Debating Smart Growth

Todd Litman's picture

Last Thursday I debated the merits of smart growth with ‘Anti-planner' Randal O'Toole at a community forum in Langley, a rapidly-growing suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia. A recording of the Debate and presenters' slide shows are available at the end more than three quarters of the audience voted for a pro-smart-growth resolution. This may reflect some selection bias – people concerned about sprawl may have been more likely to attend – but I believe that given accurate information most citizens will support smart growth due to its various savings and benefits.  

Smart growth sometimes faces organized opposition by critics. It is important that planners respond effectively and professionally. Here is my critique of O'Toole's claims and some advice for planners who face similar critics. 

Major Themes

Smart growth deprives people of freedom.

O'Toole claims that sprawl gives people freedom to live and travel as they want, which reflects simplistic and inaccurate assumptions about what people want and the constraints they face. Smart growth does not force everybody to live in high-rise apartments (one of O'Toole's claims), nor does it eliminate automobile travel. Sprawl may give some people more freedom to develop urban-fringe land and marginally reduce the per-mile costs of driving, but it reduces our freedom to walk, bike and use public transit, and therefore deprives non-drivers of freedom. Sprawl reduces financial freedom by increasing transport and infrastructure costs, and by increasing traffic casualty rates (four times higher in sprawled than smart growth areas) and medical problems associated sedentary living (try explaining to a car crash spinal cord injury victim that driving represents freedom), and therefore the need to subsidize medical and disability expenses. Although smart growth may restrict some activities, such as conversion of farms to housing, it increases freedom for other types of development by reducing restrictions on density and mix, and excessive parking and setback requirements.


Smart growth reduces housing affordability.

O'Toole frequently argues that sprawl reduces housing costs, based on comparisons of the costs of a single-family house in coastal cities such as Portland and Vancouver, and sprawled cities such as Houston. This analysis ignores important factors: the coastal cities are popular places to live (Vancouver is frequently rated as one of the most livable cities in the world), have higher average incomes (which drives up housing costs), and fewer residents live in large-lot single-family houses (that is a constraint that residents accept for living in such cities). Even more important, O'Toole ignored the higher transport costs faced by residents of sprawled locations. Analysis of actual household expenditures shows that residents of more compact, multi-modal neighborhood tend to spend less on housing and transport costs combined than residents in sprawled locations. These costs are likely to increase as oil prices rise in the future, and are even greater if you include indirect costs such as the additional road, parking, congestion and accident costs associated with sprawl. 

This is not to ignore the importance of housing affordability. It is true that smart growth policies can increase unit land costs (dollars per acre), which will tend to increase housing costs unless implemented with policies that allow more compact and affordable residential development, including allowing more density and mix, and reducing parking and setback requirements, as discussed in my recent blog, Smart Growth and Housing Affordability

O'Toole cited a 2002 study, The Impact of Zoning on Housing Affordability as proof that smart growth increases housing costs, but this misrepresents the research. Although this study did indicate that zoning increases housing costs, it is regulations that prevent more compact, infill development and require generous minimum parking supply in areas with growing housing demand that reduces housing affordability. The study found little correlation between lot size and price, as would be expected if consumers all want large-lot housing; instead it found that restrictions which make it difficult to subdivide parcels, and therefore prevent larger-lot single-family parcels from being converted to smaller-lot and multi-family developments in existing urban areas, cause excessive housing costs. Smart growth policy reforms are exactly what is needed to increase housing affordability in such circumstances.

I described our own family's experience: because we live in a compact and multi-modal neighborhood our household saves $5,000 to $10,000 annually on automobile costs compared with a sprawled, automobile-dependent location, providing savings that finance our children's university education – that is real freedom!


Smart growth fails to reduce driving, energy consumption, air pollution emissions and infrastructure costs.

O'Toole claimed that there is little evidence that smart growth can reduce vehicle travel and associated costs. In recent years an extensive body of research has identified how land use factors such as density, mix, connectivity, transit accessibility and parking supply affect travel activity. Although individually many of these impacts may seem modest, their cumulative impacts are can be large – smart growth community residents typically drive 20-60% less than they would if located in automobile-dependent sprawl

Smart growth and transit critics tend to use regional mode share (portion of total trips by walking, cycling, public transit and automobile) as their main indicator of transport system performance, ignoring the facts that more compact development and high quality transit tend to have leverage effects (so there are often several automobile vehicle-miles reduced for each additional passenger-mile of high-quality public transit), that transit service is concentrated on a few corridors, and conventional travel surveys tend to undercount non-motorized travel. For these reasons, per capita vehicle-mileage is a better indicator of smart growth effectiveness, and mode share on corridors with high quality public transit is a better indicator of transit investment effectiveness. O'Toole claimed that Europeans drive almost as much as North Americans, citing national mode share data, but Europeans drive about half as much, and automobile mode share in European cities is much lower, than in North America.   

O'Toole misrepresented research (The National Association of Home Builders made similar claims, which I analyzed in my blog, An Inaccurate Attack On Smart Growth). He cited a study indicating that city center residents consume more total energy per capita than suburban residents, implying that denser development increases energy consumption, although the effect actually reflected city center residents' greater wealth. He also cited a study indicating that energy use per square foot is higher in multi-family than single-family housing, but that simply reflects the effects of energy consuming activities (refrigerating food, cooking, watching television) in more compact housing, which increases energy use per square foot although energy use per capita declines. In fact, there is plenty of good research indicating significant per capita energy savings from more compact development. 

O'Toole claimed that research indicating that smart growth reduces infrastructure costs is "theoretical" and "ambiguous." In fact, there is abundant evidence that more compact development can provide significant savings and efficiencies.


Public transit is inefficient.

O'Toole argued that public transit – particularly rail transit – is more costly and less fuel efficient than modern automobiles, and showed a video about self-driving cars, with the implication that this will eliminate the need for public transit to provide basic mobility for non-drivers, or people out drinking.

