Smart Growth for Everyone

by James A. Bacon

I’m back from the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Kansas City, where I learned a lot, met some really bright people and, oh, by the way, gave a speech to the biggest audience of my career. As a bonus, I experienced a first — my speech was live-tweeted!

You can tell if a movement is vibrant or dying by attending conferences like these. If you see a lot of creative new thinking, you know a movement is gaining momentum. If you see a recitation of the same, worn nostrums, you know it’s slipping into senility. Let me tell you, there was no paucity of fresh thinking at the New Partners event. I talked to people who designed “parklets” (micro-sized public spaces shoe-horned into small urban spaces), adapted golf courses for wildlife habitat, used remote sensing technology to map urban tree canopies, conducted walking audits to measure a community’s walkability, and pushed the envelope of urban design to spur economic innovation.

Another sign of vitality is the organizers’ openness to different viewpoints. While smart growth tends to be a liberal or greenie preoccupation, the organizers invited me to deliver a speech, “Smart Growth for Conservatives,” an earlier version of which I had published on this blog. Also participating in the plenary session was Michael Lewyn, a libertarian law school professor at the Touro Law Center. Following the speeches, we engaged in a discussion moderated by Smart Growth America CEO Geoffrey Anderson.

My broad conclusion: There is roughly 80% overlap between liberals and conservatives on goals and objectives… Let’s work together to execute the smart growth elements we can agree upon and haggle over the details later.

During the conference, the Smart Growth Network released a compendium of smart-growth articles, entitled “The National Conversation on the Nature of Our Communities.” Among the highlights:

Smart Growth for Everyone,” written by yours truly. Pull-out quote: “Are planners so omnipotent that they can accurately predict the market demand for housing and business space in a dynamic economy for years in the future? Not bloody likely. Governments should unleash entrepreneurs by giving them more freedom. Let the marketplace, not comprehensive plans, decide what gets built and where.”

Also, “A Libertarian Smart Growth Agenda,” authored by Mike Lewyn, the libertarian law school professor. Pull-out quote: “If ‘smart growth’ means support for more walkable, less vehicle-dependent communities, smart growth supporters and libertarian-minded property rights supporters should have much in common.”

31 Responses to Smart Growth for Everyone

  1. I’d be curious to see the primary differences between liberal Smart Growth and Conservative Smart Growth especially with regard to Agenda 21!

    ;-)

    • People likely differ in degree.

      My take is that the former smart growth tends to mandate from the top of government the way other people should live. It too easily can become of world of “Thou shalt not.” And the Shalt Nots grow quickly.

      The later approach tends to encourage government sanctioned flexibility, options, and choices in land use. These are designed to harness the energies of private enterprise and individual self interest in ways that freely build sustainable wealth creating communities benefiting all citizens. It focuses sharply on voluntary positive action.

      Thus, to my knowledge, the area from Courthouse to Ballston was built without forcing anyone to do anything. Local government and citizens created an environment that sparked the renaissance of a downtown.

      • I’m sure I’m misunderstanding but Reed, do you think “smart growth” can best happen Ad Hoc without the govt involved in it?

        • No, in today’s world, good smart growth seems to require enlightened and competent government. This requires government with the good sense to avoid the heavy hand of mandates intended to control how people want to live and a government with the understanding and skill to facilitate the needs of private enterprise. One problem is society today ofttimes fails to understand what this requires.

          • Can you give some specific examples of what you are saying?

            what are the specific things that govt should do or not do ?

            and what level of govt are we talking about? Local?

  2. In my view, large swaths of Northern Virginia inside the beltway (and outside) are wastelands. Indeed, they are worse than wastelands. They’re “no where places whose enormous inefficiencies spin off dislocations that to often waste the region of which they are a part.

    Here too its double jeopardy. These are wastelands that can be renewed for opposite effect: built into engines that spread wealth through the region.

    Typically, successful renewal is driven by enterprise. Gentrification (Georgetown), for example). Or redevelopment of ruined industrial or failed commercial uses (Harbor Place, Roslyn Ballson). In varying degrees these arise from near existential failure of current uses matched by a grand vision whose promise organizes the talent and capital necessary to realize the “Dream”. (Philly’s Liberty Place might be an example).

