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Conservatives & Smart Growth

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.

24 comments to Conservatives & Smart Growth

  • Fred

    It was weird in the Unitary Plan debates to see Quax, Brewer, Coney and Lee all voting the same way over and over again. Proof, I guess, that planning really doesn’t fit into a “left/right” ideological outlook.

    • Frank McRae

      That’s because all four named above are conservatives in the original sense of the word – resistant to any kind of change.

    • Greg N

      Ah yes, the “Dudley Do Nothing” brigade.

      They’re like a pair of donkeys joined at the hip, but facing in opposing directions – both want their way, but neither will compromise for an instant as that means that they’ll have to go “backwards” – or at least step sideways.

      So you get at best a stasis and an inability to achieve any progress at all. They however do go around in circles and all everyone else sees is two closely coupled asses that make a lot of noise.

  • Sam

    Sprawl apparently = family values

  • Riccardo

    There are few genuine C/conservatives – only reactionaries and revanchists. The Tea Party are not trying to retard social change, but actively encourage a regressive, hostile ideology. Their fellow travellers in NZ are encouraged by their American ‘success’ (success being defined by how much damage you can do).

    A genuine conservative would have been happy to let the post WWII world drift in the way it was going to, not actively pushing for massive car and road subsidies, forcing landowners to behave in a particular way and not develop land according to a sprawl template, and in general, would have been happy for families to do their own thing. Instead these reactionaries were trying to create a fictional world based on ideals, which is the very opposite of conservatism, which is sceptical of ideals. From the crooked timber of humanity nothing straight was made.

    It is no surprise the sprawl world has not worked, as nothing based on simplistic ideals ever works. Road-based transport as the rule doesn’t work because it is Leninist/Stalinist, and fails for the same reasons: socialised costs and private benefits; prediction and provision relies on forecasting that cannot be as accurate as it is required to be and needs perfect knowledge of population preferences which is impossible to gather; agency failures (people in positions of power making decisions for their own benefit rather than the population at large); unwillingness of the population to be taxed at the level that pays for what the same population wants to be spent.

    People should also learn from the Roger Rabbit misconception – in the USA rail interests (whether heavy freight or interurban) were PRIVATE and moving to road-based transport was actually a gesture at SOCIALISM and against perceived bad PRIVATE ENTERPRISE. In NZ rail was already government owned so the US meme didn’t apply.

  • Riccardo

    It is instructive though of what PT advocates need to do to win the argument not just on fertile soil but infertile as well:

    -stop pushing socialism in disguise. Just as it is wrong to have socialised costs:private benefits in road, it is wrong in rail and bus worlds as well

    -stop pushing welfareism in disguise. If the vast bulk of the population see rail or bus as simply for welfare recipients, prove them wrong. Don’t accommodate ridiculous demands for concessions, coverage routes, poor workforce discipline or soft attitude to crime on rail or bus

    -ensure the massive subsidies and distortions of road are compared like for like with rail. Tell people a motorway can do at most 2000 people per hour per lane, a rail line should manage 10 times that. Ask “Do you really want to actually get to where you are going, or merely to take your car with you?”

    -do not indulge the poor performance of legacy rail or bus networks, poor operator performance or poor performance by politicians. Defending any particular political party, or making excuses for your rail network or operator, will not get you to where you need to be. Road advocates are always happy to tell you that dinner is tasting good, but is not yet ready. Always one more road to build to ‘complete’ the network, and always a complete ‘surprise’ that the last road they built is full and needs to be supplemented. So they implicitly damn their mode by praising it. Point this out, and don’t accept the same from rail/bus advocacy.

  • JohnP

    Part of the problem is too many people still conflate left wing with liberal and right wing with conservative. If you accept liberal means allowing people to make their own choices provided it doesn’t stuff up other people and conservative to mean status quo then you get a better understanding of motives. Most liberals see no problem in allowing higher densities in places where it makes sense. If people want to choice to live like that then let them! By the same argument if people want to choose to live at the edge of town and have to travel further in exchange for improved residential amenity then I say let them! The problem with our political definitions is many people on both sides of the spectrum are control freaks who want to make other peoples choices for them. The article argues that conservatives are blind to road subsidies. Maybe that is so but right wing liberals are not. If car drivers paid the marginal cost of their trip rather than roads being offered up as a public good we would have a more efficient transport system and better choices made by commuters. Why should a peak hour bus passenger have to pay full price but not the car driver? Secondly many left wingers are not liberal at all. They argue for more rules like a rural urban boundary or rather than just seeking to remove parking minimums they seek parking maximum rules. There is nothing liberal about that!

  • Riccardo

    i would have no problem with genuine conservatism, if we could find it. But not with people who tell you you must not use land you have paid for for purpose that suit you, and that includes building high rise if you wish, is just as dictatorial as preventing spawl on the outskirts. The English Common Law of Land is nearly 1000 years old, and though slowly changed over that time, preserves some absolutes of tenure, demarcation and use. in a cone shape, from the core of the planet to the sky, it is yours. the government only intervening to protect public safety and to stop you appropriating the same rights from others.

    the idea that when you buy a block of land you buy a right to interfere in a neighbours rights to theres, could be dismissed a creeping socialism if it hadnt found such a strong base among the angry white tea partyists who, after thinking of Ann Coulter, would like to make you free at gunpoint. force you to live their ideal life of freedom.