But this analysis misrepresents the issues. Public transit is costly and fuel inefficient in sprawled areas where demand is low, but is cost and energy efficient if implemented with smart growth strategies such as bus lanes, walkable neighborhoods and efficient parking management. Self-driving cars may be appropriate for some users, but they only address one problem – inadequate mobility for non-drivers, and they exacerbate other traffic problems such as congestion, consumer costs, energy consumption and pollution emissions.


Everybody (or at least most "normal" people) want single-family homes and automobile travel.

O'Toole claims that surveys indicate that more than 80% of households want single-family homes, and that only a minority, mostly young people, want to live in smart growth communities and rely significantly on walking, cycling and public transit. That miss-represents the research and its implications for smart growth. It is inaccurate to imply that smart growth eliminates single-family housing, and although most people say that they want to live in a single-family home at some points in their life, particularly if they have children, this represents a declining portion of total households – in fact, the number of families with children is not expected to grow significantly in North America, so the current stock of single-family homes is sufficient to meet that demand. Demographic growth will primarily consist of younger singles and childless couples, and seniors, groups that tend to prefer smaller homes. A major portion of consumers say that they want to live in a walkable neighborhood with nearby services, and many would accept compact housing options (small lots or multi-family) in exchange for improved accessibility or financial savings. The real estate industry sees growing demand for smart growth. 


Farmland preservation is unimportant

O'Toole argued that farmland preservation is an unnecessawry planning objective since there is no shortage of farmland in the world. But the Fraser River Valley lands are unique and serve a variety of economic and environmental functions including food production, wildlife habitat and beauty. 


Highlights of My Presentation

I started my presentation with a series of slides showing the route from my home to our local pub. I consider walkability to local drinking establishments a good indicator of a smart growth community. This lead to a discussion with the audience of the benefits of having a local pub where residents can walk rather than drive when going out for a drink. Together we identified several benefits of this type of community design: reduced drunk driving, financial savings (you can afford to drink more), improved public fitness and health (you can drink more without gaining weight), reduced traffic and parking congestion, more connection among neighbors ("community cohesion") and resulting increases in neighborhood security, reduced noise and air pollution, and more enjoyment, to name a few.

I then showed three slides that illustrate how sprawl could result from residential development in currently agricultural land near Langley, and the impacts this would have on residents travel patterns, local traffic problems, infrastructure costs, and environmental impacts.

I then discussed research on the various costs of sprawl and the economic, social and environmental benefits of smart growth. Although we had insufficient time to discuss these impacts in detail, I was able to show some highlights and mention some sources for more information about them.


Recommendations for good debates

Critics often try to make debates personal: they accuse smart growth advocates and professional planners of being selfish and elitist. If your opponent makes a personal attack, respond by saying, "Let's focus on the issues."

Speak to the audience, not your opponent. Focus on people's concerns: wealth, health and happiness. 

Don't be afraid to acknowledge when your opponent raises a legitimate point, for example, that housing affordability is an important issue, but show how smart growth can reconsile that goal with other planning objectives.

To a general audience, planning issues often seem theoretical and complex; use stories and examples to illustrate how specific policies and planning decisions affect people's futures.

Be prepared to back up your statments with references (I've provided some useful ones below).

Please share your suggestions for effectively responding to smart growth critics in public debates.


For More Information

Robert Burchell, et al (2000), The Costs of Sprawl – Revisited, TCRP Report 39, Transportation Research Board (; at

CMHC (2006), Tool For Costing Sustainable Community Planning, Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (; at

DVTPC (2008), Smart Transportation Guidebook: Planning and Designing Highways and Streets that Support Sustainable and Livable Communities, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (; at

DVRPC (2008), Making the Land Use Connection: Regional What-If Scenario Analysis, Deleware Valley Regional Planning Commission (; at

Reid Ewing (1996), Best Development Practices: A Primer for Smart Growth, Planners Press (; at

Reid Ewing, Keith Bartholomew, Steve Winkelman, Jerry Walters and Don Chen (2007), Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change, Urban Land Institute and Smart Growth America (

ITE (2010), Smart Growth Transportation Guidelines, Recommended Practice, Institute of Transportation Engineers (; at

JRC (2011), Location Efficiency and Housing Type-Boiling it Down to BTUs, Jonathan Rose Companies for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (; at

Jonathan Levine, Aseem Inam, Richard Werbel and Gwo-Wei Torng (2002), Land Use and Transportation Alternatives: Constraint or Expansion of Household Choice?, Mineta Transportation Institute, Report 01-19 (; at; also published as "A Choice-Based Rationale for Land Use and Transportation Alternatives," Journal of Planning Education and Research, Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 317-330, 2005 (

Todd Litman (2005), "Evaluating Transportation Land Use Impacts," World Transport Policy & Practice, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 9-16 (; updated version at

Todd Litman (2005), Land Use Impacts on Transport, Victoria Transport Policy Institute (; at

Todd Litman (2005b), Understanding Smart Growth Savings: What We Know About Public Infrastructure and Service Cost Savings, And How They are Misrepresented By Critics, Victoria Transport Policy Institute (; at

Todd Litman (2008), Recommendations for Improving LEED Transportation and Parking Credits, VTPI (; at

Todd Litman (2009), Where We Want To Be: Home Location Preferences And Their Implications For Smart Growth, Victoria Transport Policy Institute (; at  

Todd Litman (2010), Affordable-Accessible Housing In A Dynamic City: Why and How To Support Development of More Affordable Housing In Accessible Locations, Victoria Transport Policy Institute (; at

Todd Litman (2011), "Why and How to Reduce the Amount of Land Paved for Roads and Parking Facilities," Environmental Practice, Vol. 13, No. 1, March, pp. 38-46;

Todd Litman (2011), "Can Smart Growth Policies Conserve Energy and Reduce Emissions?" Portland State University's Center for Real Estate Quarterly (, Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring, pp. 21-30; at Also see, Critique of the National Association of Home Builders' Research On Land Use Emission Reduction Impacts, Victoria Transport Policy Institute (; at

RMLUI (2008), Sustainable Community Development Code, Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute, Strum College of Law (; at

SGN (2002 and 2004), Getting To Smart Growth: 100 Policies for Implementation, and Getting to Smart Growth II: 100 More Policies for Implementation, Smart Growth Network ( and International City/County Management Association (

TransForm (2009), Windfall For All: How Connected, Convenient Neighborhoods Can Protect Our Climate and Safeguard California's Economy, TransForm (; summary at

USEPA (2009), Essential Smart Growth Fixes for Urban and Suburban Zoning Codes, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (; at

SGN (2011), What is Smart Growth?, Smart Growth Network and US Environmental Protection Agency (


Thanks to Charles Montgomery for his insights.



