Letter from California: How smart is 'smart growth?'

How smart is it to support smart growth? San Francisco, California, among other states, seems to think that it’s a very smart idea and one that they have been imposing on its residents for a number of years.

If you are unfamiliar with the smart growth concept, it helps to start with a definition in order to fully understand what smart growth purports to achieve.
“Smart growth, is a better way to build and maintain our towns and cities,”  according to Smart Growth America, a national organization of bills itself as an advocate for people who want to live and work in great neighborhoods

This is done, according to SMA, by creating healthy communities with strong local businesses. Further SMA claims that smart growth, “creates neighborhoods with schools and shops nearby and low-cost ways to get around for all our citizens.” Finally, SMA also promises that smart growth creates jobs that pay well and reinforces the foundations of our economy.

Lofty goals, it would appear, for a current economy that is having difficulties creating a sufficient number of jobs, not just jobs that pay well.

The concept of smart growth has been around for a while now. It seems that local, city, and state governments have been trying for quite some time now to convince people that there are benefits to living in concentrated urban areas where they can conveniently live, work, shop and play.

In 1998, Americans in New Jersey, Florida and California, among other states, voted to slow growth, protect open spaces and save farmland. Their goal was to prevent “urban sprawl” or the taking over of pristine spaces by people, houses, commercial business and overall economic development, in general.

The smart growth concept continues to garner more interest as the statistics for population growth rises.

There are many who praise the limited planned growth process and claim that it has many advantages.

Those in support claim that it produces a clean environment, creates economic development, and provides an array of housing options, such as multi-family dwellings as opposed to single-family housing. Smart growth also, according to supporters, gives the consumer healthy options of walking, bicycling, or taking public transportation to nearby work, thereby reducing the number of cars on the road, which they assert, decreasing accidents and improves physical health. Sounds almost utopian!

A closer look, however, reveals a more costly side to smart growth. Oregon and California are two examples that shatter the idealistic concept of a perfect plan.

In the early 1980s, Portland, Oregon built a $3 billion light rail system to reduce the number of cars on the road. After running 50 percent over budget, the light rail saw limited success in convincing motorists that they should not drive on the highways.

San Francisco, California, has attempted since the 1970s to create land shortages by limiting construction, including urban-growth construction, placing limitations on building permits, and purchasing parks and open spaces with the intent of controlling growth according to the its desired agenda. As a result, the city has seen a dramatic increase in housing prices in the Bay Area, due to shortages in overall housing. Some would argue that San Francisco’s poor and deliberate plan, artificially inflated the need for a solution, such as smart growth.

San Francisco presses on, however, with its plan for smart growth. Since 2008, with an agenda to build high-density housing (apartments) in areas where commercial industries once thrived, the East Bay area of San Francisco, continues to be dedicated to the prevention of urban sprawl by locating its residents into big-city, urban-living settings.

Some supporters have claimed that smart growth is working because people “want” to move to the city rather than live in the suburbs. They claim that multi-unit apartment complexes are the desired wave of the future. They cite the influx of young people to these apartments as proof. They fail, however, to mention that due to the current economic downturn with weaker job availability, and increased student loan payments, many younger buyers who have traditionally bought single-family homes, can no longer afford to buy according to their “true” preference.

Nor do supporters mention the reduced economic value in smart growth housing. Supporters fail to state that the creation of multi-family housing actually produces less jobs and economic growth. Single-family houses tend to have a higher square footage, more expensive finishes, and higher labor and investment dollar requirements.
Also, supporters don’t discuss the possibility of increases in diseases due to living in close proximity.

They do, however, claim that smart growth is needed to avert a health crisis in California, which involves obesity and respiratory illnesses caused by pollution. According to the supporters, smart growth will also help climate change.

Furthermore, those who see smart growth as a benefit don’t assess the potential for increases in crime rates in higher density areas, nor do they take into consideration that Californians may wish to continue to drive their cars due to personal preferences.

It appears that there may be better solutions to assist California, and other states, in resolving future land use and transportation issues as some suggest that poor governmental planning may have caused many of these issues in the first place.

Instead of moving quickly to grab as much land as possible in order to designate it as government property, planners could purchase and set aside reasonable amounts of land for future farmland and other purposes.

Another option, may be to plan communities around urban growth boundaries, which designates where future private growth may build, allowing for expansion to a certain point ahead of the perceived need to place people in high density areas only.

Finally, another option may be to revitalize already existing cities, like Detroit, that have plenty of urban space but limited public and private interest due to negative economic growth.

Is support of smart growth really smart idea? It may be smarter to initially plan communities appropriately, based upon the needs of the people in those particular communities rather than forcing governmental ideologies on the collective. Allowing the public to participate in the growth and strategies of their own communities seems like a much smarter idea.