A few weeks ago, Christina Frankel– the local architect spearheading the effort to restore the Commercial Building in Downtown Stockton– wrote an article in the Tracy Press discussing the website Walkscore. She described how the site ranks the “walkability” of certain cities and neighborhoods based on proximity to various amenities such as parks, schools, and businesses. Frankel concludes that communities with high walk scores allow residents to rely less on automobiles, resulting in improved health and a cleaner environment.
While Frankel’s column was a simple call for the inclusion of more walkable growth patterns, the comments section of the article would imply that Frankel suggested that Tracy petition for the new capitol of communist Russia. Several commenters insinuated that Frankel was in cahoots with the United Nations, secretly planning to rob citizens of their private property, condemning all Tracy-ites to cramped Soviet-style housing with two million other people. One reader even went so far as to compare Frankel’s words to Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. All of this admonishment for making the simple argument that walking makes the air a little cleaner and our waists a little smaller. This hardly seems the stuff of Marx or Stalin.
Unfortunately, this public sentiment against the virtues of smart growth and sensible planning represents a growing trend beyond the comments sections of local newspapers. Both locally and nationally, growing numbers of Americans are galvanized against any changes in growth patterns, believing that any plan aimed at improving cities is actually a veiled argument for a war on suburbia or a war on cars inspired by “European” living standards. While this group represents a small minority of the country, they seem to be making a disproportionate impact on the land use planning decisions of many local governments.
A lot of us in the New Urbanism field are taken aback by these charges. The basis for this outrage is almost always rooted in something called Agenda 21— a non-binding, unenforceable United Nations decree advocating for sustainable communities. These Agenda 21ers believe that the tenets of smart growth and New Urbanism are sneaky attempts to implement Agenda 21 here in the United States, which will ultimately lead to a seizure of private property, herding citizens toward dense urban centers. Locally, groups in Lodi and the foothills have protested rather mundane municipal matters on the basis that these cities are secretly trying to undermine the rights of citizens.
While planners and developers scratch their heads over these arguments, it is important to realize that while the rhetoric may be a tad absurd, the basis of these concerns are real. Fear of change is often derived from a lack of information, and it is easy to chide a group of people for believing in an a conspiracy theory when no one tries to engage them in the planning process. If we want a consensus of Central Valley residents supporting infill development to help revitalize our cities, the onus is on us to help everyone understand the benefits of reprioritizing growth inward.
Below, I respond to the most popular arguments against smart growth and discuss why there is nothing to fear:
Agenda 21 has no control over any planning decision anywhere in this country, or any other for that matter
One of the more colorful arguments frequently spouted on online media comment sections and in town hall meetings is that planning principles touting bike paths, transit-oriented development, and walkability are a product of a United Nation’s plan to turn American standards of living into something resembling socialism. To put it bluntly, this argument simply has no basis in reality. The United Nations has absolutely no authority whatsoever in municipal planning decisions. Agenda 21 is so obscure that most planners and civic leaders don’t even know what it is.
In Lodi, a vocal group protested the city’s acceptance of state grant money to assist in the development of the city’s climate action plan. While planning for sensible energy use in the future may seem fairly innocuous, some local residents felt that these small steps would trigger a slippery slope down the path to socialism. Simply put, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Most cities embrace these plans and tactics because they will save them money in the long run. There is no secret plot by Lodi’s government to turn the city into a cramped European metropolis where no one has cars and land ownership is prohibited. Once we get past the Agenda 21 argument, we can begin to have a reasonable conversation about the role of government in land use planning decisions…..
Suburban development patterns are not the result of the free market
Another common argument is that large homes in sprawling communities are a product of a free market economy and any attempt to incorporate more apartments or denser communities subverts the will of the free market.
Unfortunately for Agenda 21ers, the reality is quite different as the suburbs are actually the product of extreme government incentivization, not the free market. The suburbs originally exploded because the federal government provided cheap mortgage guarantees, making buying a home more affordable. Moreover, the tax breaks received for owning a home are unavailable to people who rent, further distorting the market towards homeownership. If housing were truly a free market, why is the government giving us money to buy houses?
