Smart growth is too important to leave to liberals. Conservatives must articulate their own vision for creating prosperous, livable and fiscally sustainable communities.
by James A. Bacon
Few aspects of government policy touch peoples’ lives as profoundly as transportation and land use. The built environment exerts a tremendous influence upon the cost of transportation, housing, utilities and government services as well as quality of life and the environment. The “smart growth” movement has gained momentum in recent years as Americans sought solutions to the problems arising from the dysfunctional land use patterns commonly referred to as suburban sprawl.
Liberals have spear-headed the critique of sprawl, to their credit, and they have largely defined Smart Growth. As is their wont, however, they frequently call for top-down solutions. There’s no social problem that a good strong dose of government intervention won’t fix! Allergic to calls for bigger, stronger, more coercive government — herding people onto mass transit and into multi-family housing are the exaggerated images they react to — conservatives have thrown out the smart-growth baby with the liberal bathwater.
Big mistake. There is nothing intrinsically liberal or conservative about the idea of creating more efficient human settlement patterns that expand the range of housing and transportation options while reducing the cost of government. Rather than getting stuck defending an indefensible status quo, conservatives need to articulate their own vision in a manner consistent with conservative principles.
So, what conservative values are we talking about? Conservatism is a diverse movement, encompassing secular libertarians, religious evangelicals and Main Street business, but I think it’s fair to say that most conservatives are dedicated to the following:
■ Small government. Government should focus on a few core responsibilities and do them well. Government that governs the least governs the best.
■ Low taxes. Some taxes are necessary to fund core government responsibilities but they pose a burden on citizens and, if too high, undermine economic growth.
■ Reasonable regulation. Some regulation is necessary for the protection of the public health and safety. But regulations have unintended consequences and regulators tend to get captured or gamed by special interests. Generally speaking, regulations need to be rolled back.
■ Strong property rights. A man’s home is his castle. A property owner should be allowed to do what he/she wants with her property as long as it causes no harm to others. Property owners should be properly compensated for the loss of property rights.
■ Distrust of elites. Most conservatives are of the live-and-let-live, don’t-tread-on-me variety (some social issues excepted) and they distrust the social-engineering schemes of liberals intent upon “making the world a better place.”
■ Global warming. Society needs to make reasonable investments in clean water, clean air and habitat protection. But conservatives are highly skeptical about the proposed antidotes to Global Warming, a controversy they believe is ginned up by liberals looking for an excuse to re-order the world in their image.
Now, let’s look at the public policies that have shaped land use since World War II and view them through the prism of conservative principles.
Land use codes. The underlying premise of zoning codes is that different land uses — residential, retail and commercial — should be rigidly segregated. Of course it makes sense to separate some land uses, in particular industrial activities that are excessively toxic, noisy, dusty or otherwise unpleasant. But for the most part, there is no rational reason for the codes. Most problems that stem from houses and businesses existing side by side can be resolved with nuisance codes.
Zoning codes breed regulations and require a government planning apparatus to enforce them. They usurp the right of property owners to do what they want with their land, telling people what they can build and where. And they deprive consumers of choice. It’s one thing to allow people to live in cul de sac subdivisions, work in office parks and shop in malls surrounded by vast parking lots. It’s quite a different thing to require them to do so as a matter of code. The suburban status quo effectively bans the building of compact, walkable mixed use communities except when developers engage in a lengthy, expensive and risky process of petitioning for special permits. There is no basis in conservative thought for discriminating against neighborhoods where people can walk to the corner store, take the bus or live in an apartment above the shop or studio where they work.
Low densities. Many counties have imposed density limitations on new growth with the thought that they would limit the impact of development on roads and schools. But smearing 1,000 people over 1,000 acres of land is impossible to provide with roads, utilities and services as efficiently as if they were concentrated in 100 acres, or even 10 acres, of land. Fiscal conservatives should object to such inefficiency. And property rights advocates should object to the restrictions placed on what property owners can build on their land.
There is one caveat here that is important for subsidy-loathing conservatives to bear in mind. While people should be free to build wherever they want, they have no claim to the full panoply of government services — roads, water, sewer, schools, public safety, etc. — in remote, inefficiently served locations at the same prices as those services are available to others. Property owners should bear the full location-variable costs of where they build. Continue reading.
This essay has been adapted from a speech delivered at the 2012 Congress for the New Urbanism.