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Planning for "Dickensian Gloom"? Refuting Critics of Smart Growth (Again)

It is well-known in planning circles that Smart Growth has come under attack by (mostly libertarian) think tanks and pundits hostile to any form of urban planning that doesn’t leave land use decisions up to the “magic” of the free market. While their reports may get a lot of press, a close reading of most of their rhetoric reveals that it is largely based on a selective use of data, fallacious argumentation and hyperbole.
Michael Dudley | January 27, 2010, 9am PST
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It is well-known in planning circles that Smart Growth has come under attack by (mostly libertarian) think tanks and pundits hostile to any form of urban planning that doesn't leave land use decisions up to the "magic" of the free market. While their reports may get a lot of press, a close reading of most of their rhetoric reveals that it is largely based on a selective use of data, fallacious argumentation and hyperbole. (For my previous responses to Smart Growth's critics on Planetizen, see here, here and here).   

For the connoisseur of this sort of policy analysis, the latest International Housing Affordability Survey does not disappoint. Produced by Performance Urban Planning and authored by Wendell Cox and Hugh Pavletich, the study argues that declining housing affordability – and, in turn, the growing inability of people in industrialized countries to achieve their respective national "dreams" – is owed to "more prescriptive" land use regulation, i.e., Smart Growth and urban consolidation planning measures aimed at increasing density.

The report was released in Canada by the Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and has attracted a lot of attention here. But its central contention – that planning for urban density destroys housing unaffordability –  is little more than an ideologically predetermined argument that ignores a host of other contributing factors well-established in the literature.  

The report's introduction, in particular, is worth reading because its arguments, while intended to buttress the research, are especially weak and undermine the report's credibility even further.

Authored by Dr. Tony Recsi of the Australian "Save our Suburbs" group, it is filled with classic anti-Smart Growth hyperbole. Basically a rewrite of an op-ed Resci wrote a year ago for the Sydney Morning Herald the intro argues that our "traditional way of life is being slowly crushed under the bureaucratic iron heel of high-density zealots [who are doing] their best to drive us back towards a Dickensian gloom."

To back up these claims, he attempts through a selective use of data, a misrepresentation of other studies and key unsupported statements to take down sustainable planning principles concerning greenhouse gases, transportation, health, infrastructure and, of course, the cost of housing, which is the focus of the report.

Do higher densities correlate with lower GHG emissions? No, according to Resci. He quotes an Australian study on consumption that showed that the country's inner urban areas in fact were consuming more energy than suburban areas. What Resci doesn't mention (and what you'll see if you read the report) is that the study didn't actually correlate this surge in consumption with land use patterns as such, but with affluence. The researchers found that well-to do urbanites -- often single -- were buying more consumer goods to fill their condos and taking advantage of water-consumptive downtown spas. Were urban Aussies voluntarily living more modest lifestyles the statistics would be much different.

Next, he claims that the difference in GHG production between public transit and private autos is so small it can't be justified by increasing densities. He compares per passenger GHG emissions of 105 grams for Sydney's electrified CityRail network to 155 grams for passenger cars – and as low as 70 for ultra-efficient hybrids. However, the source for these data aren't given, so we can't know how they were arrived at. How many transit passengers were used in the calculation? Wouldn't full transit vehicles lower the GHG further still? These figures seem especially dubious though because according to its website CityRail trains actually generate 5 times fewer GHG emissions per passenger kilometre than do cars. 

He also notes "research" that says that "people squeezed into newly converted dense areas did not use public transport to any greater extent and there was little or no change in their percentage of car use." He's referring here to Melbourne, a sprawling city of almost 4 million people. Should it surprise us that "newly" dense areas would show no immediate travel behaviour change – particularly when the metropolitan area outside these districts is spread over 3400 square kms? As David McCloskey, Bob Birrell and Rose Yip showed in their 2009 paper "Making Public Transit Work in Melbourne" (People and Place v. 17 [3] 2009), situating high-density residences close to public transit is only half the problem there, owing to the high degree of dispersion of employment centres in that city.

A more honest appraisal of the relationship between density and transit use would consider historically dense urban areas, like New York City, where employment centres are concentrated and public transit is the primary transportation mode. Even for less dense urban areas the relationship has been convincingly demonstrated. A 2008 Canadian study, for example, found that density, a mix of land uses and proximity to city centres was positively associated with lower rates of car use. 

Regardless: high density, apparently, drives us crazy: a Swedish study (uncited of course, but can be found here) found that rates of psychosis were 70% higher in denser urban areas. But a reading of the actual study shows that the authors acknowledged other international studies that came to different conclusions about this association, and were themselves careful not do claim that urban density itself was to blame for high rates of psychosis. Rather, they suggested that there might be other pathways at work, such as a lack of social support in these urban areas, or socio-economic conditions.

Finally, he states (this time without even a casual reference to "studies"), that infrastructure costs more to install and repair in higher-density environments than in greenfields. However, an Australian study released last summer found just the opposite: that building on Melbourne's fringes would cost the city $40 billion – or more than double – than if the same development occurred in existing suburban areas. 

The report's raison d'etre is to argue that Smart Growth increases housing unaffordability. However, as Todd Litman shows in his 2009 study, Evaluating Criticism of Smart Growth, Smart Growth policies can actually contribute positively to overall affordability by encouraging smaller houses, lot sizes and other efficiencies. Litman adds,

"Smart Growth tends to be implemented when communities experience rapid population and economic growth, and so they also tend to experience rising housing prices. But this does not mean that Smart Growth causes such price increases. Many homebuyers prefer Smart Growth communities, which may raise prices in such areas, but the best response is to build more Smart Growth communities to meet this demand and reduce prices."

In other words, if housing in some markets with Smart Growth development has become too expensive, it may be because of a host of factors, among them that these areas are more desirable. Is this not a sign that market -- about which these critics are so keen -- is "working"?

Meanwhile, what is ostensibly the real issue here – housing unaffordability – remains a terribly serious problem, and one which has numerous causes. As a 2007 Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute report observes, "causes of affordability problems are complex and diverse. Major driving factors can be found both within the housing system and beyond it." (Interestingly, the report does not include urban consolidation, Smart Growth or density to be among the causes of unaffordability).

The status quo model that Cox, Pavletich and Resci are defending is clearly broken, but they are still seeing what they hope to see rather than what has become all too obvious to so many of us: a democratization of wealth rather than a suburban debt machine in its last gasps; "freedom of choice" rather than a market oversaturated with housing forms that fewer people are wanting or are able to afford; and "freedom of mobility" rather than grindingly long and slow commutes.

And to argue for this lost ideal, opponents of Smart Growth too often fall back on hyperbole and disingenuous rhetoric. Solving our many urban problems -- unaffordable housing in particular -- requires less ideologically-motivated analysis. 


(Thanks to Tom Carter of the University of Winnipeg; Maryann Wulff of Monash University, Victoria; and Bill Randolph of the University of New South Wales, for directing me to a few key sources for this essay).

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