NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Questioning the Messianic Conception of Smart Growth

July 12, 2012

A new analysis from the United Kingdom concludes that smart growth (compact city) policies are not inherently preferable to other urban land use policy regimes, despite the claims of proponents. Marcial H. Echenique, a land use and transport professor at Cambridge University, led a team of researchers that conducted a thorough analysis of strict urban planning, comparing it to relaxed measures, says Wendell Cox, an adjunct scholar with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

The researchers modeled land use and travel behavior in three areas of England, subjecting them to three land use alternatives: compact development (smart growth), planned development (which they label "smart growth light") and dispersal, the generally liberal approach common in the United States. Their findings debunk many of the supposed benefits of strict urban planning.

  • Housing prices are typically higher under strict urban planning regimes; because these standards restrict land use and confine development to designated areas, supply of housing is often unable to meet demand.
  • Housing choices also suffer as a consequence of strict urban planning standards; excessive housing prices compel more developers to construct apartment housing and fewer of other housing options.
  • While advocates of strict urban planning argue that the resulting population density limits road travel and commuting time, researchers found that the resulting traffic congestion more than counteracts the gains from densification.
  • Furthermore, the traffic congestion and population density can worsen air quality through increased emissions, causing a greater incidence of respiratory problems.
  • Smart growth urban planning also supposedly encourages "empty nesters" (aging households with no offspring at home) to move to the city and engage in the community, but researchers found no evidence of this phenomenon.
  • By creating a single center for commercial activity, urban planning creates a dysfunctional balance between housing (where residents live) and commerce (where they work).

More people live in cities today than at any other time in history: they have increased their share of the population tenfold in just two centuries. The driving motivation for this worker migration has been the economic opportunity that cities provide. This research team's conclusive takeaway, however, is that strict urban planning methods have the aggregate effect of retarding economic growth and opportunity.

Source: Wendell Cox, "Questioning the Messianic Conception of Smart Growth," New Geography, June 28, 2012.

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