It is also just as important to note that the proliferation of the suburbs was greatly exacerbated by the federally-funded highway system which made it possible to work downtown but live in the suburbs. Needless to say, highways and roads are completely subsidized by the government. Commuting by automobile is affordable only because the price does not reflect its actual cost, which is picked up by the federal government.
Suburban development patterns are also heavily dictated by municipal zoning codes which restrict what developers can offer to buyers. The real reason there are only single-family homes available away from retail or commercial is because most cities make it illegal to mix uses. If I am a developer in Stockton who wants to build an apartment building with ground floor restaurants and stores, I can’t, because the city’s zoning code most likely prohibits this type of development. Seems pretty restrictive for a free-market economy.
Suburban style development is economically inefficient
One of the main reasons Stockton suffered from diminished finances stems from unencumbered outward growth generating insufficient income for the city to meet the demand for services in these new areas. New subdivisions mean new roads, sewers, power lines, parks, roads, street lights, and so on. More police and fire protection is needed as well. Unfortunately, the fees paid by developers and taxes collected on homes are not sufficient to pay for this new infrastructure, and instead create the illusion of wealth which we now know was erroneous. On a pure fiscal standpoint, it seems foolish to support a pattern of growth that has proven to be so economically unsustainable.
Conversely, research shows that compact developments provide greater economic benefits by making efficient use of resources already at the city’s disposal. I previously profiled Joe Minicozzi’s work demonstrating how modest downtown revitalization efforts yield greater economic benefits than the traditional suburban shopping center or subdivision. Minicozzi has performed this analysis locally as well in Modesto, Turlock and Merced, with similar results. In an interview with Minicozzi, he said that Stockton’s downtown structures almost certainly could bring in more tax dollars per square foot than the city’s Super Walmarts.
Consumer demand for different housing options is on the rise
Speaking of the free market, more and more Central Valley residents would like the option to live in walkable communities and rely less on their cars. As I have previously discussed, the demand for apartments, townhomes and condos is increasing in the Central Valley while support for suburban development has tapered off. Further, research has shown that home buyers are willing to pay more for housing in areas with high Walkscores, even here in Stockton. Clearly, whether Agenda 21ers like it or not, there is a growing market for these kinds of homes and neighborhoods.
If we really live in a free-market society, those of us who would prefer to live in a walkable neighborhood should have the opportunity to do so. Our founding fathers would surely frown upon Americans protesting and shouting down their fellow citizens simply because they prefer to live in a walkable community. No one from the city or the United Nations is going to come and seize your house in the suburbs and force you into a duplex simply because the city adopts a more lenient zoning ordinance. Which brings me to my final point…
Suburbs and cars are not going away. Ever.
Many commenters in Frankel’s article noted that they prefer living away from amenities and far from the central city. That is absolutely their choice, and no one can ever take that away from them. In the Central Valley, suburban development isn’t going anywhere. In the report cited earlier regarding increasing demand for various housing options, the authors concede that suburban housing will continue to make up the majority of the region’s housing stock. What has already been built won’t be taken away or converted to something with higher density as some may fear. The only thing that might change is that those of us who want to live closer to amenities might have a neighborhood or two where we can actually do that. Those who want to live in the suburbs can rest assured that their housing style of choice won’t be encumbered. Urban Planner Jeff Speck suggests in his book “Walkable City” that suburban areas should remain suburban; no policies or projects are going to change the nature of these areas.
Further, life in the Central Valley will always revolve around the car. While some new developments may offer the option of a less auto-centric lifestyle, the vast majority of people will still be using their cars to run errands, go to Costco, and take weekend trips.
While these arguments should assuage any paranoia regarding bike lanes and infill development, I fully realize that some may read these words and continue to believe that smart growth is out to get them. There is nothing to be said that will ever sway your opinion, and I am completely comfortable with that. You can continue to disagree with smart growth and urban planning; that is your unalienable right, and there are perfectly reasonable arguments to be made against these principles. However, I hope that these disagreements can be discussed calmly and rationally so that we can all be part of a dialogue to develop strategies for the future of our region. However, when smart growth principles are likened to the teachings of Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez, a reasonable conversation is no longer possible, and those with legitimate concerns will lose their seat at the table. Stockton and the entire region took a huge hit during the economic downturn, there really is no argument for dismissing any ideas to help improve our cities.