Most folks would never consider that the choice between intown and suburban living could hold any moral implications. The questions of cost, security, education options, house size, and yard size are far more important in buyers’ minds. But to those who fear the sprawl of cities into suburbs and beyond, the decision to live either in an urban setting or in tract housing outside the city is the choice between salvation and damnation. They think in terms of auto emissions, storm-water runoff, community disconnect, and livability, a code word that hides their desire to make housing choices for everyone.
They never think in terms of property rights and choice.
“Let’s not try to pretend these choices are morally equal,” Charles Brewer, MindSpring founder, millionaire, and now a developer of intown housing, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in March when comparing traditional neighborhoods with suburbia. Last October the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit joined others in the church to proclaim urban sprawl an enemy of the church to be fought through a political–not spiritual–crusade. A few years ago, the New York Times declared that it is freedom that “lies at the root of Atlanta’s [sprawl] crisis.”1 The implication, of course, is that sprawl rivals money as the root of evil.
Since the 1950s, America has been moving away from the cores of its cities to suburbia. The middle class thought it was simply opting for larger houses, bigger yards, less crime, and better schools. But the Sierra Club has called the move “The Dark Side of the American Dream,” a malignancy that could not be allowed to spread.2
The remedy was “smart growth,” which has been widely expressed through “New Urbanism.” Proponents of New Urbanism, such as Brewer, wish to recreate the traditional cities of pre-World War II America, where people lived in dense, self-contained, pedestrian- and mass-transit-centered communities in urban settings.
It’s not nostalgia that motivates the smart-growth advocates. They are driven instead by what they judge to be a superior worldview based not on choices made by individuals but on what the advocates see as important. They believe in the “traditional neighborhood pattern,” which they declare (in Brewer’s words), as if it’s settled fact, “consumes much less land and wildlife habitat, and . . . leads to much less air pollution and much less water pollution as compared to the conventional suburban pattern. From an environmental point of view, it is simply a better choice.”3
The first claim is debatable. Unless all future intown housing is of the high-rise variety, as long as homes are being built, new neighborhoods based on traditional patterns will consume land. How much more or less than suburban housing depends on market choice and public policy.
Destruction of wildlife habitat is not limited to suburban development. There is potential for animals to be dispersed wherever man builds. Wildlife was displaced when those quaint old homes so tightly packed together were built 50 or more years ago. And it continues. In the spring of 2000 construction on the government-subsidized Bay Area Rapid Transit system in California was shut down for 18 days when a foot-long garter snake was crushed and his habitat presumably destroyed at a work site. Dozens of luckier snakes were caught–and apparently displaced from their habitats–at the site, where workers were expanding public mass transit, the sort of progress that has enormous appeal to smart-growth activists.
The second statement is arguable. The gridlock found in dense cities causes greater air pollution.4 Think of all those cars idling while drivers wait for traffic lights to change just to move a block or two before doing it again.
All that makes the third assertion simply wrong. The traditional pattern may be the better choice for some but not for others. Anti-sprawl projects and the gridlock found in a densely packed urban core have their own harmful effects on the environment.
The most visible face of New Urbanism is Seaside, Florida, an early project of designers Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, widely recognized as leaders of the New Urbanism movement. Seaside is the substance of the imagination of Robert Davis, who began in 1982 to recreate on his 80 acres on the Gulf the beach towns he had known as a child. It is a planned beachside community of charming wood-frame cottages with clever names and wide porches; shady, pedestrian-friendly lanes; and neighbors who are gracious, even if they’re in town only for a short visit. It offers a glimpse and a feel of a time gone by.
Critics say the town is a bit cloying, almost too perfect. It’s the unreal world of The Truman Show, the Jim Carrey movie filmed in Seaside, whose pastel homes and picket fences seemed to share top billing with the star rather than support him.
Yet Seaside works. It works largely because it was privately planned, privately developed, and is privately owned. Those who enjoy Seaside, the homeowners and the repeat visitors, enter into the experience voluntarily. They take pleasure in the escape from reality offered by its pink and turquoise hues.
There is a central plan, and there are central planners who administer strict architectural codes, from roof pitch to roofing materials, and from outside lighting to the color of exterior paint. But Seaside is not a retrofit development in an existing city where the property is owned by discrete parties who are unlikely to share a common goal, yet are highly likely to have many of their choices made for them by a government board or agency. Nor is it an urban or suburban infill project micromanaged by bureaucratic decree. It is a vacation destination for all but a few full-time residents, 40 at last count, and its visitors appreciate the beauty created by the code, just as vacationers value the architectural planning that makes large hotel resorts the havens that they are.
Seaside works for those reasons. And it works because it was built from the sugar-white sand of Florida’s Panhandle where the beach once met the pines. There was no government agency dreaming up and managing its development, no board dictating the actions of others. No one used the coercive power of the state.
