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Behind Enemy Lines at the Anti-Smart Growth Conference

Tips for smart growthers on how to stand your ground against the fine-tuned rhetoric of conservatives and libertarians.
March 3, 2003, 12am PST | Joel Hirschhorn
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Joel HirschhornI expected to be entertained when I decided to attend the "Preserving the American Dream" conference held this week in Washington, D.C. It was put on by the nation's leading conservative and libertarian think tanks and featured their "stars," including Wendell Cox and Randal O'Toole. I was not disappointed. The hatred of government and regulations by conservatives and libertarians from all over the nation now is more focused. Everything they see as wrong with this nation is labeled smart growth.

These opponents of smart growth are deeply committed and more energized than ever. The leaders of the smart growth movement are in for much more effective opposition than anything in the past. The conservatives are fine-tuning their rhetoric, learning from their successes and failures, and reshaping their avalanche of statistics. They are getting more organized and unified. Their tactics and rhetoric are impressive: Smart growth is now "snob growth." Smart growth is coercive. Smart growth reduces home and transportation choices. Smart growth increases home prices and traffic congestion. Smart growth reduces affordable housing and harms minorities. Smart growth opposes economic growth and prosperity. Smart growth threatens the American dream. In fact, this first-ever conference was also the beginning of some type of national American Dream project with an American Dream media campaign and regional American Dream conferences. State groups are not likely to call themselves 1,000 Friends of Sprawl.

Here is some advice for the leaders of the smart growth movement. Recognize that some elements of the diverse smart growth movement provide the best imaginable targets for right-wing groups. Advocacy, for example, of urban growth boundaries is now equated with smart growth. Stay focused on the attributes of smart growth. The fundamental goal of conservatives to protect private property rights is more easily advanced when they can point to public policies that make it easy for property owners to portray themselves as victims.

Focus more on what smart growth communities, urban and suburban, are and what benefits they give consumers, and far less on public policy obstacles. Stress positive benefits for individuals, not costly externalities for society. Stress market forces, and how obstacles created by government will fall if and when much more massive consumer demand for smart growth places materializes. Place more attention on those developers who are building authentic smart growth communities, despite all the obstacles, and making money.

Start paying more attention to the many grassroots groups working under the banner of smart growth but fighting any form of local or regional growth. They are, ultimately, undermining the success of the smart growth movement. This tactic is providing the conservatives with all they need to convince millions of Americans that their personal economic wellbeing is threatened by smart growth. Smart growth has to be successful in bad economic times, not just the good ones that we had in the 1990s. Smart growth must be unequivocally pro-growth.

The conference sponsors included an association of property owners, a home builders association, a development company, a road builders association, and the leading conservative foundation. Smart growth leaders need to take conservative think tanks more seriously. Though masquerading as objective and scholarly researchers, they are the public face of the many components of the national sprawl industry. Conservatives know how to convince elected officials and regular citizens. Their facts must be explicitly countered with other facts. In fact, many of the speakers at the conference have been effective in blocking local and state smart growth initiatives. Sprawl industry companies know how to work quietly behind the scenes and will be served by the conservative emphasis on pushing for more infrastructure investment (a.k.a. road building) and now know that it must include some money for public transit.

Like the multitude of smart growth conferences, there was no one on the program who was a true, articulate opponent to directly and forcefully challenge the data, assertions, and conclusions being disseminated as gospel. The conference seemed like the initial attempt to put a wedge between optional New Urbanism and coercive smart growth. Looks like the upcoming battle will pit coercive smart growth against the cherished American dream, which conservatives define in ways that have nothing to do with sprawl. You will hardly hear the words sprawl and environment spoken by conservatives. Smart growthers need a message on redefining the American dream, so that it is about an ideal community. Conservatives do not talk about community, see no relationship between it and the design of the built environment, and ignore the evidence for consumer demand for community. One last tip: Not one conservative seemed to have a clue about selling smart growth as a means for achieving active living and greatly improved personal health.

Joel Hirschhorn
lives in an old neighborhood near Rock Creek Park in Chevy Chase, Maryland. He has worked in the environmental and policy areas for many years and is currently Director of the Natural Resources Policy Studies of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices. The views presented are those of the author and not his employer.

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