    Jim and Mikes articles suggest ways to break the log jam that now thwarts Smart Growth Opportunities in swaths of Northern Virginia. Places where the current blight rests not in large parcels of abject commercial / Industrial failure, or small parcel abandoned lot residential, but tired unworkable strip retail and highly inefficient somewhat tired residential.

    So the key here is not finding entrepreneurial ways to renew valueless land but to creatively rezone and regulate poorly used land in ways that greatly enhances its value only when redeveloped by Smart Growth. Thus landowners (residential and commercial) can be enticed willing selling and players with developers in the renewal instead of opponents.

    So these articles raise interesting possibilities of finding new ways to unleash possibilities that work in places, and among players, previously out of bounds. Changing demographics, dwindling fiscal resources, past failures, and cultural shifts work with these ideas to suggest out new frontiers of growth lie not in the next ring of hinder lands, but in building right what we spent the last half of the 20th century building wrong.

    • Correction from “Thus landowners … can be enticed willing selling …” To

      “Thus landowners (residential and commercial) can be enticed into willing sellers and players with developers in the renewal instead of opponents.”

  3. Mr. Fawell – any growth in NoVA creates huge demands for more infrastructure; higher taxes; and, too often, a diminishing quality of life. We are not going to stop or move all growth, but it’s time for the Smart Growthers to stop claiming they are providing benefits to the community. Ditto for those who want to build in “sprawl” country. Development is not a benevolent exercise. It’s a for-profit business. It needs to pay for the costs it imposes on society and then enjoy the profits. Let’s get developers off welfare.

    • Actually, it’s the exact reverse. “Any growth” does NOT create huge demands for more infrastructure; smart growth driven by private enterprise vastly reduces infrastructure – that’s the whole point. Great livability and wealth generation for all at far less cost however cost be defined . Zoning laws and regulations are not used to destroy livability but to enhance it. Smart growth done the right way unleashes human potential.

      Are you aware of the Arlington County from the Courthouse area to Ballston in 1975 versus that place it is today? Would you like to reverse history? Would you like to substitute that decayed past in place of today’s vibrant present along those urban blocks? Seemingly you would, if I understand the thrust of your comment.

      • Mr. Fawell, I’ve met with individuals who worked on the redevelopment of the R-B corridor. While it started with a grid of streets, there were other significant infrastructure needs, according to their remarks. Those needs had to be funded.

        Tysons and Reston Town Center also had and have major infrastructure needs. Back in the 1980s, the Reston developers had to proffer $200 M in local road improvements. That is a significant figure. Proposals to increase density in central Reston will require major new investments in public facilities.

        Needless to say, the Tysons transportation facility costs are gigantic. $2.3 billion in 2012 dollars. Tysons also needs a new fire station (to be paid for by the Georgelas Group); at least one new elementary school; added capacity for middle and high schools; a library, a community center (proffered by CapOne); 20 full-size playing fields; a new police station; parks; underground utilities; etc. These costs are much higher than if Tysons were to develop under the old Comp Plan. Also, if the development planned for Tysons were to occur outside Fairfax County, someone else would be required to build school capacity, a library, etc.

        I’m not arguing against the new Tysons Plan. But smart development is development that requires large increases in public facilities. When my taxes go up or quality of life goes down, I’m not benefited.

        My bottom line is: All development must pay for itself in terms of increased infrastructure necessary to support the development. This can be done through proffers, special tax or service districts, road clubs, and increased tax revenues. When that doesn’t happen, we have subsidies from the general public to developers – something both Democrats and Republicans should oppose.

        • Well, you’ve just met one who built one of the first major projects in the redevelopment of the Corridor. If you’re against infrastructure, you’ll spend you life in a cave. The issue is building things that work. The Corridor works. Tysons does not. Much discussion earlier on this website the compares the two and tries to explain why. Take a look.

          Reston is an different subject altogether.

          • reed fawell III

            R B Corridor = Smart Growth Urban Renewal driven by new subway through long established but failed county downtown.

            Tysons = altogether new satellite high rise office city with poor infrastructure, poor planning, and abysmal mix of uses, that exploded by reason of a huge ring road through open fields.

