NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Smart Growth Not so Smart for Portland

January 22, 2002

Traffic congestion, air pollution and loss of open spaces have led some municipal governments to embrace "smart growth" urban planning to slow suburban "sprawl." The strategies are designed to increase urban population density, boost mass transit ridership and cut auto driving.

But experts point to Portland, Oregon's experience, where smart growth policies led to increased traffic congestion, air pollution, consumer cost and taxes.

  • Beginning in 1991, Portland's Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) established minimum density codes that required the owner of a quarter-acre vacant lot to build at least a six-unit complex, or nothing at all.
  • To meet their targets, planners rezoned farms and other open spaces to high density.
  • Ten thousand acres of prime farmland inside the MPO's three-county area were targeted for high-density development.
  • The MPO diverts most of the region's transportation funds to mass transit, ignoring road improvements; refuses to add road capacity to most freeways and highways; and purposely increases congestion by removing street lanes.

The results have been predictable.

  • Portland's smart growth restrictions changed one of the nation's most affordable single-family housing markets in 1989 to one of the least affordable by 1996.
  • Nor did residents embrace the planned move to apartments -- in 1999 vacancy rates were a decade-high 7 percent, and 11 percent for apartments built in the '90s.
  • Planned congestion was supposed to cut per capita driving by 10 percent, yet the MPO's planners now hope for 4 percent -- and that may be unrealistically optimistic.
  • Given the area's projected 80 percent population increase, even a 5 to 10 percent reduction in per capita driving will still increase smog by 10 percent because of the MPO-mandated stop-and-go driving.

As one smart growth advocate admits, there is "a gap between the daily mode of living desired by most Americans and the one that most city planners believe is appropriate."

Source: Randall O'Toole (Thoreau Institute), "The Folly of 'Smart Growth,'" Regulation, Fall 2001.

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