buck up the poor finances of the subway. In any case, a true smart growth plan would emphasize ways people didn’t have to move around so much.

Planning activist and writer Richard Layman notes that “the average suburban household conducts 15 separate out-of-home trips daily, most by cars, usually peopled by only one occupant. Most suburban households have two cars, a significant number have at least three cars, and the number of cars per suburban household is increasing still. By contrast, the average urban household resident combines tasks and errands into far fewer trips. DC residents have commute times at or under national averages, spend less money on transportation overall, and almost 40% of households do not own cars. DC has a higher rate of walking and bicycle trips than all but a couple other cities nationally.”

– In other words, the capital already reflects important principles of smart growth. But you would never guess it from the way the city government and its smart growth supporters are infilling the place with ugly, soulless condos and office buildings. Says Layman, “This unholy alliance between lefty single-issue advocacy groups and the growth machine has me somewhat taken aback. I understand the smart growth-developer alliance, but why does someone . . . support adoption of a plan that, in practice, is more likely to provide discount luxury condos to law students than decent Section 8 housing for poor people . . . Sometimes I think that the non-profit world is so insular and that they face such obstacles that they can be very easily bought/manipulated. . .

“The growth machine is smart enough and well-funded enough to be able to use people concerned with ‘social justice’ and ‘smart growth’ and ‘the environment.’ Seemingly responding to their concerns ($50 for a block party, or a new computer for a local school helps too) out of a shared sense of social ‘justice,’ the growth machine yields a lot of value. . .

– The smart growth folks justify caving to the developers because they think that they are increasing density in a sound, and ecological fashion. But are they really?

A new draft Washington comprehensive plan includes some statistics hidden deep in its tables that deeply undermine such a conclusion, not only for Washington but anywhere the smart growth movement is trying to shove more ten story boxes into a community. The figures below are for three parts of DC: wealthy and white far northwest (NW), black and poorer Far NE and SE (NESE) and ethnically mixed Capitol Hill (CPH).

Percent black

NW – 6%
CPH – 57%
NESE – 96%

Persons per square mile

NW – 6,900
CPH – 17,800
NESE – 9,300

50+ unit housing as percent of total

NW – 42%
CPH – 4%
NESE – 5%

One unit row housing

NW – 11%
CPH – 54%
NESE – 27%

2-4 unit housing

NW – 3%
CPH – 20%
NESE – 15%

Now look at these figures and ask the following questions:

Which neighborhood is most integrated?

Which neighborhood has the most dense population?

Which neighborhood has the smallest percent of high rise structures?

And for extra points: which neighborhood recently got the city to downzone a major proposed redevelopment, is fighting several others and has been a leader in taking on city hall?. Which neighborhood has kept looking the way it does because it is filled with reactionaries who believe that good communities are worth more than big buildings?

The answer is Capitol Hill, where I lived in the 1960s and now do again.

And what great city planner is responsible for this remarkable achievement in smart growth?

Well, part of the credit can go to a guy named Pierre L’Enfant back in the 1700s but most of it goes to the blessing of having been largely completed as an unplanned community for everything from dairymen to shipyard workers before the advent of modern city planning.

Even the comprehensive plan admits this:

“In many respects, Capitol Hill is a ‘city within the city.’ . . . Its neighborhoods are united by history, architectural tradition and relatively consistent urban form, including a system of grid and diagonal streets that has remained faithful to the 1791 L’Enfant Plan for Washington. Much of the community has the feel of a small historic town, with block upon block of attractive late 19th century and early 20th century row houses, well maintained public spaces, historic schoolhouses and corner stores, rear yard alleys, and traditional neighborhood shopping districts. . .

“As an older urban neighborhood, there continue to be small neighborhood commercial uses such as dry cleaners, beauty salons, and corner stores across the Planning Area. Capitol Hill is also home to Eastern Market, a lively and historic public market where independent vendors sell fresh meats, vegetables, flowers, and other goods to customers from across the city.

“The Capitol Hill area has an excellent transportation network, making auto ownership an option rather than a necessity for many households. The scale and topography of the neighborhood, as well as wide sidewalks and street trees, create ideal conditions for walking. . .

“Much of the community’s distinctive character is protected as a National Register historic district; in fact, Capitol Hill is the largest residential historic district in the city and includes some 8,000 structures mostly dating from 1850 to 1915. The historic district includes 19th century manor houses, Federal townhouses, small frame dwellings, Italianate row houses, and pressed brick row houses, often with whimsical decorative elements. Many of the row houses have rentable English basement units, contributing to neighborhood diversity and affordability. . .”

You couldn’t ask for a much better definition of smart growth – mostly built by 1915 and on the historic register to boot. Essential to this has been the row housing and accessory apartments (including some in alleys). And preserving them.

There is much to be learned from places like Capitol Hill which is a neighborhood I once described as not one you moved to, but which you joined. The smart growth crowd, however, would rather cave in to the planners and the developers than learn from the smart growth of the past.

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