Smart Growth vs Suburban Sprawl


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There is a growing battle for the future of development in the U.S. That battle is over whether suburban sprawl should continue ever onward into the sunset or should we consider what anti-sprawl advocates call "Smart Growth."

As the economy boomed after World War II, Americans built the Interstate System and began taking to the open road. They began to build housing developments further and further out from the city center. They enacted zoning ordinances that prevent businesses from being located in residential areas. The peace and quite of suburban developments gave way to traffic congestion and long, tedious commutes. Downtown department stores gave way to giant suburban strip malls with literally acres of pavement to accommodate every shopper having their own car.

Advocates of Smart Growth seek to change all that by simply allowing the market to accomplish an equilibrium. They advocate changing zoning laws to allow mixed use property (e.g., apartments over store fronts.) They advocate letting businesses build without providing acres of parking. They advocate reversing the imbalance between money spent on endless highway construction versus the relatively small amount spent on mass-transit. In short, they advocate the option of developing new urban oasises in the suburban wastelands.

Speaking as someone who lives in a northeastern city that is long past its prime, I can say for certain that changes in zoning have damaged this city almost beyond repair. Huge chunks of downtown have been leveled to allow commuters to come in from the suburbs in their cars, collect their paychecks and leave. New construction is almost impossible as many urban lots actually have negative space after you subtract the mandatory offsets from the property lines. Mixed use construction is not allowed, and parking is required for any new business construction as well. Our zoning laws are a suicide pact.

If all this sounds like it makes perfect sense, tell that to the guys at the conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation, that recently hosted a discussion about the evils of Smart Growth. You see, there is a large lobby of people who want to see a continuation of the unsustainable sprawl we've seen over the last 50 years. Highway construction alone is a huge business.

Urban flight is, of course, a more complex issue than zoning. But zoning stands in the way of much development that could attract people back into urban centers. It stands in the way of encouraging people to curtail or even eliminate their commutes. Highway spending encourages people to use air polluting cars instead of mass transit systems. A change in these priorities can do more to save the planet than switching to hybrids in the long run.

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