Snobbery + Greed = Smart Growth


Perhaps the oddest political coalition is anti-suburban intellectuals and suburban "slow growth" activists.

The two are allied to combat suburban sprawl and promote strict government controls over land use, termed "smart growth" by their advocates).

Why would suburbanites make common cause with those who loathe their communities and their way of life, and who sneer at their tacky and soul-less neighborhoods? Because both seek the end of migration from major cities.

Consider the survey results published by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Wisconsinites were asked where they would like to live. Only six percent said in a major city. The largest group, 44 percent, said in rural areas; the second largest group, 27 percent, preferred the suburbs. At first glance, one might think the Clinton/Gore cam-paign to promote "livable communities" (densely developed communities) would be resisted by a majority.

But the survey went on to ask, "where would you prefer development to occur?" The most popular response (34 percent) was "in a major city." Another question: "Do you favor zoning laws that would encourage communities to have smaller houses on smaller lots within walking distance of shopping and work?" Yes, said 76 percent. But when asked, "Would you be interested in living in such a development?" 65 percent said no.

The findings are typical of survey results throughout the nation. Most people clearly prefer living in suburbia and exurbia but are opposed to other people living in suburbia and exurbia.

This is particularly true of people who already live in low-density communities. The campaign against more roads and more development reflects an attempt to preserve suburbia and exurbia from invasion and prevent the areas from morphing into the communities the inhabitants just escaped.

This "I got mine, Jack!" attitude runs rampant through suburbia today. Conduct a poll on whether the government should promote mass transit, and 70 percent or so will respond yes. Ask those same people whether they regularly use mass transit or would if it were more available, and the same number (or even larger) respond no. Or consider the question of scenic pastures outside suburban and exurban windows. "Howimportant is it to maintain farming in Wisconsin?" the paper asked. "Very important," said 73 percent. And no wonder; farmland is the reason a drive through Vermont is more charming than a drive through Connecticut. But to "Do you approve using tax revenue to pay farmers not to develop their land?" 62 percent replied no.

Are respondents hoping the state will talk farmers out of selling to developers? Of course not. They're hoping that the state will ban development in farm country and to heck with the farmer who loses a chance to retire comfortably by selling his back forty.

This attitude is not new. Twenty years ago, in "The Environmental Protection," Bernard Frieden, professor of urban planning at MIT, blasted the alliance between suburban home own ers and anti-sprawl activists. The anti- sprawl crusade, he said, is founded on "phony issues" to "legitimize arrogant public policies designed to keep the average citizen from using the land, while preserving the social and fiscal advantages of the influential few."

The left cheers Portland's anti-growth polices despite the fact they've increased housing costs by 400 percent absolutely devastating housing prospects for the poor. "Hurrah!" say the homeowners who bought their property before the new controls.

The people most harmed by "smart growth" are poorer, younger Americans who seldom vote and certainly don't vote in the communities that are walling them out.

Jerry Taylor is the Cato Institute's director of natural resource studies; Peter VanDoren is editor of Regulation, published by Cato.