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Is Smart Growth Really 'Smart'?

Does Smart Growth really live up to its name? Or is it just more centralized government planning?

Many towns are engaging in some type of redevelopment or another.  And many are touting that it’s being based on Smart Growth Development.  While this type of development is being implemented, no one is questioning its validity.

So, what is Smart Growth?  And is it really all that smart?

Smart Growth development is a centralized land-use policy whose mission is to curb “suburban sprawl.”   In order to do that, the Smart Growth model of development is multi-use properties.  That is, retail on the bottom and apartments on top.  Some refer to this type of development as “stack ‘em and pack ‘em” housing.  These developments are built along transit lines, since that meets the other criteria of Smart Growth, to create pedestrian villages which extremely limit car use.

In the early days of our country, transportation was very limited.  This is why cities were the place to be.  It’s where commerce took place. 

As our choices in transportation became better, people realized they would like to live outside the city limits and actually own a piece of property.  In the suburbs, they could have a one family home with a private outdoor space and some distance between their neighbors.

Companies then began moving their locations to the suburbs where more people were living. 

But to some, the idea of moving to the suburbs and having more than an acre of land is unconscionable and unnecessary.  But according to whose value system?  And the implication of calling it “smart” implies that government bureaucrats are the all-knowing experts about how the rest of us should live.

But are Americans really ready to embrace high-density living?

The goals of Smart Growth are to control urban boundaries, reduce pollution and promote mass transit - all of which go against our American values of the right to own property, to live in the house and location of our choice and the ability to move about freely – not according to a transit schedule. 

National Geographic recently did a cover story on “The City’s Solutions to Earth’s Problems.”  Do you really solve environmental issues by forcing millions of people to live in densely populated urban areas?  Here’s their claim:  “City dwellers tread lightly: their roads, sewers and power lines are shorter.  Their apartments take less energy to heat and cool.  Most important, they drive less.” 

While Smart Growth advocates are completely concerned about congestion on the streets, they don’t seem to care about the people who are living in congested apartment buildings and all that brings with it.  More people in a congested, dense area mean more noise, more garbage, more pollution and more crime.  They have also left out the impact it places on local services –police, fire and the school system.  How do you properly educate the increased amounts of students in the public school system?

Washington Township in Warren County had to address this exact problem.  While town officials embraced the idea of Smart Growth, they never took into consideration the unintended consequences, which are overflowing schools, skyrocketing property taxes and main streets that are congested. They’ve had to turn trailers into school rooms, build a high school and expand two of its three other schools.  Not only that, most of the town does not get the benefits of a pedestrian friendly concept since the majority of residents live outside the developed area.  In 2007, they were looking at eminent domain to seize property to prevent developers from buying it and building more apartment buildings.

As this agenda has been forced upon us, none of their goals have been achieved.  What they set out to solve has been made worse.

First, if you limit people’s choices of where they can live, Smart Growth will actually end up driving up the cost of housing.  There will be less affordable one family homes.  Less housing logically leads to expensive housing. 

Secondly, this development has also failed to reduce pollution.  As more people are living in densely populated cities, it only follows logic that pollution would be worse in these over-crowded urban areas.  One needs only to think of Los Angeles and its major traffic and smog issue.  The reality is, while some people may drive less, there’s plenty who are still driving.  On top of that, add the increased amounts of garbage and noise pollution.  Has anyone walked on a NYC street the night before a garbage pickup?  Smells wonderful, looks wonderful and it brings out the best in urban wildlife.

We Americans are not giving up our cars.  We like the freedom of car ownership and the ability to go where we want, when we want.

More importantly, we are not giving up our right to own property – the cornerstone of freedom – to live in an apartment building that houses hundreds of other people.

To all those Smart Growth advocates who think city living with no personal outdoor space, crowded subways, crowded streets, garbage, noise pollution and crime is the way to live, I challenge you to sell your home in the suburbs and join the masses in the city.

For those of you who enjoy home ownership, a backyard and a car - stand your ground!

