The smart growth myth

Sam Smith – Word is, Mayor de Blasio, that you’re thinking about hiring DC’s planning director Harriet Tregoning to handle your urban planning. Don’t do it.

Tregoning has most recently been deeply involved in trying to raise the height limits in a city that has retained its unique character in part because it has not surrendered its skyline to skyscrapers and countless bland highrises. A recent poll says that nearly two thirds of the city’s residents don’t want the height limits changed, but she’s charging ahead.
Tregoning is part of – and married to a leading figure in – the shrewd developer movement, falsely aka the smart growth movement. One of the favorite words of this movement is walkability which is, primarily a synonym for heavy density of the sort that that deadens communities. The planning approach is also one that favors childless younger people at the expense of families and older residents because they cost a city less. The best urban planning, however, doesn’t pick sides but helps everyone.
Tregoning has used the cover of being pro bike to do developers various favors such as cutting down on the amount of parking space required for their buildings. Smart growth also has a tendency to force public  community spaces such as libraries into developer owned high rises thus redefining once visible community institutions as just more commercial tenants.
Tregoning is part of a long tradition in Washington of planning that favors developers going back a half century, when the first blow was Southwest urban renewal. The project, then the largest in the nation, began in 1954 and five years later 551 acres had been cleared. Some 24,000 people and 800 businesses were kicked out to make way for the program. Sixty percent of the latter never went back into operation. Since then there have been hardly any city urban plans aimed at helping the people and businesses already in a community. The goal is to replace them with something presumed to be better… and richer.
As I once put it:
The problem with urban planners is two fold. First, they work for the wrong people, the government, rather than for the citizens. As local governments have become more corrupt and more beholden to the interests of a small number of developers and other businesses, urban planning has inevitably come to reflect these perverse priorities. Second, urban planners believe in sweeping physical solutions to social problems. 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 approach 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.”
 Sam Smith, 2009- Smart growth 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.

– 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.”

– 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 recent 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  got the city to down zone 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.

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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