  • jp

    Wrong. Conservatives are focused on house prices.

    Auckland median house price NZD $561,700.
    Houston median house price USD 184,900.

    I’m a lefty, but the above numbers are undeniable. If the left is going to win this argument it’s got to get to grips with the meaning of these numbers.

    • Steve D

      If Houston is the poster child for (supposedly “right-wing”) affordability through sprawl, then the “left-wing” equivalent is Chicago, which has a median house price of $US 177,200, and is famously a Democratic stronghold. Except that Chicago achieves housing affordability by allowing density, building public transport, and (shock horror) regulation.

    • So in the interest of reducing house prices, those conservatives continue to support massive restrictions on what private property owners are allowed to build on their own land – and have focussed those restrictions on the areas with the highest property prices.

      Yes I know the RUB has the effect of raising land prices on the fringe (e.g. where the housing is already relatively cheap anyway). However, if we release the RUB and dont free up the existing restrictions on the already developed land, then that is social engineering on a massive scale and against the free market principles of allowing people to live where (and how) they want.

      I am all for releasing the RUB but we also (at a minimum) then need to eliminate minimum lot sizes, maximum coverage limits, minimum set backs, use restrictions (except of course really dirty industrial uses) and minimum parking requirements in all of Auckland. Then lets see the market decide – just as neoliberals say they want. After all, thats how we got the really popular suburbs like Ponsonby, Freemans Bay and Grey Lynn.

  • Jon Reeves

    I believe you are quite wrong, Mike Lee stood loudly for re-opening the Onehunga line. Is that a do nothing person? He pushed for electrification of the rail network – is that a do nothing person? Have you done any research, even with a quick flick through google before you criticised him?

    Brewer is the person you need to target as the classical “do nothing guy”. Only time you ever, ever hear from him is about complaining over some trivial matter, never offers a solution, just complains. Similar goes for Quax.

    • Frank McRae

      Mike Lee may have had some success in pushing PT projects in the past, but in recent years he has done more than almost any councillor to hold the city back by opposing intensification and not allowing more housing where it is needed most. He is yesterday’s man and needs to move on.

  • Jon Reeves

    “Mike Lee may have had some success in pushing PT projects in the past” – you should have worded that as “had very good successes”. You are picking one policy and hanging him by it? How about everything Quax, Brewer stopped? The list is incredibly long.

    • Frank McRae

      It is not just one policy. It is one of the biggest issues facing Auckland and has massive consequences for housing affordability, the environment, and the provision of public transport. Quax and Brewer are clowns that no one listens to. I think Lee is more damaging because some people still take him seriously without understanding how retrograde he is.

      • Mike Lee is probably the BEST current councillor we have. His park making as ARC guy, his port saving, his heritage saving, his common sense in the face of lcd left/right divisions.

        Do your homework Frank, when he retires, Auckland will be for the worse.

        (Ideally our mayor would resign and Mike would stand, unfortunately the former is too stupid and the latter too smart)

        • Frank McRae

          Auckland will be for the worse if the only things you value are cutesy pet transport projects, and preserving old things at the expense of everything else.

          I think Lee would be well suited to a job at MOTAT.

    • Mike has been a proponent for PT but he hasn’t always been a good one. There have been a number of bad moves that have the potential to put be as good for PT as could otherwise have been. I think the Parnell station is a good example of this. The idea of the station is good but Mike was determined to make it a heritage precinct and have a station next to the mainline steam sheds when the better location would have been about 100-200m further north. Some may say that doesn’t mean much but Boston Rd station was moved a few hundred metres and renamed Grafton and it made it that much more accessible that patronage took off as a result.

      Also why does everything have to heritage e.g. heritage station at Parnell, heritage tram

      • Faux heritage too. Parnell has never had a train station, so why create a new heritage one there? I agree with the tram to, we have a tramway museum with lots of great examples running, why not have a modern tram on the waterfront?

      • Maybe he has a special heritage interest because his ward contains the most heritage of any? I would hope that the Councillor with the largest amount of native bush in his or her turf would be likewise somewhat bush obsessive..

  • Riccardo

    And will Houston allow me to:

    -build a tall building on my land if I wish

    -build a project specifically marketed at black people if I wish, or build a mosque if I wish

    -let me build a tollroad on my land if I wish, and toll it as much as I like

    -opt out of the taxation that pays for new freeways, if I wish, on the grounds that my residents can walk everywhere

    there is more to freedom than just allowing sprawl

    • You dont need to go that far.

      Will Houston let you build a multi storey home on a section of 200sqm – no

      Will it let you build homes right on the street front – no

      Will it let you build homes without parking – no

      Will Houston let you build mixed use buildings – no, outside a very small area in the CBD

      Houston is also the only place I have heard of where private covenants between land owners will be enforced at the expense of the state. Also, new covenants can be put in place by a vote of more then 50% of the owners in an area.

      Is that economic freedom and protection of property rights? To me it smells like Socialism *cue collective gasp*.

  • Bryan

    Interesting that some of the same arguments are made in this 1945 article in the Auckland Star [url]http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&cl=search&d=AS19450723.2.35[/url]

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