Smart Growth and its Discontents

Urban legends, edgeless cities, monster homes and other phenomena complicate the perception, application, and inclusion of Smart Growth.

September 30, 2002, 12:00 AM PDT

By Robert E. Lang

Robert LangSigmund Freud, in his famous book Civilization and its Discontents, describes the inherent tension of modernity as humans needing civilization for survival but having basic drives that would tear it apart. One exists in civilization, but one is never really happy with it due to the limits a collective society demands. This is how I see Smart Growth—we really need land use reform, but we are never going to be entirely happy with it.

Much has been written about the benefits of Smart Growth and somewhat less on its drawbacks. These commentaries have focused on smart growth successes, smart growth rip-offs and smart growth out of control. However, very few address much less critique, the premises upon which the Smart Growth movement was built. I lay my critique out in three basic gripes—I could have picked more, but three seems like a reasonable number considering space limitations.

Gripe #1: Many Smart Growth advocates, especially New Urbanists, misread history.

The most important and common misread is what I call the “Great Divide” in urban history. Before World War II, metropolitan development was a Garden of Eden. After World War II, it was hell. The devil took the shape of an automobile, worked at GM, and financed the first enclosed shopping mall.

This great divide has also spurred some Smart Growth “urban legends”:

Legend: The automobile was thrust upon us all.
Fact: Not all of us. Western cities, especially Los Angeles, embraced the automobile as an icon and built large parts of their culture around it. Does anyone seriously believe that the celebratory car culture of Southern California was really a conspiracy that forced people into loving automobiles?

Legend: Before World War II, all developers were visionaries concerned with quality.
Fact: The first suburban strip development actually took place in the 1890s and coincided with the emergence of electric trolley. “Tax Payer Strips” were cheap shopping centers that developers held onto until the land value rose. The rent would often be just enough to pay the property taxes.

Gripe #2: Many of the metropolitan models on which Smart Growth is based are outdated and misinformed.

I am not referring here to the monocentric city, or the idea that the suburbs are monolithically well to do, and that the cities are all poor. Actually many smart growth advocates understand the idea of the polycentric metropolis and that the suburbs are quite diverse, while city neighborhoods are well to do.

The problem is that the new metropolis may be decentralized in ways that are beyond even this understanding and that an elusive urban form complicates smart growth. Edge cities are a well-known form of metropolitan development—rapidly growing suburban outposts consisting of mostly office and retail uses. "Edgeless cities" are a stealthy category of land use that has often been ignored by critics and policy makers. Edgeless cities are scatter shots of office sprawl found in the suburban crevices of all major metropolitan areas. Examples include the suburban office spills surrounding Princeton, New Jersey and parts of Loudon County, Virginia. (Loudon County was unfortunately dependent upon the largesse of now-struggling edgeless city residents such as WoldCom and AOLTimeWarner.) These edgeless cities are devolved versions of edge cities—they are often dependant on one type of use, not pedestrian friendly, not easily accessed by public transit, and not easy to locate. What connections can be made to and amongst this type of land use?

Gripe #3: The politics of smart growth are default toward exclusion and ideology.

The controversial category of the "monster homes" is illustrative of this point. Most smart growth advocates claim that newly constructed super homes unilaterally destroy vistas, deplete historic inventories, and waste resources. They are automatically viewed as a symbol of America’s rampant status seeking consumerism and antithetical to smart growth’s small, green and sweet image. However, as many smart growthers would say, there cannot be a one-size fits all approach. There are appropriate places for monster homes, you just have to look for them. Older suburbs that contain large numbers of small, decaying tract homes, can often boost ratables by allowing the infill of larger homes. A quick tour through the older suburbs turns up many communities that have a mix of large and small homes—building monster homes in traditional neighborhoods in city and suburb is consistent with the old urbanism. The once-thought ostentatious mansions of the robber barons are now the historic jewels of Washington, DC’s Embassy Row. Compromise, quality and context must be considered before automatic exclusion. Smart growth has to be a big tent that accommodates everyone, even rich people with bad taste.

Robert E. Lang is Director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech in Alexandria, VA.

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