The conservative case for smart growth
James Bacon of Bacon's Rebellion offers a case for smart growth and New Urbanism that is tailored for hard-core conservative Republicans.
Bacon sounds like a guy who gets along fine with Tea Party activists. He is all about lower taxes, opposition to regulation, and property rights. He even promotes the view that global warming is a hoax cooked up by liberals.
Needless to say, Bacon's worldview is not perfectly aligned with typical supporters of smart growth. Nevertheless, he makes a strong case for smart growth in this essay, which is based on a presentation that he made at the Twentieth Congress for the New Urbanism in West Palm Beach in May. He makes the following arguments, among others (I would recommend reading the full essay):
Land use codes. The underlying premise of zoning codes is that different land uses — residential, retail and commercial — should be rigidly segregated. Of course it makes sense to separate some land uses, in particular industrial activities that are excessively toxic, noisy, dusty or otherwise unpleasant. But for the most part, there is no rational reason for the codes. Most problems that stem from houses and businesses existing side by side can be resolved with nuisance codes.
Low densities. Many counties have imposed density limitations on new growth with the thought that they would limit the impact of development on roads and schools. But smearing 1,000 people over 1,000 acres of land is impossible to provide with roads, utilities and services as efficiently as if they were concentrated in 100 acres, or even 10 acres, of land. Fiscal conservatives should object to such inefficiency. And property rights advocates should object to the restrictions placed on what property owners can build on their land.
Leapfrog development. Leapfrog development makes human settlement patterns even more inefficient by scattering subdivisions, shopping centers and office parks across the countryside, leaving large holes in the urban fabric. Scatteration is more expensive to serve with roads, utilities and public services than compact development. This phenomenon, along with segregated land uses and density downzoning, drives up the cost of local government and transportation.
Parking mandates. Zoning codes mandate minimum parking requirements in an indiscriminate manner, as if homeowners, shopping center developers and employers couldn't judge for themselves how much parking they need. Because parking is mandated, property developers have no incentive to economize on space or to achieve synergies between land uses that experience peak parking demands during the day (offices) and the evening (residences). The result is a vast excess of mostly empty acreage devoted to parking. This parking is expensive, driving up the cost of development, and it pushes buildings farther apart at the expense of walkability. Parking mandates should be odious to every conservative who opposes unnecessary regulation.
I don't know whether Bacon's arguments will be persuasive with conservatives or Tea Party activists. But it's important to have the case made from that side of the political spectrum.
It's also encouraging to see Michigan's Republican Gov. Rick Snyder take a strong stand in favor of placemaking and livable communities with his new MiPlace Initiative (BCT will be reporting on that in the June issue).
Bacon is right — liberals should not own this issue. There is nothing inherently liberal, or conservative, about compact, mixed-use communities. Human civilization had been building them for thousands of years prior to switching to sprawl in the middle of the 20th Century. This switch was heavily suported by government regulation and infrastructure construction.