Trees Over Houses: A Critique Of Smart Growth

Citing high housing prices in cities with strong growth control policies, one author argues that the smart growth movement seems to place more value on open space than people and their preferred housing choices.

An opinion article by Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University comments on the proposal to dedicate an additional 1 million arcs in the San Francisco Bay area as open space, arguing that it will serve to increase the areas already high housing prices.

"There are 4.5 million acres of land in the San Francisco Bay area. Less than one-sixth of this land has been developed. So we are not talking about saving the last few patches of greenery from being paved over. More than a million acres are legally off-limits to development, while less than three-quarters of a million acres are developed.

What, then, is the urgency about making another million acres of land legally off-limits to building anything? Because otherwise, more people will move into the area over time. And because they don't want to live outdoors, they will want to have housing. That bothers the conservationists, who prefer trees to houses."

Full Story: Logic and land use



I Would Expect Something More Intelligent From Thomas Sowell

Sowell writes:
"why should the government force what you want on someone else - who obviously wants something different, or there would not be an issue in the first place?"

I would expect Sowell to know this basic point of economics: there are some public goods that must be protected politically and cannot be left to individual choice.

For example, the overwhelming majority of people want laws to protect water quality, so they are not poisoned by their drinking water. This cannot be left to individual choice, allowing people to dump toxics in the water or dispose of them safely, based on their personal preference. It has to be done by "the government" - representing the majority - passing laws to stop anyone from dumping toxics in the water.

On the other hand, there is some truth to Sowell's complaint about high housing costs. Laws to protect open space have to be coupled with laws allowing denser development near transit to avoid increased housing costs. Politically, it is easier to pass laws to protect open space.

But this is not the fault of the smart growth movement, which does advocate for higher density development in appropriate locations.

Charles Siegel

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