Todd Litman is the executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.



How it is done.

Isn't this how some ideologies always do it, according to the standard template? X misrepresented the research, X misrepresented the facts, X misrepresented the data, X misrepresented the research, X misrepresented the findings, X misrepresented the research, X misrepresented the conclusions, X misrepresented the results, X misrepresented the reality on the ground, X misrepresented what people actually want, X misrepresented the research, X misrepresented the conclusions.

Right out of the playbook. That is how it is done, with some arm-waving and misdirection and conflation thrown in for effect.

Nonetheless, this is much better than prolix analyses with no recommendations for action. Very useful for others. This is how sharing is done. Thank you.



Todd Litman's picture

Smarter Smart Growth Debates

Thanks for your comments, Dano.

However, I respectfully disagree. A debate such as this begins with a discuss of people's goals and values - what they want their community to look like in the future and why. This requires audience engagement - a discussion not a lecture. The key is to communicate the multiple benefits of smart growth, and how those reflect a community's aspirations. I believe that most people want to live in a smart growth community because it is inherently more resource efficient and equitable (since it provides better accessibility for non-drivers).

During this debate, O'Toole repeatedly tried to portray me as a minority because I prefer living in an accessible, multi-modal neighborhood, and I think that's why he lost. Market surveys indicate that a majority of people want to live in a neighborhood that has coffee shops, pubs and grocery stores within convenient walking distance, so the examples I showed had a positive response.

I think it is important to respond to inaccurate and misrepresented facts, but arguments about these details should not be the focus of the debate. That is why I post my responses to O'Toole's claims here, rather than spend the entire debate time arguing facts.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"


Todd, I merely pointed out the rhetorical tactics that certain ideologies use, using phrases found in your essay. That is all I did. I didn't make recommendations or give ideas for their use nor state that it is better to point out the tactics of the opponent during a debate.

Maybe in the future to avoid confusion, I'll remember to include a phrase from the essay, italicized. And do it after I'm fully caffeinated. ;o)

Nevertheless, your type of essay is much more useful than recent essays found here that were too prolix and absent recommendations to be useful.



Todd's fine review of the debate

I traveled up to British Columbia (from Seattle) to attend this debate, a trip well worth making. Both men did a very good job in presenting their points of view.

Picking up on Todd's point, "Critics often try to make debates personal," I was struck by Todd's very personal introduction to his argument, showing a series of pictures of the neighborhood he lives in and obviously likes living in, a lot! Randal alluded to how much he likes trains and riding his bicycle, two features of smart growth, with trains being too expensive to provide widely as smart growth policy.

I understand the debate organizers advocate the development of light rail service in the Vancouver suburb where the debate took place. Both sides of that issue would find general support for their point of view in the debate.

Todd's comprehensive recap of his debate points in the above post is very useful, and I hope Randal takes the time to do the same, either here or elsewhere.

I understood Todd in the debate to be saying that there are public policies that yield smart growth, and that's a good thing, for example, look at my neighborhood and how much money I've saved by driving less, and that policy creating neighborhoods like mine should be implemented widely. Randal argues that many of the public policies meant to promote smart growth often don't work, or if they do, they cost too much for what they yield in benefit such as transit mode share growth and reduced energy consumption, and they generate high consumer costs from less affordable housing. Both point to academic studies that support their point of view.

I provided my own recap to the debate organizers that is posted with other reaction at the South Fraser Blog site noted above, . Most importantly, this is the web location where you can review the debate for yourself.

On the "coastal city" point Todd made above as part of explaining high housing costs in Vancouver, let me note that Houston is a coastal city and despite the sprawl, has some great walkable neighborhoods. It's a very popular place to live, growing rapidly. Also, in relating sprawl to housing costs, aren't the housing costs lower in the sprawling Vancouver suburbs -- such as the debate location -- than in the more tightly packed City of Vancouver and its first ring of suburbs?

John Niles, Seattle

Todd Litman's picture

Debate Feedback

Thanks John for the feedback.

I do think that you are focusing too much on rail transit costs. Rail transit is actually a small component of smart growth. Under the right circumstances it can be a catalyst for transit-oriented development, which is an effective way to implement smart growth (see ), but it is by no means necessary, and rail transit development by itself is insufficient to achieve smart growth. So if you want to debate and criticize rail transit projects please separate that from discussions of the overall merits of smart growth.

Glaeser and Gyourko's 2002 paper "The Impact of Zoning on Housing Affordability" ( ) refers to the high housing costs of "coastal" cities, but I can see that is confusing if Gulf Coast cities are included so I will no longer use that term. Perhaps Houston does have some walkable neighborhoods but it is certainly very sprawled and automobile dependent, resulting in one of the highest per capita mileage rates in the world, 34.0 average daily-vehicle-miles-traveled, which is 60-100% higher than more multi-modal cities such as Boston, Chicago, New York and San Francisco which have strong rail transit systems. By the way, per capita traffic fatality rates are similarly higher in Houston.

Yes, less central locations tend to have lower land costs due to their higher transportation costs - that is a basic principle of urban economics. Both suburbs and cities can reduce total household costs with smart growth policies: in suburbs by improving affordable transport options (better walking, cycling and public transit services, and more mixed land use development) and in cities by allowing higher density infill. Vancouver currently fails to do this, it is very difficult to subdivide parcels and increase density outside the downtown. The city's Ecodensity program ( ) is trying to change this. Until such reforms are fully implemented it is inaccurate to claim that Vancouver's high housing costs result from smart growth - on the contrary, they result from a failure to implement smart growth. For more information see my paper, "Affordable-Accessible Housing In A Dynamic City: Why and How To Support Development of More Affordable Housing In Accessible Locations" ( ).

