Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Smart Growth Debate Follow-up

Over the last few days, there has been some articles, posts, and emails about the Smart Growth debate. I would like to share some of the responses. The first response is from Frank Bucholtz of the Langley Times.

The gist of their arguments was this. Litman says that denser neighbourhoods allow people to walk, cycle and use transit more easily. They also promote a feeling of neighbourliness, and people end up having more money to spend if they don’t need a vehicle, or need one infrequently.

O’Toole says that smart growth policies have driven up the cost of housing and limited freedom of choice, because high housing costs preclude many people who want to own a home on a lot from doing so. He sees no need for any type of protection for agricultural land, because “housing is more valuable than farmland.”
Todd Litman posted his thoughts on Planetizen about the debate and followed up to some of the criticism O'Toole had about Smart Growth. Litman rebuts the follow points:

-Smart growth deprives people of freedom
-Smart growth reduces housing affordability
-Smart growth fails to reduce driving, energy consumption, air pollution emissions and infrastructure costs
-Public transit is inefficient
-Everybody (or at least most “normal” people) want single-family homes and automobile travel
-Farmland preservation is unimportant
Smart growth sometimes faces organized opposition by critics. It is important that planners respond effectively and professionally. Here is my critique of O'Toole’s claims and some advice for planners who face similar critics
Finally, I received an email from John Niles who came all the way from Seattle about his thoughts on the debate. I thought I'd share some of his email:
My take on Randal's arguments -- freedom to live how we want and develop land how we want is available throughout the USA and Canada, but localities also have the freedom under law to constrain choice via land use controls (zoning, urban boundaries, agricultural land reserves) and transportation infrastructure decisions (example, freeway exit locations) which are local collective decisions that I don't oppose in principle. If you like how much Houston's form has turned out better than you like San Francisco, move to Houston. Same for people in Houston who like San Francisco. (By the way, my friends and relatives who live in Houston say, "not a great place to visit, but a great place to live.") Analogous thinking applies to lifestyle location choices in Canada, say between Calgary and Vancouver. I don't believe that constraint of available consumer choices because of smart growth policies is an important problem given the vast variety of location choices available in both countries.

I do agree with Randal that automobiles are a dominant technology and will remain so. He's spot on in urging attention to rapid progress being made in driverless vehicles by Google, Volkswagen, and the worldwide automobile and electronics industry.

My take on Todd's arguments -- I too like to live in urban walkable communities, but more than him I understand, appreciate, and celebrate the unstoppable forces that lead people to choose the suburbs, especially the availability of bigger houses, good jobs, and better schools. Land use controls (agricultural and other green space reserves) and land use limits from mountains and coastlines combine to drive up Lower Mainland housing prices and motivate living in smaller residences. I personally like big dense downtowns, but I understand people not wanting to pay the dollars per square foot to live in these dense urban neighborhoods like Belltown and South Lake Union in Seattle.

Now, uncontrollable phase of life issues are key in location preferences and decision making, and by that I mean marriage, domestic partnerships, children, career choices, divorce, aging, health, and so on. These forces collectively are much more important in shaping location and mobility than transportation and land use policies.

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