Smart Growth: “Build up” is false promise

COST Commentary: Below is a two part series on “smart growth” published online at:

Why are these articles about “smart growth” included in a site devoted to promoting sustainable, cost-effective people mobility solutions for the Austin region? One of the major premises of smart growth is that high density, mixed-use living will reduce driving and improve congestion. Therefore, COST evaluates these claims of smart growth promoters regarding transportation. The reality, throughout the world, is: the greater the population density, the greater the congestion. “Smart Growth” may provide a small reduction in driving per capita but the density of cars and drivers overwhelms this reduction, creating increased congestion.

The articles below focus on Maryland but there have been many similar studies regarding other cities such as Portland, Oregon where a long history of coercive government regulations to “force” smart growth has led to severe negative consequences including substantial reductions in affordability, public school enrollment, and growth.
Portland is Not a Transit Role Model for Austin
Portland Going Nowhere: Austin must heed this transit failure story.
Portland Light Rail: A Colossal Financial and Transit Failure
Portland: Mecca of transit’s role model fading as debt piles up
Portland’s Vision of “Smart Growth” Utopia seems to be fading
The Portland Epistles: More Delusion

Another article regarding smart growth and San Francisco can be found here:
Transit Oriented Development: If Not San Francisco, Where? – The Great Transit Oriented Development Swindle

As described in these articles, so called “smart growth” is a clever name which bears no relationship to reality. For the vast majority of citizens, this “smart growth” living style is neither affordable or desired. Taxpayers highly subsidize “smart growth” which siphons a major, disproportionate share of tax funds resulting in increasing taxes and reduced basic, high priority city services. This results is degrading quality of life and social equity for most citizens. Smart Growth’s major claim to reduce congestion has proven to be false. Most often the opposite occurs and congestion increases. As shown in cities throughout the world, the higher the population density, the greater the congestion.

Reporter Ben Wear of the Austin American-Statesman also wrote an article regarding the failure of Transit Oriented Development in Austin and other cities.



by Ed Braddy 04/04/2012,

It’s a given in our representative system that policies adopted into law should have popular support. However, there is a distinction to be made between adopting a policy consistent with what a majority of people want, and pushing a policy while making dubious claims that it harnesses “the will of the people.”

The former is a valid exercise in democracy; the latter is a logical fallacy. Smart Growth advocates are among the most effective practitioners of Argumentum ad Populum, urging everyone to get on the bandwagon of higher densities, compact mixed-uses, and transit orientation because all the “cool cities” are doing it.

Smart Growth advocates also claim this is what people prefer, even if it is not how they currently live. The two core features of Smart Growth land use — high densities and multi-family dwellings — are simply not preferred by most Americans in most places, despite the trendy push for Livability, New Urbanism, Resilient Cities, Smart Codes, Traditional Neighborhood Design, Transit Oriented Developments or any other euphemistic, clever name currently in fashion.

Survey Says!

In the internal data of the 2011 Community Preference Survey commissioned by the National Association of Realtors, no specific question was asked about density, but 52 percent of respondents said, if given a choice, they would prefer to live in traditional suburbs, small towns or the rural countryside. Another 28 percent chose a suburban setting that allowed for some mixed uses (Question 5). Taken together, this shows an overwhelming preference for low densities. Only 8 percent of the respondents favored a central city environment.

As for vibrant urbanism, only 7 percent were “very interested” in living in a place “at the center of it all.” Most people wanted to live “away from it all” (Question 17). An astonishing 87 percent said “privacy from neighbors” was important to them in deciding where to live. One can reasonably infer that a majority of this majority would favor low density places with separated uses rather than crowded, noisy mixed use locations that blur the line between public and private.

When presented with a range of housing choices, 80 percent preferred the “single-family detached house” (Question 6). Only eight percent chose an apartment or condominium. Furthermore, 61 percent preferred a place where “houses are built far apart on larger lots and you have to drive to get to schools, stores, and restaurants” over 37 percent who wanted a place where “houses are built close together on small lots and it is easy to walk to schools, stores and restaurants” (Question 8).

So — absent the loaded terms and buzzwords that are central to Smart Growth — a large majority of randomly selected people from across the country showed a strong preference for the land use pattern derisively referred to as “sprawl.”