Whether by design or accident, the development of Seaside acknowledged the integrity of the free market. Those who liked the Seaside design were free to join Davis in his vision to build a town. Those who didn’t were just as free to go elsewhere. It was Davis’s land and he was exercising his property rights. If he wished to sell only to those who would comply with his plan, that was his business. At Seaside, no one’s liberty is being violated by an urban boundary, restrictive government building codes, or limits on lot size, all ingredients of the smart-growth stew Americans are being asked to swallow.
That point seems to be lost on the advocates of smart growth. Convinced that their ideals are morally superior, many want the force of government to further their movement. While understanding that to achieve their goals they’ll have to coerce people to do things they don’t want to, these activists fail to recognize that their goals can never be realized–unless society falls entirely under the absolute control of the state.
What Do Americans Want?
The New Urbanists believe–and use data to try to prove–that Americans don’t want sprawl. These advocates are convinced the country favors traditional neighborhoods over tidy developments in the suburbs with serene-sounding names and prefers expanded public transportation over more asphalt. So they push their agenda, yet seem puzzled that New Urbanism hasn’t sucked masses of suburbanites back to town or at least halted the growth of suburbia. Despite their efforts to rein in growth, cities continue to sprawl out from their cores.
The obvious factor they’re missing is that planning has its limits and its outer boundary is public choice. In places where governments have tried to fight sprawl with policy, they’ve lost. When the central planners have attempted to force their idea of the good on an ostensibly free people, those people have rebelled.
Portland, Oregon’s Metro plan, arguably the most ambitious effort to direct smart growth, was going to curb sprawl by keeping growth within an urban ring. But not only did the boundary create an artificial shortage of housing that has sent home prices soaring, the 1979 plan hasn’t yet stopped the spread. The city’s metro area has extended past the mandated perimeter by leaping the no-build zone onto land beyond the Portland Metropolitan Council’s jurisdiction. The homeowners who built on that land now have to drive farther to their jobs and other destinations in and around Portland than they would have if they had been free to live in the green area the Metro Council roped off to development. That means more time in cars and more emissions filling the air, a reality the smart-growth crusaders apparently didn’t anticipate and certainly don’t welcome.
The lesson, still unlearned by the smart-growth camp, is that while traditional neighborhoods might be appealing, a large segment of America wants the bigger homes, larger yards, better schools, and relative safety they typically find in the suburbs.
Still the smart-growth advocates march on. They block new road and infrastructure construction intended to serve suburban development. They seek out government grants to curb sprawl and would ban gated communities if they could. Look behind light-rail projects that go nowhere and there will be a stubborn troop of anti-sprawlers.
Some of the more zealous even believe in the morality of their convictions so deeply that it’s reasonable to fear that they are on the brink of urging local governments to seize private homes through eminent domain so they can be replaced with high-rises. So far it hasn’t happened. But Dana Smith, a homeowner from Daly City in the San Francisco Bay area, is worried it might.5 Smith’s concerns are so great that she’s even handed out fliers at government smart-growth workshops that say: “Excuse me, someone already lives where you want to build your high-rises.”
Ultimately, there is a moral component to sprawl, but it’s exactly the opposite of what the anti-sprawl faction assumes. There are deep moral questions when government considers using the powers of taxation and coercion to order lives. Should governing bodies limit choice through public policy to achieve what a few believe is the ideal for the many? Or should they defend the freedom to live where one chooses?
If it’s the former, government has entered into the business of making value judgments, a realm better left to individuals. If it’s the latter, then governments across the country will have to give a hard look at where public policy fits into the trend toward smart growth.
None of this is meant to defend suburbs, which can be a blight even to those who defend suburbanites’ right to live where they wish. Nor is it an attack on traditional and intown neighborhoods, which often have the soul and charm that’s missing from tract homes. The only defense is of choice and property rights, and the only rebuke is of those who feel a moral imperative to restrict them.
C.C. Kraemer is the pen name of a writer who lives in California.
- David Firestone, “Choking on Growth: A special report. In Atlanta, Suburban Comforts Thwart Plans to Limit Sprawl,” New York Times, November 21, 1999, p. 1.
- “The Dark Side of the American Dream: The Costs and Consequences of Suburban Sprawl,” Sierra Club, September 1998.
- Charles Brewer, Katharine Kelley, and Walter Brown, “Morality Does Play a Role in Neighborhood Choice,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 26, 2002.
- Wendell Cox, “Smart Growth: Retarding the Quality of Life,” Demographia, May 27, 2002, www.demographia.com/dib-smg.htm.
- Carol Lloyd, “Surreal Estate: Stopping Suburban Sprawl,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 21, 2002.