Viewpoint: How practical is smart growth?
(Planning Magazine, August 2000)
Richard Carson looks at smart growth and finds it wanting. Carson is the community development director of Clark County in Vancouver, Washington, and the former planning director of Metro, the Portland, Oregon, regional agency.
Smart Growth, which has been much in the news lately, promises many answers to the problems that face planners today. But like the equally trendy New Urbanism, it is an intellectual solution, not necessarily a practical one and not necessarily a new one. In reality, smart growth only slows growth, while New Urbanism simply makes increased density more enjoyable.
Neither doctrine alone can change the fact that growth in metropolitan areas will result in overcrowding, traffic congestion, and poor air quality. Gridlock is simply a function of too many people living in an area, and no concurrency policy or dollar outlay can fix it.
Nor can either policy stop the expansion of cities. It's inevitable, for instance, that the West Coast will eventually evolve into a massive megalopolis stretching along Interstate 5 from Tijuana, Mexico, to Vancouver, British Columbia. There are similar examples all around the country.
Critics suggest that cities may have an optimum size and population. They tell us that an ideal city is a sustainable one, where economic, social, and environmental systems are in balance, and where residents feel that they are part of a definable, understandable community. Writers like Ian McHarg (Design with Nature) have pointed out that urban areas, like natural areas, have an inherent carrying capacity. Others, like Carl Sagan (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors), have described the pathological effect of population size on urban areas.
Yet planners rarely talk about limiting growth. That's because we don't have a politically marketable alternative that allows for rational growth. Even in the Pacific Northwest, where growth boundaries are a way of life, the urban areas keep expanding. Although the population is growing faster than in many parts of the country, higher densities slow geographical expansion.
Daniel Kemmis, the sage of Missoula, Montana, theorized in The Good City and the Good Life, that a city's optimum size could be determined by using the ancient Greek golden mean formula. It would show us, he said, that the earth's population (then five billion) would ideally result in 70,000 cities with 70,000 people each. Christopher Alexander, in A Pattern Language, also argued for a hierarchy of size and space, and Constantine Doxiadis articulated a similar taxonomy in his influential 1968 book, Ekistics.
Certainly there is credible evidence that smaller metropolitan areas like Austin, Texas; Eugene, Oregon; and Santa Fe, New Mexico, are livable precisely because of their size and sense of place. When new towns are needed, they should be established at a minimum distance from existing settlements. Such towns would never outgrow their urban growth boundaries or intrude on their greenbelt buffers.
A basic tenet of planning is that it must be comprehensive. Yet planners today only plan for 20 to 25 years ahead -- the equivalent of one generation. If our typical life span is 80 to 90 years, shouldn't we be planning our cities for four or five generations?
Even when we understand the space-time continuum of cities, we don't seem to have the political will to manage them. The deep-rooted American faith in a free-market economy is too often argued as a reason to allow free-market urban development. The result is the sprawl and loss of community identity that we lament today.
Cities are our creation, after all, and should be built for the purpose of providing human happiness. We should take heed of this ancient Sanskrit verse:
For the family, sacrifice the individual;
For the city, the family;
For the country, the city;
For the soul, all the world.