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AgEnders NJ February 15, 2012 at 09:25 PM
The problem in Portland is exactly what the State Office of Planning Advocacy and Gov. Christie want to bring here: "incentivizing" more development in "priority 'investment' areas" by offering economic incentives (tax breaks, streamlined permitting, lower fees, bonding/rebonding) all at taxpayer expense (taxpayers that live all over the state not just in "priority 'investment' areas".) When a planner says "investment" they mean "taxpayer money" -- specifically land owner property taxes -- land owners who live elsewhere in the state and will not benefit from the mid- to high-rise development/redevelopment. A "priority 'investment' area" is an urban area where a private redevelopment company will benefit from subsidies and taxpayer-funded offsets to gain fabulous profits from "smart growth" projects. We don't need more development; we have buildings standing empty. This state in the last 10 years lost $14Bn in wealth and 331,000 people. Businesses and jobs have fled. Rising taxes, property and energy costs have discouraged all except those who get special incentives (subsidized by you and me) or those who can not relocate for one reason or another. Small business is dying in New Jersey, So-called "smart growth," and the related layers upon layers of planning and restriction, inflate government and increase regulation and land prices. They kill business. Those residents who don't mind paying the 3+% state exit tax sell their homes and leave for less suffocating states.
George Hathaway February 17, 2012 at 04:27 PM
There is nothing wrong with controlling urban boundaries, reducing pollution, and promoting mass transit. If a community wants to do that (meaning all the citizens, not just the smart growth zealots) then it should be allowed to. However, there is a limit that the smart growth people have exceeded. For instance, some of the Sustainable Jersey standards include passing ordinances to turn off you car at stop lights, creating bike paths and sidewalks so people can walk to work (even though work might be 20 miles away), and dedicating money to building transit hubs in areas where the planners want people to live, in hopes that they will use mass transit to commute to their suburban jobs. In fact Sustainable Jersey and smart growth are about social and environmental justice, not economic development. The American Planning Associations publication, "Assessing Sustainability: A Guide for Local Governments" cites the UN as the source of its inspiration (page 3). If you read the UN document, and subsequent ICLEI documents, you will find that one of the basic tenats of sustainability is wealth redistribution... rich to poor countries on a global basis; rich to poor people on a local level. If you look deeply into Sustainable Jersey and earlier smart growth programs you will see this happening. You'll see it in the state strategic plan. Thanks, Sue Ann, for exposing this important issue.
Pete Mock February 17, 2012 at 06:31 PM
George, I've looked at a few of the Sustainable Jersey documents on the subject of idling and I can find nothing about "passing ordinances to turn off you car at stop lights". In fact, everything I looked at specifically refers to a three minute threshold, and idling for any period shorter than that is not addressed by any ordinance, proposed ordinance or even a resolution. Further, among the many exceptions listed in the Sustainable Jersey documents are "vehicles stopped in traffic", and that would include traffic lights. The only thing even close to what you state is that drivers in stopped vehicles be ENCOURAGED to turn off their engine after 10 seconds, as that's the point where leaving it running uses more gas that restarting. The NJ law regarding idling is already on the books and the ordinance specifically exempts "motor vehicles idling in traffic or in a queue of motor vehicles that are intermittently motionless due to traffic or other conditions over which the driver has no control". So unless State law is changed you’ll be allowed to keep your car running at that red light as long as your heart desires. As far as sidewalks and bike paths and encouraging use of mass transit so people leave their car at home, those things sound like common sense to me. If you see those things as, god forbid, social and environmental justice, then I have no argument to fight that logic.
George Hathaway February 17, 2012 at 07:29 PM
Peter, I refer you to the following Sustainable Jersey link http://www.sustainablejersey.com/actiondesc.php?arr_num=49&id_num=7!2, which refers specfically to anti-idling. It links to a detailed explanation of the state law and how local officials can enforce it. I was wrong about the ordinances. However it appears that there is a genuine state anti-idling law and that the local governments can enforce it if they so choose. Can you imagine dedicating law enforcement people in, say Newark, to ticketing people who are idling their cars longer than 3 minutes. It seems to me that is a gross misapplication of police resources. But it is sustainable. A further response in another post.
George Hathaway February 17, 2012 at 09:49 PM
Further, I have no problem with public transportation. I commuted, by rail, from my home in Franklin Township to New York City for 20 years. However, since my home is 4 miles from the train station, it would be rather inconvenient to walk or ride a bike to the station. Yet, Sustainable Jersey would give us a lot of credit for creating sidewalks and bike paths to the station. Sorry, no room for these unless you want to condemn some property (which was suggested in a recent proposed county plan). Public transportation is great as long as you are feeding a central location. But what about all those who travel from, say, Raritan to Morristown? Would you recommend they take the Raritan Valley line to Newark, tranfer to the Morristown line and then walk to work? Or are they better off driving? Would you build a green energy industry cluster in say, Somerville, and then expect a migration of new workers who will live withing walking distance of the factories? This is what the proposed state strategic plan is proposing. It is very wasteful and very dangerous wishful thinking. We should all be good stewards of the environment. However, centralized planning and control is not the way to do it. Sustainable (smart) growth is just that. Bringing everyone down to the lowest economic denominator is the way to create the kind of environmental standards as China and India have? Have you ever been to Mumbai...?

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