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Debating Smart Growth

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. 

Todd Litman | February 27, 2012, 5am PST
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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.



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