            Reston – a new master planned project that clustered residential communities round neighborhood commercial pods. Short and mid range financial shortfalls forced, and unexpected Dulles toll road, encouraged far heavier commercial and office densities that planned, in project build mostly out of a very large farm.

            So here we got a horse, an apple, and a Chevy.

          • Mr. Fawell, you are not listening so to speak. I’m not arguing against density. I am not arguing against infrastructure. I am not arguing against the R-B Corridor, Tysons or Reston. I am not against planners or comprehensive plans.

            All development requires adequate infrastructure or the prior residents and the new ones suffer. A builder is more likely to be successful when its development is supported by sufficient public facilities. Dense development and non-dense development might require different types and amounts of infrastructure. But they both require it. And, in most places, its very expensive. Telling people they must pay more in taxes so someone else can develop land at a profit is not a good sell. Telling people their quality of life must decline so someone can make a profit developing land is not a good sell either. Allowing landowners to make a profit developing land is a good sell when the development is accompanied by appropriate increases in public facilities and appropriate payments by such landowners.

            My beef with the Smart Growth people is not about density per se. It’s about the canard that Smart Growth doesn’t have negative effects on existing residents. All development puts strains on infrastructure. Those strains must be addressed.

  4. I think what TMT is saying is that growth of any kind – imposes infrastructure needs and no matter whether the growth is “smart” or not – there still are needs imposed and someone has to pay for them – either in dollars or diminished quality of life.

    these two aspects are undeniable yet some folks say that because the growth is said to be “smart”, then it’s okay to impose those costs.

    TMT disagrees. I too think the dialogue is inherently dishonest when it pretends that “smart” growth does not cost, it does.

    • Larry, you have summarized my argument well.

      If all development was accompanied by matching increases in public facilities and if the costs thereof were largely paid by the new development, there would not be as much opposition to development, whether it’s infill, urban redevelopment or a new subdivision in Farmer Brown’s old fields.

  5. Well Jim…where to start.
    I have read only your paper, and your ideas are 99% good. I would only note that prior to 1926, the nuisance code is what codes were. Nuisance codes evolved into euclidean zoning (after the SCOTUS opinions). That’s where it all began.
    “Are planners so omnipotent that they can accurately predict the market demand for housing and business space in a dynamic economy for years in the future? Not bloody likely.” I disagree. That’s what planners do, and good planners understand both the importance of accurate data and the difference between theory and practice. What I think you missed is the significant role of planners in the private sector.

    I’m on to reading the next paper. Something tells me my reaction to it will be different than my reaction to your paper.

    • I agree with Andrea here. Good and wise planners are essential.

    • Local governments need planners. But they need to disabuse themselves of the notion that planners (of either the public or private sector variety) are very good at forecasting. I refer you to the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of “The Black Swan” and “Antifragility.” I’ll be blogging about him when I finish reading the latter book. But his message, boiled down to its essence, is that forecasting is a useless exercise. Better to devote your efforts to creating a business/government/community that is less vulnerable and more adaptable to random, unexpected and highly stressful events. Comprehensive plans, zoning codes and all the rest make local governments fragile and hinder their ability to adapt.

      • Antifragility – fabulous book!!!!!!

        Different comment – excellent planners doing the right tasks are essential to good development. On other hand, no one has destroyed more vibrant living communities and replaced them with deadly ones than planners.

        The key for everyone is confronting and learning from past mistakes.

        • I’m hard put to think about specific individual planners and bad planning.

          What most planners do is receive the contacts from developers then perform the analysis per the county process then make a recommendation to the appointed and elected supervisors and planning commissioners.

          I do not think there is opportunity for one planner or even several to create a bad project.

          In the end, all the planner can really do is recommend an action that the elected are free to approve or deny.

          I think one of the big problems is that each county or city has their own plan/plans relative to themselves but not necessarily to adjacent counties or a region.

          There are incentives and disincentives for counties to take actions that may be good for them and bad for the adjacent county or the region.

          this is way beyond talking about bad planners…

  6. TMT – “Mr. Fawell, you are not listening so to speak.”

    RMF -No, I hear you loud and clear.