As mentioned in my column, O'Toole completely misrepresents Glaeser and Gyourko's research. Yes, they found that zoning regulations tend to increase housing costs in high-priced areas, but it is the codes that discourage parcel subdivision and therefore compact, mixed, infill development that have this effect. The smart growth policies identified in my paper are a solution to this problem.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"


A wide variety of zoning regulations have incremental affects on housing affordability. Glaeser et al found, for example, that every extra half acre of lot size mandated, increased housing prices by 4%.

But urban growth boundaries or regulations that have the same effect even if called something different, are being more and more found to increase housing costs by massive, unprecedented percentages. All the other factors become peripheral when housing is inflated in cost by 100% or even more - Vancouver's might be over 200% inflated, as a median multiple of over 9 would indicate.

And I keep pointing out the invalidity of the studies you cite that allege that "housing plus transport" costs fall as locations closer to CBD's are chosen. The circles you move in obviously does not include any members of the very significant social cohort of young people intending to get married and have children, and hunting for their first home. Your unwillingness to face this fact is starting to border on callousness.

Of course a higher proportion of the people living closer to CBD's BOUGHT THEIR HOME LONG AGO. Of course their "housing" costs are low - they bought into the home ownership ladder at far lower prices, and have often paid off a lot of what they did borrow even then.

Of course a higher proportion of those living in newer subdivisions further away from CBD's bought their home more recently, at closer to currently inflated prices, and are still carrying substantial mortgage debt.

Furthermore, the inflated costs of housing means that there will be disproportionate numbers of young people still living with their parents nearer to CBD's, or flatting together at very high densities because they can't afford a traditional home and lifestyle yet.

It is absurd, Orwellian, unjust; to hold up a paid-off old couple in a home near the Vancouver CBD as an example of "low housing plus travel costs", when the YOUNG couple who might BUY that home off them (if they are willing to sell it) will have to pay over a million dollars for it. If the old couple invests the million dollars and buys a fringe McMansion, they will better their own position substantially.

The simple reality of the way transport costs capitalise into land rents, and other factors such as travel TIME and personal convenience also capitalise into land rents, means that a buyer NOW can NEVER save on "housing plus transport costs" by buying closer to a CBD, AND ANYONE who already owns a home can better their financial position by selling up and moving further away, not closer.

Randal O'Toole was right. "Todd doesn't want to deprive you of choices, he just wants you to have to pay over a million dollars (instead of under $300,000) for choices he disapproves".

Was Randal O'Toole Right?

Randal O'Toole was right. "Todd doesn't want to deprive you of choices, he just wants you to have to pay over a million dollars (instead of under $300,000) for choices he disapproves".

By contast, Randal O'Toole wants you to pay less for a suburban-sprawl house. To save you that money, he will let your children and grandchildren pay a much greater cost by living with resource wars and global warming.

Needless to say, the dirty energy interests that fund O'Toole will make plenty of money along the way.

Charles Siegel

Good, now lets discuss whether the costs are worth it.

At least, Charles, you seem to not dispute that the price inflation effect that Randal and I describe, is real. Now we can progress the argument on to whether or not the cost is worth it.

My argument is that the total of trillions of dollars of extra mortgage debt now being paid by young households, has been paid for absolutely nothing. It COULD have been used to pay for a LOT of new technology or research. And it COULD have been paid by society as a whole, not just the proportion of it buying their first home.

You also assume that the regulations that force up the prices of housing, have the results intended re reduced resource consumption and emissions. There is now abundant evidence that this is not the case. The worst "unintended consequence" is that the higher the prices of housing are forced, the MORE necessary it becomes for first home buyers to find a home they can afford, FURTHER AWAY from the region's CBD, employment opportunities, and amenities. This was the findings of the "Costs of Sprawl 2000" Report, and no HONEST research has yet found otherwise. Kara Kockelman at the University of Texas has probably been pursuing research of this feature the longest of anyone, and she has consistently found the same results. Kockelman, and Anthony Downs (who has frequently asserted this point) are NOT auto-boosters from CATO, far from it. These findings are disappointing to them, as they would be to yourself and Todd, but Downs and Kockelman are honest about them.

There is even a common term in the Real Estate industry for this phenomenon - "Drive to Qualify" (that is, for a mortgage).

"Leapfrog commutes" is another well understood term. All those "sand suburbs" in California that certain advocates endlessly use as examples of the evil of auto-based development, were actually a natural consequence of the dire unaffordability of housing in the coastal cities. Of course households abandoned these suburbs in droves as prices crashed, they could send their banks "jingle mail" and move somewhere more efficient, at prices they could now much better afford.

Even apart from the "leapfrog suburb" and the "exurban commute" phenomena, it is noticeable even with the naked eye on Google Earth, that cities that have introduced an urban growth boundary are getting higher density development immediately inside and close to the urban growth boundary, while efficiently located suburbs remain low density and large-lot. The result is that eventually the DISTRIBUTION of population becomes weighted towards the fringe rather than the centre, which is a most unnatural phenomenon in urban economics. (Careful studies of changes in population distribution over time, if done, confirm this observation). One reason for this, is that the new developments close to the fringe at higher densities, are the "least unaffordable" option in a severely unaffordable housing market. While the small-lot homes near the fringe (and homes in exurbs beyond) might be expensive enough at prices that are still double that of McMansions on large lots in affordable markets, the old large lot housing in suburbs closer to the CBD fetch prices of a million dollars or more, which is triple or quadruple the price of their equivalents in affordable markets.

This inflated price is all in the LAND, not the building. Therefore, even IF the large lots concerned could be carved up for infill development, the prices would still be prohibitive and new buyers would still tend to locate at the fringe or beyond. Frequently, though, NIMBY restrictions on infill development remain intact in these inner suburbs, in cities in which the planners were intending to "reduce commuting distances".

