Conservative Viewpoints

"Government is not the solution…it is the problem" -Ronald Reagan

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Urban Growth demands people driven solutions

Posted by Stephen on February 8, 2007

Government instituted urban growth boundaries have a long history of failure with respect to containing growth. In A History of London, Stephen Inwood writes that Queen Elizabeth I established an urban growth boundary in London in 1580. It failed to contain growth and development continued outside the urban growth boundaries.
Willms Johannes wrote, in Paris: Capital of Europe, that King Louis XIII established an urban growth boundary in Paris in 1638. It failed to contain development, as did subsequent urban growth boundaries established by Louis XIV and Louis XV.

London imposed an urban growth boundary by purchasing a “Green Belt” surrounding the city in the 1930s. Since that time, London’s population density inside the Green Belt has fallen as 1.5 million people have left the city. Inner London’s population dropped 43 percent, while that of outer London rose 12 percent. Population in the surrounding counties increased 273 percent as development “leap-frogged” across the urban growth boundary to areas beyond the Green Belt.

Sir Peter Hall, in Cities in Civilization, describes the resistance of Stockholm area residents to planning dictates which required that suburban development be on rail lines and at higher housing densities. Much stronger land use policies and much higher densities in suburban Stockholm failed to produce the anticipated reliance on rail transit, as automobile use continued to increase substantially. In recent years, most new housing has been single-family detached, and automobile dependency has increased.

Another argument used is that cities cannot afford to subsidize the sewers, water, and other infrastructure needed to support low density suburbs. Randal O’Toole of the Thoreau Institute points out that in fact, as noted by Harvard researchers Alan Altshuler and José Gómez-Ibáñez, it costs far less to provide infrastructure to new developments than it does to augment the infrastructure of existing areas to support the higher densities demanded by smart growth.

O’Toole adds that older studies that purported to demonstrate the “costs of sprawl” which were based entirely on hypothetical data seem to have gotten it backwards: An analysis of actual urban service costs by Duke University researcher Helen Ladd found that the costs are higher in higher densities.

Make no mistake about it, urban development has its problems including congestion, air pollution, inadequate transportation alternatives for people who cannot drive, and conflicts over land use and open space. However, it is argued that smart growth policies make those problems worse. On the other hand, many if not all of the problems have free-market or market-like solutions.

My favorite part…some solutions

Since the 1960s, British transportation economist Gabriel Roth has argued that busy roadways should institute a toll system that charges higher fees for driving during rush hour than other hours of the day. That proposal has become practical thanks to the development of electronic toll collection, which has removed the need for traffic-delaying tollbooths. Such “value pricing,” as supporters call Roth’s plan, is currently in use on highways in California, Texas, New Jersey, and elsewhere.

Market forces can also be used to provide incentives for auto owners to drive cleaner cars. Governments could institute annual fees for drivers that are based on the amount of pollution that each car emits. The fees would encourage drivers to install clean air technologies in their cars, purchase newer, more efficient vehicles, and do less driving.

Another people driven solution was provided by University of Maryland professor Robert Nelson who has proposed that cities with zoning should instead “privatize their neighborhoods” by allowing people to form their own neighborhood associations and take over zoning questions. Such neighborhoods could also protect open space and create neighborhood parks.

O’ Toole concludes that, “such market-oriented policies allow people to choose how they want to live and insure that they pay the full cost of their choices. In contrast, smart growth advocates seem to believe that they know best how people should live. That belief seems destined to one day join the beliefs in urban renewal and public housing projects as government directed efforts that caused enormous damage to urban livability.”

Stephen Winslow is the executive editor of Conservative Viewpoints.


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