    TMT “I’m not arguing against density. I am not arguing against infrastructure. I am not arguing against the R-B Corridor, Tysons or Reston. I am not against planners or comprehensive plans.”

    RMF – No, you’re thwarting solutions.

    TMT – “All development requires adequate infrastructure or the prior residents and the new ones suffer. A builder is more likely to be successful when its development is supported by sufficient public facilities. Dense development and non-dense development might require different types and amounts of infrastructure. But they both require it. And, in most places, its very expensive.”

    RMF – No, ALL development of any sort requires infrastructure. No, all people benefit from sufficient public facilities. No, low density infrastructure is typically far more costly than high density infrastructure.

    TMT – “Telling people they must pay more in taxes so someone else can develop land at a profit is not a good sell.”

    RMF – No, its bad policy. And immoral. Good policy demands that projects reduce everyone’s taxes, increase their wealth and income, and their opportunity for happiness.

    TMT – “Telling people their quality of life must decline so someone can make a profit developing land is not a good sell either.”

    RMF – No, its bad policy. And immoral. Good policy demands that projects reduce everyone’s taxes, increase their wealth and income, and maximize their opportunity for happiness.

    TMT – “Allowing landowners to make a profit developing land is a good sell when the development is accompanied by appropriate increases in public facilities and appropriate payments by such landowners.”

    RMF – No, quite often it is extremely bad public policy.

    TMT – “My beef with the Smart Growth people is not about density per se. It’s about the canard that Smart Growth doesn’t have negative effects on existing residents. All development puts strains on infrastructure. Those strains must be addressed.”

    No, all change has adverse affect on someone. The driving tenet of Smart Growth is to minimize negative effects and maximize positive ones for individuals and society.

    FOR A START at figuring this out see the Fiscal Fix on this website.

  7. re: planners… ask planners two things – how future population is projected and how that population increase allocates itself geographically.

    The answer to the first question in most every case – is that we will grow at the same rate the next 10 years that we did in the last 10 years.

    the second answer is even more interesting. A planner will tell you that the comp plan will “guide” growth but what kind? The kind that requires water/sewer is not a projection – it’s a certainty if the water/sewer pipes are put in – there will be development as well as the potential for much more denser development – and impacts on infrastructure. In the exurbs, it’s the other kind of growth for which the predictions are less reliable.

    Land is not owned by planners. The people that own land in areas that are developing will seek to develop their land or to sell it to those who would develop it.

    how that plays out – is driven more by demand and the plans of people who own land.

    but here’s an exercise – I’d like to see. I’d like to see for a given locality – the comp plans from 10 or 20 years ago and to then compare those plans with the current extent of growth.

    that would be an interesting exercise.

  8. Larry, I don’t think the problem is “bad” planners. The planners I’ve met are pretty smart, dedicated people. They do the best they can in situations where they are pulled a million different ways by a zillion different constituencies. The problem is the impossibility of conducting long-term forecasts with any reliability — a point I have been repeatingly in blog post after blog post. Planners make the forecasts because they are told to do so.

    The real problem is when decision makers make multimillion-dollar decisions based on those forecasts, despite their inherent reliability.

    I remember the 1980s when everyone thought the Japanese were going to take over the world economy. Long-range planning was all the rage. The Japanese were deemed superior business people because they were disciplined enough to forego short-term thinking and plan for the long term — up to 100 years! Where are those plans now? They were worthless. The forecasts did not pan out and the Japanese, loaded up with debt, were what Taleb calls “fragile” — vulnerable to volatility and unexpected events that could not be planned for.

    I’ll opine on this later…. First, I’ve got to finish reading the book.

  9. Larry says: “Land is not owned by planners. The people that own land in areas that are developing will seek to develop their land or to sell it to those who would develop it.

    how that plays out – is driven more by demand and the plans of people who own land. but here’s an exercise – I’d like to see. I’d like to see for a given locality – the comp plans from 10 or 20 years ago and to then compare those plans with the current extent of growth.”

    That’s important point. Should you be interested you can track the renewal plans for R/B corridor, how they evolved and were built, back to the 70′s at least. And you can see how the development tracked those plans year by year.