The more, later, and newer data we get, the less convincing it looks for "urban growth containment". Commuting times have remained amazingly stable in cities with dispersed employment - this is the vital factor rather than city "footprint" per se. That, and the average "premium" cost of locating near to a job, which is low in the USA's affordable cities and VERY HIGH in cities with an urban growth boundary.

The level of petrol consumption tends to correlate very much with the level of discretionary income in a city rather than urban form, and cities with affordable housing have higher discretionary incomes. The overwhelming consensus among economists is that petrol TAXES are the way to achieve the desired outcomes rather than heavy handed attempts to change urban form, that only achieve reductions in petrol consumption by constraining households discretionary incomes. The results cannot possibly be as efficient as a petrol tax that acts directly on petrol consumption rather than on everything in the household budget including the clothing, health, care and provision for children.

I will be cynical about sources of funding for research too. It would be interesting to know why the Rockefellers have been driving forces behind urban growth containment advocacy since the early 1970's, for example. Perhaps property investors like capital gains? Just a suggestion. Of course the planners and advocates like to rationalise the inflation of prices by terming it "amenity" that they have "created". As if their whole mental faculties are incapable of understanding simple "supply and demand" economics, the term "cornering" of supply, and the intersection between "quota" schemes and "rackets".

"Dirty energy interests" are going to make money whatever anyone does. It is just a question "who", and "when", and in what countries they are located. Democratic governments that insist on being noble and honourable merely sell their citizens out and hand geopolitical advantage to less savoury regimes like the Chinese Communist Party. Their citizens won't stand for this for long.

I am also bemused at the almost iron correlation at a certain extreme of politics, between the insistence that humanity will soon face "resource wars", and the insistence on "world peace" and minimal defence spending. One concludes that these people are quislings who want the ENEMIES of their civilisation to WIN the resource wars.

Kill For Oil

"One concludes that these people are quislings who want the ENEMIES of their civilisation to WIN the resource wars."

Thanks for making the distinction between us so clear.

Based on my analysis of ecological footprint studies, I believe that the world's resources can support a comfortable middle-class standard of living for everyone but cannot support the sort of wasteful and extravagant resource consumption that we see in auto-dependent sprawl suburbs.

I think our goal should be a world where everyone is economically comfortable - which includes high-quality housing in walkable neighborhoods.

You seem to think we should do whatever it takes to get the resources needed to live in sprawl suburbs where people drive every time they leave their homes - and that this will inevitably involve resource wars. This raises a couple of questions:

-- How many people are you willing to kill in wars to support each resident of sprawl suburbia?

-- Do you think the US should adopt your principles and invade England to get its North Sea Oil? Or should we just invade Canada to get its tar sands? If not England and Canada, then who are the "enemies" of our civilization that we should invade?

you seem to not dispute that the price inflation effect that Randal and I describe, is real.

You did not read carefully enough. I said I was talking about what O'Toole wants, which involves what he believes - not what I believe.

Despite all the obfuscation, I will go with the law of supply and demand. If we limit the supply of housing on the urban fringe, but at the same time rezone to increase the supply of housing in existing neighborhoods, prices will not go up.

"Dirty energy interests" are going to make money whatever anyone does.

Dirty energy interests will make much less money if we 1) shift to clean energy and 2) consume less energy. That is why they are fighting so hard on these issues.

Charles Siegel

The (unattainable) "perfect" is the enemy of the "better".

Charles, you misunderstand me. It is not ME saying there will be, or that there needs to be, "resource wars". I think people like Colin Clark, Julian Simon, and Bjorn Lomborg are right on "resources". I was just commenting that it is ironic that most of the people I know who claim there will be "resource wars", also dislike military spending. This leaves THEM in the position of believing, if we take them at face value, that their own civilisation should adopt self-extinction, firstly by letting geopolitical rivals have all the resources, and secondly, letting the geopolitical rivals conquer the world.

It fits with that moral profile, that such people seem to like politics that constrains local young people from reproducing through denying them the ability to afford a home suited to raising a family. The resulting mortgage distress does not give them a single moral qualm. The high moral ground is with the non-breeders.

Take a look at THIS:

There are clear political battle lines over all this. There is a very high correlation between affordable housing, high marriage and procreation rates, and strong Republican voting patterns.

I am deeply thankful for "Pax Americana". The USA is the most peaceful and beneficial world hegemon power that has ever existed in human history, possibly excepting the British empire. The USA does not invade countries to secure resource supplies. It rebuilds nations and restores self-government as rapidly as possible. What other world hegemon has ever acted in this way?

What the USA does, is ensure global TRADE. If it was not for the exceptional, "Pax Americana" era in human history, oil would have been the subject of continual global wars between Fascists, Communists, Nationalists, Militant Theocracies (like Japanese Shinto Buddhism and modern Islamism) and so on. Ironically, a truly militaristic USA would have secured a monopoly on nuclear power and used it to topple the Communists as global rivals right from 1945 onwards. And I can envisage a world a whole lot BETTER off today had they done so.

The "enemies" of western civilisation are not powers that the USA needs to invade to get oil or resources, it is powers that need to be DETERRED from doing so themselves. It is ironic that Canada is the USA's close FRIEND and yet the enviro loonies in the USA don't WANT to the USA to merely just buy Canada's oil and gas. They want it left in the ground, along with all the other resources that the USA itself still has. There's that civilisational death-wish showing itself again.

"Dirty energy interests" (even this dirtiness is relative) will be superseded by "clean energy interests" when the economics stack up. I give this about 30 years. There is a level of subsidies that simply does not stack up, meanwhile, as the Obama administration is discovering. Future generations will laugh at how pessimistic we were, just as the exponentially-increasing level of horse excrement in cities was a major concern of policy makers over a century ago.

