Subverting the American dream: government dictated "smart growth" is unwise and unconstitutional.

Author:Bolick, Clint

"Sprawl." It's an ugly word, conjuring images of some unshaven guy with a massive beer-gut in a T-shirt spread out over a ratty sofa in front of a television set droning endless football games.

Given such imagery, "sprawl" is a clever and effective euphemism to denigrate a phenomenon in which tens of millions of Americans have affirmatively taken part: suburbanization. In search of a better life for themselves and their families, many individuals freely choose to endure longer commutes and greater inconveniences in exchange for larger, more affordable homes in sale neighborhoods. The debate among the relative desirability of urban, suburban, and rural lifestyles has raged forever and probably always shall; but in out free society, reconciliation of competing preferences in the realm of habitation always has been entrusted to free individual choice.

Until now. The latest wave of politically correct conventional wisdom holds that government planners, rather than individual choices collectively expressed through the marketplace, should determine where people live. Obviously such a proposition, starkly stated, would make most Americans recoil. After all, homeownership is a cornerstone of the American Dream, and private property rights are its essential foundation.

So, the planning enthusiasts necessarily effect a beneficent facade. They are not against suburbs; they are against urban sprawl. They are not against development; they favor "smart growth."(1) They condemn congestion, which everyone hates, and propose modest-sounding initiatives that promise to solve most of mankind's problems without cost or inconvenience. The dirty, unstated secret, however, is that the core of any effective smart-growth agenda is coercion--substituting free individual choice with government edicts.

Not only is such a program profoundly contrary to core American values, but like many episodes of government planning, it is certain to produce perverse consequences. Moreover, the Constitution places important constraints on coercive government regulation that bestows benefits upon some while imposing burdens on others in the exercise of property rights.(2) One way or the other, free choice will win out. We should direct our energies toward expanding rather than contracting individual autonomy, especially in such an important area as homeownership.

In this Article, I shall first examine the policy issues raised by smart-growth advocates, and then the constitutional parameters by which such a debate is constrained.


    According to the Sierra Club, "sprawl" is "low-density development beyond the edge of service and employment, which separates where people live from where they shop, work, recreate, and educate--thus requiring cars to move between zones."(3) Ordinarily, I would not quibble over the definition of a policy someone else is advocating. I wonder, however, whether there is a single instance of "sprawl" meeting the Sierra Club's definition. Even the most remote suburban enclaves provide basic services such as restaurants, parks and recreation, and certainly schools. Indeed, the only areas that might meet this definition of "sprawl" would be rural communities--which are one of the lifestyles (along with urban areas) favored by smart-growth advocates.

    Moreover, even the nub of the matter--massive traffic congestion, causing long commutes from home to work(4)--is overstated. Increasingly, jobs are located where people live. According to Steven Hayward of the Pacific Research Institute, "Over the past 25 years, more than 80 percent of new jobs have been generated in the suburbs."(5) In reality, Hayward explains, "Only a tiny fraction of commuting today is from suburb to central city; most commuting is now from suburb-to-suburb."(6) Whether suburb-to-suburb commuting constitutes movement between "zones" is unclear; what is clear, however, is that if more people were crowded into central cities, like the smart growth advocates urge, many of them would have to commute to the suburbs to follow the jobs.(7)

    Taking the definition at face value, what are the concerns supposedly animating smart growth proponents? The Sierra Club contends that sprawl hurts cities because it "erodes [their] tax base," "destroys downtown commerce" by attracting shoppers to regional malls, "increases unemployment and concentrates poverty," and "undercuts property values and investment opportunities."(8) Sprawl also allegedly consumes rural farmland and "chews up the countryside rolling over millions of acres of forest, wetlands, and prairie, fragmenting landscapes, disrupting wildlife habitat, and altering rivers[,] streams[,] and watersheds."(9)

    The hysteria is without foundation. Total urban and suburban uses of land in the United States constitute only sixty million acres--only 3.1% of the nation's land.(10) Approximately one million acres are urbanized each year; at that pace, "it would take nearly 200 years ... [to urbanize] 10 percent of the total land in the Continental U.S."(11) Moreover, as Hayward points out, "the amount of land dedicated exclusively for parks, wilderness, and wildlife has been growing twice as fast as urbanized land since the end of World War II."(12)

    Still, Vice President Al Gore attributes all manner of social dysfunction to sprawl. In a single speech, he blamed sprawl for causing pollution, crime, congestion, and "road rage;" impeding welfare reform; and causing parents to get home "too late to read a bedtime story."(13) Mr. Gore's "livable community," by contrast, "lets you and your spouse walk through a natural ecosystem as you simply take an evening stroll down your street. That's spiritually renewing."(14) In the smart growth advocates' "dream," as Carl Pope depicts it,

    [t]he homes are in cozy neighborhoods, with quiet, intimate streets that are not always clogged with traffic. Around the corner is a grocery for milk and bread. The children walk to school on safe sidewalks every morning, and families swim and fish in nearby lakes. That is the dream we want to protect in our fight against sprawl.(15) The image is so bucolic one can almost smell apple pie baking in the oven.

    What are the policies necessary to ensure that all Americans occupy livable neighborhoods with natural ecosystems in which everyone lives a short walk from a grocery store, a school, and a lake? According to smart growth advocates, they are modest and benign. The Sierra Club's two top proposals are "purchasing environmentally sensitive land or farmland to prevent development," and implementing an "urban growth boundary," which "is an official line that separates an urban area from its surrounding greenbelt of open lands, including farms, watersheds and parks."(16) Vice President Gore has blended those concepts, proposing to preserve green and open spaces by providing "$1 billion in federal funds to promote smart growth policies--leaving all decisions in local and community hands."(17)

    Certainly, with only one billion dollars, planners will not be able to buy a lot of land with government funds. In order to achieve their goals, the planners will have to spend a great deal more money to acquire property through voluntary transactions or the power of eminent domain, or they will be forced to regulate private property rights in ways designed to induce people to comply with the desired model. Not surprisingly, the coercive model, effectuated through urban growth boundaries and other regulations, is more politically palatable than massive tax increases. Here the beneficent facade slips away and reveals the ugly reality underneath.

    Nevertheless, urban growth boundaries are increasingly popular around the nation. If people vote...

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