The wise call it "smart growth" no more

by: John G. Lankford

July 6, 2003

It's been all the rage, "smart growth", attracting endorsements from land use planners, global warming fretters, green countryside yearners, even home builders' associations - and surreptitious federal funding to coalesce said consensus.

And why not? It corresponds wonderfully with the United Nations global land use plan, Agenda 21, a purported global mandate largely founded on the principle that land is a special form of property too important to be entrusted to private control and free market exchange any more.

But second looks have revealed "smart growth" is no more sensible than any other rage. Like most grand plans, it not only won't work but is demonstrably counterproductive to its own stated objectives.

Stated simply, the object of "smart growth" is to reformulate construction permit policy so that suburban and ex-urban growth are curtailed, few people live outside urban areas, and many people live in them. Detractors have called the idea "hive cities" and "rural cleansing."

Why do this when, just a few decades ago, the land use planning vogue was aimed at getting people out of overly dense, congested central cities, into satellite municipalities and/or the countryside? We bought all those farms and built all those roads. Even before the Internet, we hailed models whereby people could work from home or small local offices and rarely commute downtown.

It may be because another generation of land use planners came along, and neither academic nor professional distinction is reaped by confirming that predecessors were absolutely right: innovation garners the accolades.

Or it may be because of nefarious neo-feudalistic schemes to herd the hoi polloi into metropolitan pens where they can be monitored and directed for their own good.

That is what conspiracy theorists say, and investigation reveals it is hard to prove them absolutely wrong. There is no doubt that when people live closer together, they must submit to tighter regimentation to avoid collisions of various sorts, and people so conditioned come to consider the arrangement natural. A herded populace is a complaisant, somewhat fatalistic populace, resigned to a plethora of imperatives and prohibitions and incessant proctoring to maintain the effectiveness of same.

And so it is proposed that by steadily nudging humans into concentration cities, many benefits will be realized. We will have true neighborhoods again, racially and ethnically heterogeneous ones this time. Most of the things we need will be within walking or bicycling distance, and high population concentration will enable public transportation. Private automobile ownership and operation will be optional rather than practically mandatory. The consumption of energy for building, operating, maintaining and repairing those vehicles will be diminished, and therefore the air and water will be cleaner and the landscape less disturbed. And at long last, dwelling builders/marketers, planning and permitting and other bureaucrats and environmentalists will join hands and exclaim how sweet it is.

One wonders why the same 1978 United Nations Habitat manifesto condemning private control of land could also decry "Uncontrolled urbanization and consequent conditions of overcrowding, pollution, deterioration and psychological tensions in metropolitan regions." Perhaps controlled, propertyless people in suitable concentration cities will be happier - by order of their knowbetters..

The problem is that this scheme to pack in the people and save the environment won't work, for a reason known since people started building cities, perhaps as early as eight thousand years ago: Cities get hot. Now climatologists call them "heat islands," relative hot spots in regions of comparatively lower temperatures.

Los Angeles is illustrative. Once it was a desert. Then humans moved in and planted lots of fruit and other trees and supplied irrigation, and summertime maximum temperatures dropped. But as concrete and asphalt replaced such installations, high temperatures began setting records and have not stopped yet.

Skipping eons of urban architecture, we can simply take note that modern urban jungles are accommodated - many who have never summered in a sweltering city of yore would say enabled - by air conditioning.

Your air conditioner is the biggest energy eater in your habitat. When large urban monoliths and surrounding pavement absorb heat, air conditioners kick in. Each pumps heat out of its building into the open, where it raises ambient temperatures and affects other air conditioners, which fight back. In doing so, each air conditioner's motor and compressor pump also generate heat in addition to that which the machine is transferring. A naturally radiant urban oven becomes an electrically powered convection model, each cell of Hive City struggling to pass its swelter on to all the others. This consumes energy, of course, exacerbating all the environmental ills associated with electrical power generation.

Human dispersion achieves heat dissipation. It can do so by the employment of trees. They absorb heat and shade the ground and possibly one's habitat. Said dwelling can even be built to benefit from the cool air sink surrounding it by way of updraft convection, as exemplifed by Thomas Jefferson's cupola-topped Monticello. Once-popular large, shaded porches more modestly performed the same function.

Trees that grow tall enough to shade houses extract a ton of carbon, in the form of carbon dioxide, from the air in their first forty years of growth. Air conditioners are still permissible, but tree-assisted ones are not as heavily tasked as those in urban ovens. Urban monoliths, which, to be of much use to self-styled smart growers, would have to be taller and more massive than trees can shade, or, if more conventional in construction, more densely packed thanwould allow them to accommodate trees safely.

In any case, unlike hovel towers or jam-packed houses, trees appear actually to help one another. In a desert far from Los Angeles, Israeli scientists have found trees may operate even more efficiently when greenhouse gas concentrations are elevated, retaining more moisture and thus conditioning the terrain to support trees when it ordinarily would not.

Contentions that continued population dispersion/heat dissipation with private property ownership and the cultural habit of liberty that goes with the latter comes at too high an energy cost due to motor vehicle operation have encountered empirical refutation. In a study titled, "How 'Smart Growth' Intensifies Traffic Congestion and Air Pollution," the Independence Institute's Wendell Cox has demonstrated that in areas of higher population concentration, automobiles still abound even in the presence of public transportation, and, within the urban areas, end up stopping and crawling more, operating less efficiently, wasting fuel.

That is hardly the picture presented by the more-wilderness-avid Sierra Club. In an article titled "Sierra Club Exposes 'Smart Growth' Madness," Randal O'Toole shows the envisioned population concentrations are ones Americans would never voluntarily accept.

As quoted in an October, 1999 article by Glenn Spencer, North Miami Beach Mayor Jeffrey Mishcon, among other municipal leaders, agrees, seeing "smart growth" in any form as raising population density to intolerable levels.

An organization called the Carrying Capacity Netwrk urges that no growth can be smart growth, that the United States has already run out of room. But Cox has pointed out that the urbanized area of the United States amounts to no more than 2.6 percent of its landmass - a proportion greatly exceeded in many other countries that seem to get by.

In March of this year, neutral observer Neal Peirce recommended "smart growth" proponents temper their desire for compulsion and attempt persuasion instead. He might have pointed out that every few years, from city to city, a vogue for urban living and old-property renovation emerges, creating market bubbles in the unlikeliest of neighborhoods and delighting tax-base-eyeing municipal politiians until poor constituents begin to scream "gentrification" and the enthusiasts, wearying of inner-city woes, recede. That probably marks the limit of voluntary acceptability. .

As Henry Lamb recounted this very Independence Day weekend, environmental zealots are little inclined to heed Peirce's advice. To their minds, those who will not accept "smart growth" and "rural cleansing" willingly deserve being forced to do so by other means.


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