    I suggest you’ll surprised at how well a very complex interaction of demographics, planning, and private enterprise tracked the plans, once the horrible lessons of Rosslyn in the 1960 had been learned. It was no accident. There was genius in those plans, flexibility, market savvy, much good willed participation by all concerned.

    So we have an important set of lessons to apply in other close in locales, including those of failing small holding residential areas, adjacent to commercial. And I personally believe there will always be a strong market for close into DC existing urban areas, particularly inside the beltway. The key is unlocking them not by force (condemnation) or by their total collapse but by market driven solutions as with Arlington’s first new downtown.

    Hence my comments on Mike Lewyn and Jim’s article.

    • PS – I do not mean to suggest RB C. development did not encounter severe turbulence, including false starts, short term market collapses, and the like. Quite the opposite. But the base plan, its fundamental principles and drivers, remained intact, working to buttress and overcome adversity.

      I also suspect you’ll find planners are typically guessing growth like everybody else. Might check into how much prior planning went into Tyson’s Corner. I recall that Tyson’s, its pace of growth caught most by surprise. That savvy speculators and a visionary developer or two, not planners, saw it, and got things rolling long before anyone else.

  10. re: planners projection population.. not really true.

    most planners rely on Weldon Cooper, the Census and VEC.

    re: planners vs developers vs comp plans

    developers deal with the demand realities. The good ones know the market and know the demand.

    Planners try to field the proposals following guidance from the elected including the Comp Plan.

    Planners do not make the plans… they help support the development of plans that ultimately are not approved by them.

    we need to get straight how the process works.

  11. More often than not – developers are the ones who “plan” and planners and elected officials react. The law actually requires the counties to produce and update a Comp Plan but it’s a plan that’s put together largely by people who are not involved in business or development.

    I do not know about the Tysons Task force that TMT alludes to or perhaps how Arlington doe planning but many, many localities outside of those areas do not plan with the advice of people actually involved meeting residential and commercial demand – in part, because many people distrust having actual business people involved in govt planning… but business people bring perspectives
    that are needed for good planning – in my view.

    Locally, the involvement of business people in development issues led to the creation of transportation and service districts – supplemental tax districts to pay for the infrastructure that would be needed. Once the infrastructure is paid for, the tax goes back to the base level and all taxpayers become responsible for the M&O costs.

    If you did that simple thing with things like subdivision roads and major road upgrades around new development, it would be effective in mitigating the immediate impacts of development. The wider regional impacts of growth overall would still need to be handled and that is a serious weak spot in Va despite the fact the the Federal govt requires regional coordination and cooperation on regional transportation planning. In Virginia – there are additional challenges to regional planning because before the MPOs came along, that was VDOT’s job in part because localities just did not approach transportation as a regional endeavor. Even with MPOs, one of the primary concerns of localities is that they get “their” projects and if priorities force trade offs between local projects and regional projects – the regional projects will often lose out unless the money available cannot be used for anything other than regional.

    So.. I do not think the growth/planning conundrum is really attributable to “planners”. Instead, I think this is yet another concept that is encouraged by our modern-day sound-bite approach to issues and in that approach the tendency to assign blame for things that don’t work as we wish.

    we do this now days with govt, with teachers, with colleges, with unions, scientists, and of course “planners” etc… it’s the modern day lazy man approach to dealing with our challenges and problems.

    “planners” do not cause the growth issues and I can assure you “planners’ are not going to fix it.

  12. I agree with you generally.

    The caveat is that initiating power must be kept out of the hands of planners. Planners with top down centralized power have historically done great harm. History is littered with examples. People with power but no skin in the game. Try NYC and Robert Moses for starters. His pernicious influence spread into most every post WWII major American City, down to and including the destruction of Rockville Md.

    This is why top down mandated Smart Growth is so Dangerous. Little Roberts Moses are a dime a dozen. A constant threat.

    • For details on how Robert Moses used city planning to abuse cities, and captured the minds of a profession into group think that spread that abuse across North America, see to two classic books, to start.

      1/ Pulitzer prize winner The Power Broker (1974) by Robert A. Caro.
      2/ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) by Jane Jacobs.

  13. Pingback: Smart Growth News – February 13, 2013 | Smart Growth America

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