Sure we can use less energy. Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute and recipient of the U.N. Environment Prize in 1987 (about as green as you can get) notes that "between 2007 and 2011, carbon emissions from coal use in the United States dropped 10 percent. During the same period, emissions from oil use dropped 11 percent... The net effect of these trends was that U.S. carbon emissions dropped 7 percent in four years." (

"........this is only the beginning. The initial fall in coal and oil use was triggered by the economic downturn, but now powerful new forces are reducing the use of both......

"........We are now looking at a situation where the 7 percent decline in carbon emissions since the 2007 peak could expand to 20 percent by 2020, and possibly even to 30 percent. If so, the United States could become a world leader in cutting carbon emissions and stabilizing climate."

A variety of forces are making the case for taxation and regulation obsolete even if you believe global climate change is a big threat. People are driving less, cars are on track to double their mpg standards, natural gas is replacing coal in power generation, and electric car based urban travel systems are becoming more viable by the day.

And here is an important factor where you and I are totally disagreed:

"......If we limit the supply of housing on the urban fringe, but at the same time rezone to increase the supply of housing in existing neighborhoods, prices will not go up....."

Not true, anywhere, at any time. Try finding some theory that fits reality, instead of sticking to wholly wishful (as opposed to evidence based) theory in denial of reality. The same goes for Litman. This crucial point is fortunately the subject of scrutiny right now in Commissions of Inquiry around the world regarding planning and housing affordability. Truth should prevail.

The crucial problem with your brief theoretical statement above, is this. "Existing neighbourhoods" are long since already part of urban land markets, with price expectations to match. The crucial element in achieving affordable housing is the amount of "supply" of land to which RURAL rents currently apply. In un-constrained markets, this supply is effectively infinite. Alan W. Evans in "Economics and Land Use Planning" (2004) suggests from Portland's experience, that an urban growth boundary of about 20 years supply, constantly reviewed outwards to maintain RURAL land price stability within it, will allow for urban land prices to be kept as low and stable as if there was no boundary; but it will also have little effect on urban growth compared to if there was no boundary.

Evans refers to studies of Portland's experience that clearly "find" this, but the authors of such studies are too vested in not rocking the "smart growth" boat to come right out with it.

Shlomo Angel et al in "Making Room for a Planet of Cities" also suggest that 20 to 30 years supply of GREENFIELD land is essential to maintain housing affordability, and that brownfields and up-zoning "land supplies" do not play any role in keeping prices of urban land low.

And in any case, none of the alleged "benefit" from urban growth containment is tangible anyway, because of "unintended consequences" of your policies that force average commute distances UP by making it MORE expensive, not less, for anyone to locate nearer to a CBD or an efficient urban node.

Todd Litman's picture

Thank You for Your Comments

Thank you for your comments, Wodehouse.

You have made the same claims in numerous previous posting. Although you cite researchers who you believe supports your arguments, you fail to provide specific information. As discussed in my post, research by Glaeser and Gyourko, and others indicate that regulations that support sprawl and automobile dependency (large minimum lot sizes, restrictions on density and height, generous minimum parking requirements, and regulations that make parcel subdividing difficult), not urban growth boundaries, increase housing costs. I also identified peer-reviewed research indicating that combined housing and transport costs are lower in more compact, multi-modal locations, and that smart growth policies, such as reduced parking requirements and improvements to affordable transport modes, can further reduce these costs.

This is a professional forum. Please avoid attacking individuals.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Post-modern "experts" versus common sense

Glaeser and Gyourko do NOT say that urban growth boundaries DON'T increase the costs of housing and all the other factors DO. They would be insulted to have such an absurd claim attached to their names.

Glaeser and Gyourko have not yet made a definite attempt to dis-aggregate the effect of an urban growth boundary from that of all the other factors that "constrain housing supply". Their "Wharton Regulatory Index" is unfortunately based on crude rankings within regulatory categories.

Large lot mandates have a far more severe effect on affordability by causing the available land WITHIN a boundary to be "built out" more rapidly than otherwise, but even then, the question is whether the lot size mandate or the boundary is primarily responsible for the unaffordability. What Glaeser and Gyourko DID find, is that another "half acre of lot size mandated" inflated housing costs 4%. This obviously does not explain housing median multiples being over 9.0 instead of under 4.0.

I realise that academic analysis currently is seriously behind in attempting to disaggregate which regulations are responsible for what proportion of price inflation. I am drawing conclusions that are obvious from the observation of reality. There are plenty of housing markets across the USA that DO have "large minimum lot sizes, restrictions on density and height, generous minimum parking requirements, and regulations that make parcel subdividing difficult" and still have affordable housing i.e. median multiples under 4.0. Housing in Britain is severely unaffordable, and they do NOT have large minimum lot sizes, quite the contrary. Nor do they have "automobile friendly" mandates. They have been practising "smart growth" since 1947.

Jan Breuckner in "Government Land-Use Interventions: An Economic Analysis" (2007) and "Urban Growth Boundaries: An Effective Second-Best Remedy for Unpriced Traffic Congestion"?(2007) DOES discuss the specific effects of urban growth boundaries. So does Alan W. Evans in "Economics and Land Use Planning" (2004), and Steven Malpezzi in "Some International Perspectives on Affordable Housing" (2005).

Paul Cheshire, "Urban Containment, Housing Affordability and Price Stability: Irreconcilable Goals" (2009) is a classic analysis of the situation in Britain versus other countries, that "smart growth" advocates should be taking note of.

Litman has cited "peer reviewed" studies, and so have I. I have explained what is the flaw of scientific approach in the studies Litman cites. Any house-hunting young couple could tell us that these claims are nonsense, especially if they are choosing between multiple cities with a wide range of policy approaches. There is nothing too contrary to common sense that post-modern "experts" will not try and foist on us.

Glaeser in his latest book does not attempt to prove that there is financial advantage to living in a more planned, less automobile dependent location, for a FAMILY. It is simply not possible to claim this with a straight face. Glaeser in fact concludes that living in Houston makes financial sense. He tells us that Manhattan should make itself more affordable by allowing "building upwards", so large apartments might be $500,000 instead of $1,000,000. But this does nothing to make Manhattan preferable to Houston by Glaeser's own calculations.

