Agenda 21 and other wacky theories
Anti-smart growth ideologues have never shied away from half-truths and dubious arguments, but recent references to Agenda 21, Portland, Detroit, and Denver are unusually strange.
This article co-authored by Wendell Cox and Ronald Utt focuses on the United Nation's Agenda 21, adopted in 1992, and its supposed connection to the smart growth movement. I guess the point is that if the UN issues a proclamation — in this case in favor of sustainable development — then any related activity must be part of some kind of world-government plot. The UN is also in favor of economic growth, peace, diplomatic relations, and education, and for programs that fight hunger, disease, and tooth decay.
According to my unscientific estimate, 99.9 percent of smart growth advocates don't even know what Agenda 21 is. The only reason why they may have heard of it at all is due conspiracy theories from the fringe of the Tea Party. It's remarkable to me that nationally known smart growth critics — albeit the most strident ones — are making the case under the banner of the Heritage Foundation that smart growth is built upon a UN agenda. Utt and Cox summarize Agenda 21:
These policies are presented in four sections:
- Social and economic dimensions (e.g., international cooperation to accelerate sustainable development in developing countries, combating poverty, changing consumption patterns, promoting sustainable human settlement development);
- Conservation and management of resources for development (e.g., protection of the atmosphere, planning and management of land resources, promoting sustainable agriculture and rural development);
- Strengthening the role of major groups (e.g., women, children, indigenous people, workers and trade unions); and
- Means of implementation (e.g., financing, technology transfer, promoting education and public awareness, international legal instruments).
The authors explain:
It is the policies endorsed by Agenda 21 that are of most concern, and these policies are not confined to Agenda 21. On the contrary, those policies undergird the smart-growth agenda that has gained widespread acceptance in many parts of the US to the detriment of local economies.
The authors contend that smart growth began in California and Oregon in the 1970s (well before Agenda 21, it should be noted). This contention is, first of all, highly questionable with regards to California. Despite recent policies that should move the state towards smart growth, California has historically been a world leader in sprawl, and many of its government actions over the last three decades have promoted the construction of automobile-oriented subdivisions and highways over other forms of transportation. A few California cities adopted urban growth boundaries starting in the 1970s, but that policy in isolation is not be to confused with the birth of smart growth.
Oregon's leading city, Portland, has been progressive in adopting smart growth policies and is an icon the movement. (In addition to its urban growth boundary, the city has also built light rail, promoted transit-oriented development and mixed-use planning, built the nation’s largest bicycle network, calmed streets, reduced off-street parking requirements, and much more).
These policies got underway in earnest in Portland in the 1980s and 1990s — before the term "smart growth" was coined. If, according to Cox and Utt's way of thinking, Portland's growth management policies were economic killers, surely the city would have suffered severely in the last 30 years. Yet Portland has undergone one of the most notable renaissances of any American city. Portland’s population was stagnant from 1950 to 1980, but took off since 1980 — surging 59 percent.
Anyone who has been to Portland in recent years can attest to the thriving cultural and economic activity. Portland has a strong arts and music scene, is home to more breweries than any city in the world, has a strong knowledge economy, and is a "foodie" town with varied and lively restaurants. The Metro region — which has been subject to smart growth policies — is home to or has significant operations of a long list of sizable corporations. All the while, Portland has cut its greenhouse gas emissions per capita by 16.2 percent since 1990.
While Cox and Utt are peddling these strange ideas, another pro-sprawl voice, Randal O'Toole, was warning the City of Detroit on Friday that if the city builds light rail, it would end up like Portland, Oregon, and Denver, Colorado. Detroit has lost more than 60 percent of its population since 1950, including more than 237,000 people in the last decade, and is internationally known as a city in freefall. Detroit incidentally has the worst public transit system of any major US city. It has also arguably invested more public funds per capita in roads, for a longer period of time, than any city in the US — starting with the first concrete road paving in 1909.
I'm sure Detroit is terrified of repeating the mistakes of Portland and Denver — another city that was in decline in the 1970s and 1980s but has turned things around in a big way.
I've been told that in 1990, you could bowl ten-pins on many Denver downtown streets without disrupting traffic. Due to revitalization and smart growth, Denver's downtown has become one of the livelier urban cores in the US. Meanwhile, the city's population has surged by more than 130,000 in the last two decades — a 28 percent rise. By all means, Detroit, don't make the mistakes that Portland and Denver have made.