Smart Policy Better than “Smart Growth”

Commentary, Urbanization, Frontier Centre

Did Alice leave wonderland and deplane here? Witness the angst about “urban sprawl” in Winnipeg, Canada’s slowest growing major city. The pretext for the weeping and wailing is the Waverley West housing project, a symbolic target for sprawl opponents. They’re wrong. Sprawl occurs naturally in cities that are growing, and we should not intervene to prevent it.

Formidable and positive forces drive sprawl. As we prosper, we gain the means for an increasingly comfortable suburban lifestyle. Two-income families can harness a convenient car culture by means of quality road systems, and their mobility is a powerful factor in the increasing productivity of today’s economy. The assorted interests who push for governments to curb “urban sprawl” misunderstand its import.

According to them, Waverley West will variously damage downtown, unnecessarily stretch transit, and invariably put extra strain on our environment. An underlying theme is efficiency, that suburban development wastes resources. They claim it makes better economic sense to fill in vacant spaces closer to the core, to increase the density of the city.

Concern over lower-density sprawl in North America, Australasia, Western Europe and Japan has prompted an “anti-sprawl” policy agenda often referred to as “smart growth.” It generally involves establishing intrusive and arbitrary controls on land use. It includes prohibition of development outside “urban growth boundaries,” a bias towards increased neighbourhood population densities and a substitution of mass transit for highways. Stripped down, it represents an attempt to overwhelm powerful market forces and consumer demands through the bureaucratic fiat of planners.

Unsurprisingly, consumer forces are winning. The city of Portland, Oregon, a world leader in “smart growth,” is retreating from the policy because it isn’t working. Land rationing has spiked housing costs and forced buyers, especially the young, ethnic minorities and immigrants, out of the market. A shortage of commercial land appears to be damaging the regional economy. Traffic congestion has worsened considerably with higher densities. A powerful voter backlash passed a referendum prohibiting further densification of existing neighbourhoods.

In the latest Frontier Centre paper, “Smart Growth”: Threatening the quality of life, Wendell Cox, an international expert in transportation policy and demographics, challenges the assumptions of smart growth advocates. He presents evidence for the problems Portland experienced and explains why smart growth is backfiring.

Besides raising prices, such interventions impact the poor by constricting their job opportunities. After World War II, planners imposed a “green belt” around London, England. This created a series of disconnected labour markets where low-income people (without cars and auto-competitive transit) could not access employers. In contrast, the Paris metro area allowed market forces to determine its density. Adjacent municipalities and an effective freeway system produced overlapping job markets, with easy access to the rich core employment market for all suburbanites. All of the core can be reached from all of the suburbs within a 40-minute off-peak drive. The more mobility, the greater the economic performance of the urban area.

The subtext of Cox’s analysis should chill “smart growth” activists. Winnipeg has nothing to learn from Portland. Overall, Winnipeg is 1.14 times as dense as Portland and densities in the core area of Winnipeg are considerably higher than in Portland. The densest one percent of Winnipeg is 1.9 times more compacted than Portland’s, while the densest 10 percent is 1.6 times that in Portland. Additionally, Winnipeg’s transit ridership per capita is approximately the same as in Portland.

Thanks to technology and the car, downtowns as we know them today would not be invented if we had to build from scratch. Transit can not compete with the automobile’s convenience and short trip times. It only works well to service the downtown, an area with an increasingly small and slipping share of labour and shopping markets.

Pointing out these harsh realities is not to say we abandon the old city. Winnipeg’s central core has enormous potential, particularly as a residential and entertainment area, but there are smart ways and dumb ways to promote denser urban development. If you want to understand the decline of the centre city, try wrong taxes, high taxes, excessive zoning and regulatory controls, rent controls, bad schools and crime. This “policy-induced” sprawl is reversible.

It’s tempting to putz around with more rules and regulations, but we need to address root causes. For starters, eliminate obtrusive zoning rules, embrace more effective policing, encourage housing by ending rent controls, and free up schools to allow excellence and reward teachers. Lower city costs by embracing entrepreneurial service delivery models. Instead of pouring more money into a declining transport mode, improve transit’s service and efficiency by moving to “competitive models found in all major European cities. We can develop the core best by embracing the smartest aspect of Glenn Murray’s innovative New Deal tax policy. Slash reliance on property tax, which is a tax on density. Then change the smaller property tax to de-emphasize improvements on the land. This will make the city spread up instead of out.

Energy Minister Tim Sale recently suggested that people will move to Headingley or St. Paul if Waverley West does not happen. He’s right. Do you know any young couples with kids and good jobs that are planning to move to Furby Street? Let’s get the fundamentals right. Smart policy, not “smart growth,” will make the core bloom.