What Glaeser misses is that ALL family homes in New York MIGHT be cheaper if they had new fringe McMansions going for $120,000 to $140,000. MOST of the difference in the price of fringe McMansions between New York and any affordable US city, is due to the cost of the raw land and the "planning gain" component, not the size of the lot.

You claim "...improvements to affordable transport modes...." can further reduce costs. Yes, for the beneficiaries of government-bankrupting subsidies of these transport modes, which would not be affordable at all if "user pays" applied. I know you will tell us that roads and automobiles are subsidised. Not to half the extent that Transit is. I never cease to marvel at the chutzpah of transit advocates complaining that cars and roads are "subsidized".

Relevant 'urban growth boundaries'

Since you use New York as an example, I would very much appreciate an overview of the statutes/laws/regulations in existence that create an 'urban growth boundary' for a metropolitan area extending across four states (I'm including Pennsylvania) and hundreds of municipalities.

Cherry-picked UGBs.

Poor wodehouse is simply Gish galloping to game the civic discourse. He is not serious about anything specific.



Complex but simple - look at "planning gain" - Y/N - how much?

The best academic information on this that we have so far, is the Wharton Land Use Regulatory Index.

Wendell Cox has made the best efforts of anyone so far, to rate true "metropolitan areas" on "ease of development".

I'm glad you asked. Some body with the resources really should be doing thorough investigations of all this. There is no lack of bureaucracies that could and should do it. It should not be left to individuals who work for think tanks. Even academia does not have the resources unless specifically funded to do so. Hence the Wharton Index being somewhat "blunt". But it does tend to find as well as any such study could, that New York and the surrounding areas are some of the more "growth constrained" in the USA.

Steven Malpezzi makes the observation in some of his papers, that "price" is really a "single sufficient indicator" of whether "supply" is sufficiently elastic or not.

I agree that it is difficult to decide these issues on whether or not "an urban growth boundary" is present. There are numerous ways in which municipalities can induce their urban land markets to act as if there were a "quota" scheme in place re the supply of land for development. They can refuse connection to infrastructure, for example. They can require development to be "contiguous". They can delay the beginning of a development project for years, with "process".

It is not helpful to describe urban planners, as Randal O'Toole does, as "causing" unaffordable housing or house price bubbles. It would be more accurate to say that they don't prevent them when it is in their power to do so. But most of them know nothing about this aspect of their role. And "pro expansion" areas can be swamped by development diverted from anti-expansion municipalities in the region, if there is enough of an imbalance between the anti-expansion and pro-expansion ones. The pro-growth municipality ends up "built out", and then the effect of the anti-growth policies prevailing in the rest of the region really start to bite. The opposite can occur, as in Austin TX, and Salt Lake City, where the anti-growth policies of one municipality do not affect housing prices much because of the presence of so many pro-growth municipalities and hence affordable housing options, in the region around them.

I agree that minimum lot requirements result in otherwise pro-growth municipalities getting "built out" sooner; the minimum lot requirements did not cause much inflation in housing prices, but once the region's lowest cost developable land ceases to be truly "rural" land with minimal "planning gain", the big troubles really start.

How urban planners prevent house price bubbles and ensure housing affordability, in many cities in the USA (the ones in the Dem survey with affordable housing and stable prices in spite of high population growth) is simply by ensuring a genuinely competitive market between vendors of rural land, and minimising "planning gain". The amount of land required for urban growth is actually very small compared to the amounts of rural land near cities - a city can take decades to expand its diameter by 5%, and the amounts of rural land in a nation like the USA are literally dozens of times as much as the amounts that are already urban. So the "supply" of land for development, in the absence of regulatory restrictions, is as good as infinite. Developers should be able to secure land sold as "rural" land rather than as land that the vendor knows is part of a "quota" that hands him de facto oligopoly power, and leads to "Dutch auction" conditions as developers try and secure land to stay in business.

Back and Forth.

So your boy is back, Charles. He goes away for a while after too many people point out his tactics. Then he comes back flooding the zone with ideological pap. Then people point out his flawed ideological pap. Then he goes away. Then he comes back.

It's his job. It's what he does. Flood the zone with ideological pap. Pap, pap, pappity pap.



Every site has one, I know.

I never cease to be amazed at the Chutzpah of the "war on suburbia" brigade. It seems that anything that is inconvenient to their narrative, is "ideological pap".

Tell, me, Dano. What could I cite, that to you, would not be "ideological pap"?

Academic papers authored by Professors who have had 30 years and more of distinguished careers - who are heads of "Spatial Economics Research Centres" at distinguished institutions like the London School of Economics - economists who have had distinguished careers working for the World Bank and the U.N. - numerous academic papers published in the most distinguished academic journals - papers that are the result of lengthy projects by government-appointed commissions........

None of this meets Dano's oh-so-exclusive criteria.

I have cited, on this site, papers by Alan W. Evans, by Paul Cheshire and Stephen Sheppard; by Alain Bertaud; by Peter Gordon et al; I have cited the "Costs of Sprawl 2000" report; I don't have time to go back and check all the others I have cited on Planetizen. But it is no idle claim, that I have read EVERYTHING on THIS web page, and then some:

If anyone on here is failing to meet the standards of genuinely scientific discussion, it is Planetizen's resident troll under the smart growth bridge Mr Dano. Every site of this kind seems to have one. Sets out to prove his superiority by way of his gift for supercilious sneering and little else. The occasional "authoritative citation" one drags out of him, consists of blatant advocacy on Greenie websites. All the while that he is dismissing everything that someone inconvenient brings to the table, as "ideological pap", regardless of its origin.

Even if a massive shining throne appeared in the heavens, and great voices thundered, "Urban Growth Boundaries drive up property prices", Dano would give it the finger and sneer, "ideological pap".

Tactics, transparent.

Flap, flap. Pappity pap.

We see what you are doing here.




Cherry-Picking Studies

I don't know very much about the literature on how UGBs affect housing prices.

