The Orange County Register
Suburbs a sin to Smart Growthers
Sr. editorial writer and columnist
December 10, 2006
I'm always dumbfounded when ideologies take firm root among everyone who is anyone, even when those ideologies fly in the face of everything we see around us. During the Soviet era, it was self-evident to most average folks that freer societies were more prosperous, more affirming of human dignity and altogether better places than totalitarian regimes, yet a good bit of elite opinion preferred the promises of left-wing utopias to the everyday reality of the democratic West.
These days, I am a bit bewildered by the degree to which another ideology – granted, one far less noxious than communism – has taken root in America, even though it so obviously stands athwart everything we see all around us. Who you gonna believe, your own eyes or the grandiose statements of ideologues? Well, many Americans, especially those in positions of power, are choosing the ideologues.
I'm referring to the ideology of Smart Growth and New Urbanism. Basically, these philosophies argue that traditional suburbia of the sort that has evolved since the 1950s is a terrible thing. They say it promotes isolation, hopelessness, despair, social turmoil, leads to deep divisions among classes and races and is unsustainable. "Unsustainable" is one of those words that defies precise meaning, but those who throw around such a term are suggesting that suburbia is causing irreparable harm to the environment.
The Smart Growth/New Urbanist crowd has a solution to the terror of suburbia. We should all live packed into apartment buildings. Our kids should play on the street like in the old days of the glorious New York City tenements. We should not drive, but depend instead on mass transit. Every urban area should be surrounded by a green zone – i.e., a no-growth area of farms and woods and parks. Government will exert complete control over development decisions so that only the "right" types of things are built.
Fortunately, there's plenty of evidence to debunk this nonsense. I highly recommend "War on the Dream," by Wendell Cox, an Illinois-based consultant who writes and speaks extensively about transportation and housing. Those who believe that this fracas over urban planning is some ivory-tower debate with little or no real-world consequence need to keep Cox's words in mind: "The principal purpose of this book is to highlight the serious consequences of currently popular land-use policies. The urban planning community is implementing – and proposes to expand – strategies that are already seriously eroding housing affordability and intensifying traffic congestion. This could result in substantial economic reverses, because homeownership is so central to the creation of middle-income wealth and because traffic congestion reduces productivity."
As Cox points out, the restrictive land-use policies advocated by Smart Growthers and New Urbanists result in a dramatic loss of housing affordability. Those cities with the most restrictive rules have the highest housing prices, whereas those with fewer rules have relatively lower prices. Those of us who own homes have enjoyed watching prices, and our equity, soar in California. But the effect is devastating on people trying to get onto the economic ladder. It's always been ironic to me that the so-called spokesmen for the poor and minorities often advocate the most meddlesome government restrictions that make it nearly impossible for lower-income people to buy homes, start businesses and build wealth.
Homeownership is not only fundamental to wealth creation, as Cox argues, but to the sense of community that New Urbanists supposedly want to foster. Homeownership creates investment in a community and is fundamental to the notion of the American Dream. The issue also is one of freedom. As Cox explains: "People who are allowed to do what they want will be generally happier and more productive. ... To preserve the maximum latitude for people to act as they prefer, regulations and laws must be limited to what is genuinely important and should not be based upon flimsy research or flawed analysis."
Unfortunately, Smart Growth and New Urbanism are based on faulty foundations. Those of us who grew up crammed into row houses in dirty East Coast cities (in my case, Philadelphia) scratch our heads at the otherworldly arguments and analyses these ideologues make. When we moved to the suburbs, we found: a) less political corruption; b) better schools; c) more open space; d) friendlier neighbors; e) a more free-flowing transportation system; f) cleaner air; g) less crime, etc. The suburbs might not offer the nightlife, restaurants, architectural splendor and cultural pleasures of the city, but they hardly are the fonts of despair that the Smart Growthers claim.
One of the most commonly used arguments is that suburbs breed anomie – i.e., loneliness and isolation. Because suburbanites have so much private space and so little public space, we supposedly have little contact with one another and have not developed complex social skills like people have developed in the city. That view is opposite of the one I have experienced. When I lived in Philly and Washington, D.C., I knew few of my neighbors. Street life was more menacing than cozy, and I kept to myself and my social circle. I went to museums and such but was not intimately involved in what one might call community life.
In the suburbs, I know many of my neighbors. Some of this is driven by my age and the fact that I have kids, but I am deeply involved in community activities. A new study by Jan Brueckner of the UC Irvine Economics Department and Ann Largey of the Dublin City University Business School in Ireland took an empirical look at the issue. They confirm the points Cox makes.
I talked to Brueckner, who said he didn't know what he would find from his research. The results? "Social interaction is higher in the suburbs, contrary to what many people believe." He said suburbanites are more likely to talk to their neighbors, to have more friends, to be involved in social clubs. His research didn't explain why that occurs, but he had some speculations.
For instance, urban dewellers are "bombarded with people all day," so they tend to withdraw into their personal space. Suburbanites are out mowing the lawn and working on their houses, which might provide more oppotunities for chatting with the neighbors, compared to just walking by someone in an apartment hallway.
He also thinks there's more crime in urban areas, which makes people less social and there's more to do in cities, which makes people less dependent on their neighbors for entertainment.
Don't expect the Smart Growthers or New Urbanists to change their views in light of the evidence. This is – as I've called it before, and Cox calls it in a book chapter – a theology that has nothing to do with evidence and everything to do with faith. These planners and their disciples believe in their hearts that suburbia is evil, and they are going to use the power of government to save us all. If you are not in the mood for being saved, then Cox's book will delight you.
Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org or (714) 796-7823