We’re increasingly seeing two of the biggest urban issues – housing and transport – unnecessarily turned into “left/right” debates – most significantly in the USA but also in New Zealand, particularly in recent times it seems. Over the next few days I’m going to be looking at how this is playing out and how when you actually look at the arguments being put forward that traditional left/right ideology just doesn’t fit.
Today I’m focusing on housing – or perhaps a better description is urban development. There are generally two extremes talked about when discussing how the urban area should develop, one is that allow unlimited urban growth on the edges of cities – commonly known as sprawl, and the other is that we should intensify the existing urban area often through policies that seek to contain the urban area – in the US this is commonly called Smart Growth. In a political world that likes to see things through a “left/right” lens sprawl is associated with the right while smart growth is with the left.
Asking the question of why Conservatives seem to hate Smart Growth - James Bacon explores this issue in a useful article that also touches upon some of the hypocrisy in many of the positions taken.
Why is conservatism’s intellectual elite so hostile to the idea of smart growth? I hoped to find out why.
The answer, I discovered, is pretty simple: Conservatives equate smart growth with intrusive government intervention in the economy, with regulations, subsidies and boondoggles. They look at out-of-control spending on mass transit projects that will never pay their own way, and they see smart growth. They look at urban growth boundaries in Portland, and they see smart growth. They look at California land use plans designed to substitute single-family houses with apartment complexes, and they see smart growth. They listen to environmentalists who want to re-engineer the economy to stave off global warming, and they hear smart growth. They listen to “social justice” advocates who want to use urban planning to redistribute wealth, and they hear smart growth.
If spending big bucks on environmental and social engineering is bad, then the opposite must be good. Conservatives find themselves defending auto-oriented development patterns in suburbia. What other people refer to derisively as “sprawl” they see as the American dream.
I guess this makes some logic – although it’s a bit strange to see people from the right-wing side of the political spectrum who supposedly dislike government intervention proposing very restrictive land-use planning rules in existing built up areas or opposing the removal of other intrusive rules like minimum parking requirements. It’s this double-standard that the article then picks up on:
But I part ways in two important regards. First, while conservative intellectuals are spot-on in their critique of mass transit subsidies, they are blind to subsidies for roads and highways. While they hit the bulls-eye in their critique of land use restrictions, they ignore the systemic subsidies for green-field development. Their critique runs only one way. Second, I take issue with the way they identify intrusive government policy with smart growth, rather than calling it what it is — intrusive government policy.
We have extremely intrusive government policy in the form of planning rules that restrict building heights, require setbacks from boundaries, require the provision of parking even when people don’t want it, apply maximum site coverage restrictions, minimum site sizes for density, minimum sizes for houses and even minimum sizes for particular rooms of houses. Pretty intrusive stuff that we generally see otherwise anti-interventionist politicians completely lapping up.
Furthermore, while some proponents of smart growth and what we might call a more “balanced” approach to transport may be pushing particular liberal of leftist agendas, many aren’t. This is further explored:
There is no denying that many leftists and liberals have hitched their agendas — from saving the planet from Global Warming to redistributing wealth from affluent suburban jurisdictions to poverty-stricken inner cities — to the smart growth wagon. But smart growth covers a wide spectrum of views. Take, for example, the New Urbanists who espouse compact, walkable human-scale development reminiscent of the early 20th century. New Urbanists have suffused the broader smart growth movement with much of their thinking. Yet they are agnostic about where to build — the suburbs, exurbs, inner city, wherever. As architects, builders and developers, they’re all in favor of growth and development. Building stuff is how they make their money and how they see their visions fulfilled. Their prescriptions apply to inner cities, aging suburbs and green-field development alike.
Andres Duany, one of the leading lights in the movement, is perfectly comfortable with the idea that a third or so of all Americans have no interest in New Urbanism communities. He is happy to let them live their lives in peace. What he asks for is a roll-back of zoning codes and other restrictions that prevent him from building the kinds of communities that other people want. Sometimes, he sounds remarkably like a conservative complaining about intrusive, regulatory government.
Conservatives make a strategic error by conflating the smart growth movement with leftist social engineers. They arbitrarily classify potential friends as their enemies. Instead of attacking the smart growth movement, which includes many like-minded people, conservatives should direct their scorn to wasteful subsidies and counter-productive regulations, wherever they may be found.
We’ve made the case repeatedly that when it comes to planning, we probably over-regulate on balance. Like the reference to Andres Duany notes, Smart Growth is as much (or more even) about the removal of bad planning rules as it is about adding in additional rules. So it often is surprising how this is opposed by the very people you would think should support it.
Similarly with transport, the balanced approach that we suggest is about giving people greater transport choice or in areas like parking creating a more market focused system. I’ll be talking much more about how this “left/right” issue is affecting transport tomorrow.