But when Wodehouse comments on a subject that I do know something about, such as resource availability, it is very obvious that he cites the very small minority of scholars who say that technological progress can make resources essentially infinite, and he ignores the great majority who say that resource scarcity is a problem and will remain a problem in coming decades.

Likewise, on global warming, he selectively cites one article by Lester Brown saying that American emissions are going down, and he ignores the plain fact that the world's emissions are going up dramatically. (And he doesn't mention everything that Brown has written about resource availability.)

In both these cases, he selects the studies that confirm what he wants to believe, and he ignores the other studies. I have to assume that he does the same with studies about UGBs.

Of course, he writes at such excruciating length, jumping from one point to another, that it is futile to try to reply.

Charles Siegel

Cherry-picking exactly to the script.

Of course, he writes at such excruciating length

Not only is his Gish galloping prolix, but he sticks very closely to the standard ideological template.

Few spamming ideologues stick so closely to the script as this one. Its as if he is at a tryout for a corporate think-tank, and uses the threads here as part of his tryout portfolio - the professionals hide the script so you can tell he doesn't get paid for the drivel.



Call It Koch Institute, Not Cato

There is a bit of news today about O'Toole's employer, the Cato Institute:

"Charles G. Koch and David H. Koch, the deep-pocketed conservative activists, launched a court fight yesterday over control of the Cato Institute, one of the nation’s best-known free-market think tanks. The Washington-based public-policy group was founded in 1974 as the Charles Koch Foundation. The name was changed to Cato in 1976, with the Koch brothers as longstanding contributors. The group had four shareholders until last year: Charles Koch; David Koch; Edward H. Crane III, Cato’s president; and William A. Niskanen, who died in October."

Cato obviously produces the best analysis that dirty-energy money can buy.

As a matter of truth in advertising, I think they should call it The Koch Institute - or at least call it The Cato Institute Funded By Koch Money. I am on their mailing list, and I have read several of their books, but I never knew the Koch brothers were two of the four shareholders.

I was quite proud when O'Toole panned my book about city planning, Unplanning: Livable Cities and Political Choices. See his review at His main criticism of me was that I am not a libertarian - about the level of intellectual depth that I expect from him. (Thanks to Dano for defending me on O'Toole's web site.)

Charles Siegel

Thoughts of a Hopeless Layman?


I'm not an expert, researcher, or anyone of particular merit. I just ended up here because I've found neighborhoods and housing costs to be rather fascinating. Perhaps some of the enlightened debaters here could explain a few questions to my fresh eyes?

It seems like it would be hard to simultaneously hold these ideas:

1.) Smart growth increases housing prices
2.) People prefer the freedom of the suburbs/non-smart-growth/whatever we're calling it.

Wouldn't basic economics suggest that if there's a gap between pricing that exceeds basic structural costs then there's a shortage of smart growth neighborhoods and surplus of standard single family suburban homes? If that's true, then why would anyone debate smart growth?

Personally I've spent my life wishing i could live in places that I now know are "smart growth" communities. For the most part, I've been priced out of such places. As I've recently found out (at least in my current city) the costs of building a single family townhome within a smart growth environment are entirely manageable on a typical income. The main reason that things cost so much (here in Washington DC) are that there's a disproportionate amount of people that want to live in such places, so the land value has skyrocketed to compensate for the market.

The initial concern about the market demand contradiction seems to be backed up by anecdotal evidence... is there some sprawling region of smart growth communities full of vacant, unsalable homes and lots? If there was, this all would make a lot more sense. From my uneducated view, it seems like people who want smart growth style communities are a heavily underserved demographic.

Todd Litman's picture

Smart Growth Housing Cost Impacts

Thanks for your insightful comments.

Yes, I agree that one of the main reasons that compact, mixed, multi-modal locations (called smart growth, new urbanism, neotraditional neighborhoods, or transit-oriented development, depending on context) tend to be expensive is their scarcity, which is best solved by increasing supply. In most cities, such development is illegal or at least difficult due to restrictions on density, mix, and building height, and generous minimum parking and setback requirements, so increasing supply requires reforming these policies.

To be fair, smart growth policies can increase some residential development costs, including land unit costs (dollars per acre) and some construction costs (i.e., sidewalks, underground parking, more design details to accommodate density and mix). As a result, the costs of building a single-family home tend to increase. However, this can be offset by smart growth savings, including reduced land required per housing unit, reduced parking requirements, reduced costs of providing public services (utilities, policing, school transport, etc.), and household transport cost savings (see ). Even households that want single-family homes can benefit if more smart growth housing reduces demand for the existing supply of single-family homes. For more discussion of this issue see Michael Lewyn's recent column at .

I believe that housing unaffordability in cities such as San Francisco and Vancouver can be explained by their tendency to implement restrictions on urban expansion without correcting the various market distortions that discourage infill development. The solution is, as you suggest, more rather than less smart growth policy implementation, particularly the policies that encourage more affordable residential infill development. For discussion see my report, "Affordable-Accessible Housing In A Dynamic City: Why and How To Support Development of More Affordable Housing In Accessible Locations" ( ) which describes specific policy and planning reforms to increase the supply of lower-priced housing in smart growth locations.

Critics such as O'Toole tend to focus on the costs and ignore savings and benefits, and cherry-pick data that supports their claims. I believe that they are wrong overall, but they do raise legitimate concerns about the importance of considering unintended, undesirable impacts of smart growth policies.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

Thank you!

I appreciate the time and links, I guess I've got some reading to look forward to!

Prepare for the AICP* Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $245

Essential Readings in Urban Planning

Planning on taking the AICP* Exam? Register for Planetizen's AICP * Exam Preparation Course to save $25.
Melissa and Doug Town Blocks Wooden Play Set

Block play meets role play

New! Town block set from Melissa and Doug Toys
Book cover of the Guide to Graduate Planning Programs 4th Edition

Thinking about Grad School?

The Planetizen Guide to Graduate Urban Planning Programs is the only comprehensive ranking and listing of graduate urban planning programs available.
Starting at $24.95