Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Otis White is W'ong

Otis White, who writes the Urban Notebook column for Governing Magazine, is a buddy of mine, a fine writer and a savvy guy. So it pains me some to have to blast him for an item in his April 3 posting, but blast I must.
The piece begins thusly:
Bring Down the Cost of Housing
The Task Ahead for Smart Growth

It's hard to be against smart growth. It's like being against marriage or an orderly society. Its purpose is laudable: to bring more rational, sustainable and benign development to our metropolitan areas. And some of the best minds in urban America are laboring in smart growth efforts. There's just one problem: It isn't working.

"Some of the best minds in urban America are laboring in smart growth efforts ... "

These best minds, whether they are in urban America or somewhere else, are not laboring in "smart growth efforts". They are applying their thinking in a comprehensive, systematic way to addressing the challenges our country faces in this continued tidal wave of urbanization. (Otis's use of the phrase "urban America" is itself instructive. It is fascinating to me that most pundits, to say nothing of ordinary citizens, still fail to recognize that this is an urban country, and growing more so at an astonishing pace.)

"There's just one problem: It isn't working."

To begin to understand what an absurd pronouncement this is, you first need to know what people usually mean by smart growth. The label is admittedly presumptuous (I cannot take personal credit it for it), but few people would disagree with the ideas to which it refers. To boil it down, it means involving citizens in planning ahead for growth, and adhering to a few key principles: To steer development toward land designated by local communities as appropriate for new growth; to steer development away from designated natural and cultural areas, agricultural lands and environmentally sensitive zones; and to ensure that development makes efficient use of land and the roads, sewers, schools and other infrastructure we all pay for. Along the way, try to design your neighborhoods so that they are walkable, distinguishable one from another, and where people can function without burning a gallon of gas every time they move.

If I thought for a second that this vision had become the dominant mode of growth in our country I would be compelled to agree with Otis. There is no denying that most metro areas in this country are doing the opposite: They're chewing up natural areas and viable farmland at a fearsome rate and abandoning our country's built heritage, all to create interchangeable, throwaway landscapes dominated by terrifying highways and vast scabs of parking. Yes, there are some bright spots, including a growing number of communities that are going to great lengths to bring investment back to cities and older suburbs, and to make them walkable, livable and lovable again. But before a whole heckuva lot more metro areas are applying smart-growth ideas on something like a systematic basis, we can hardly pronounce the whole idea of planning and designing great places a failure.

"The most recent census numbers bear out the failure: Even as our inner cities revive, people continue streaming out of cities and close-in suburbs and settling in communities so far away it almost defies the notion of regions."

There are so many shibboleths and blind alleys in this little graph it's hard to know where to parry first. Let's first note that mid-decade census estimates are notoriously off the mark, so it's best not to make hard-and-fast conclusions based on these. In any event, what is Otis saying here -- are inner cities reviving or collapsing? If they are reviving, maybe it's because smart growth is a success, rather than a failure (although I would say instead that many communities are successfully applying smart growth ideas, not that smart growth per se is doing anything; it's just a way of thinking, after all.) And are people streaming out, or streaming in? In truth, people are streaming in all directions. The country's population is growing as fast as it ever has, and the relocation from countryside to city is continuing unabated.

But here's what Otis is trying to get at, though his ultimate analysis is misguided: Well-designed and cared-for urban places – downtowns, classic neighborhoods, streetcar suburbs – are becoming more popular, so they’re becoming more expensive. They are gaining households, but many of those are small households (childless couples, singles, empty nesters) so they may be losing population over all. Meanwhile, some of the early post-war suburbs are outliving their design life and are on a downward trajectory; they will be redeveloped eventually, but at the moment they're losing population. The mostly working-class people moving from those areas usually would move to the next suburban jurisdiction, but they're shut out because those places have imposed strictures designed to keep them out: large lot sizes, big houses, design controls and other regulations that drive up the price of housing (these are emphatically in opposition to smart-growth principles.) So they're moving way out to the fringe where land is cheap and regulation less, where they can find something like what they had before that is affordable to them.

Interestingly, as columnists David Brooks and Joel Kotkin have noted, increasingly what they’re asking for, and finding, in these new fringe neighborhoods is something like the better-designed, walkable neighborhoods that smart-growth thinking envisions. But Otis is correct that the vast swaths of existing suburbs continue to resist changes that would offer a wider range of housing choices, and instead impose those barriers that drive up the cost. But what would he have "smart growth advocates" do, march in there and impose flexibility and reasonableness on those people? And does he imagine that they really have that kind of power? Can he really believe that this longstanding situation represents the failure of the notion of smart growth?

"What it means is that smart growth advocates have a much greater task ahead than cheering for transit and mixed-use development: If they're serious about reversing development patterns, they must bring down the cost of housing in cities and close-in suburbs. Difficult? Absolutely. Impossible? Not at all."

Otis is right again that American metros need to see a whole lot more jurisdictions working to create moderately priced and low-income housing. But can he seriously believe that “smart growth advocates” have the power to bring down the cost of housing? They have a lot of (I think) very good ideas in this regard, and the advocates I know across the country are working extremely hard to persuade more jurisdictions to try them, in fair and equitable ways. Why doesn’t Otis aim his ire, and his judgment, at those who are resisting change, rather than at those who are trying to improve the situation, albeit within the constraints of a messy, democratic, market-based society (and who wouldn’t have it any other way)?

I would suggest that it is not up to a disembodied "smart growth" to solve these pervasive, American problems. It is up to us all, as a society. I personally think that many of the ideas in the smart growth playbook are good ones to try, but more importantly, I haven't seen any other body of thought that's even attempting to tackle these issues comprehensively. If there is a failure, it belongs to our culture, writ large.


At 2:43 PM, Janet said...

I'd like to question a long-held assumption - that increased regulation increases house prices. Developers will always charge the maximum the market will bear. What goes up or down is their cost and profit margin, not the end price. I think this is a red herring thrown up by the building industry.


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