Yet the press release from the National Association of Realtors proclaimed that “Americans prefer smart growth communities.” This is because on Question 13, respondents were given a description of two communities:

Community A, a subdivision of only single family homes with nothing around them. Not even sidewalks!

Community B: lots of amenities all “within a few blocks” of home. Of course, the description neglected to mention the population density and degree of residential stacking required to put all those dwellings in such close proximity to walkable retail. This was a significant omission, since the first housing option offered in Community B was “single family, detached,” on “various sized lots.”

Community B received 56 percent support.

So, with just one response to an unrealistic scenario, out of twenty answers that included many aversions to Smart Growth, the myth that people prefer Smart Growth was spread. The National League of Cities released a Municipal Action Guide to thousands of elected and appointed officials declaring the preference for Smart Growth, and the online network Planetizen, among others, uncritically helped spread the news.

Missing from the triumphalism was this important caveat in the 98-page analysis of the results by the consultants who conducted the survey:

“Ideally, most Americans would like to live in walkable communities where shops, restaurants, and local businesses are within an easy stroll from their homes and their jobs are a short commute away; as long as those communities can also provide privacy from neighbors and detached, single-family homes. If this ideal is not possible, most prioritize shorter commutes and single-family homes above other considerations.”

In addition to spinning the results of preference surveys, Smart Growthers also ignore them. Maryland is a case study in how to disregard what people want while claiming the opposite. In drafting a statewide growth management plan that anticipated “increased demand for housing, an aging population, and diverse communities,” Maryland officials ignored a robust 55+ Housing Preference Survey from Montgomery County that specifically addressed this concern.

The survey showed that most seniors planned to remain in their present homes upon retirement. Only 30 percent planned to move, and, of that group, only a small percentage would consider an apartment or condominium. This should have mattered to Maryland officials trying to gauge housing preferences for their senior population. Instead, the architects of PlanMaryland looked elsewhere to find studies that reinforced their assumptions.

The Great Conflation

There is an abundance of examples like these, and the key to understanding how they influence decision-makers lies in the conflation of specific amenities with the overarching concept of Smart Growth. For example, Todd Litman’s Where We Want to Be, published by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, claims that “preference for smart growth is increasing due to demographic, economic and market trends such as aging population, rising future fuel prices, increasing traffic congestion, and increasing health and environmental concerns.”

Does this mean most seniors – such as those in Maryland – want to live in high density, mixed use, transit-oriented apartments even when they say they don’t? Hardly. Litman concedes that “most Americans prefer single-family homes,” but finds “a growing portion want neighborhood amenities associated with Smart Growth including accessibility, walkability, nearby services, and improved public transport.”

Those amenities are things like sidewalks, which evidently are now a Smart Growth invention, and shops that are close to (but not mixed into) residential areas. Litman’s clever construction – e.g., sidewalks equal walkability equal Smart Growth policy – is convincing to officials who mistakenly conclude that their constituents must want Smart Growth when, in fact, they do not.
This has been Part One of a Two-Part Series on Smart Growth by Ed Braddy.

Photo by W. Cox: Rail station in Evry, a suburb of Paris

Ed Braddy is the executive director of the American Dream Coalition, a non-profit organization promoting freedom, mobility and affordable homeownership. Mr. Braddy often speaks on growth management related issues and their impact on local communities. He can be reached at:


by Ed Braddy 04/05/2012,

This is Part Two of a two-part series.

Evidence that people just don’t like Smart Growth is revealed in findings from organizations set up to promote Smart Growth. In 2009, the Washington Post reported, “Scholars at the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education found that over a decade, smart growth has not made a dent in Maryland’s war on sprawl.”

Citing the “most comprehensive review to date” from the same Center, the Baltimore Sun in 2011 argued that Maryland had made “little progress with Smart Growth” despite adopting laws and policies hailed across the country as models for growth management.

One of the innovative policies was the establishment of Priority Funding Areas (PFAs) where development was to be directed and incentivized with money for cash-strapped jurisdictions. Yet the representative bodies closest to the people continued to permit development outside the PFAs.

Assessing the failure of incentives to concentrate development, the Center concluded: “As the Maryland experience suggests, without statutory requirements, tools that matter to the state are not always those that matter to local governments.”

The anti-democratic outlook among Smart Growthers was evident in a comment by Gerrit Knapp, the director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education, who said, “What makes incentives so politically attractive is that governments and individuals can choose to ignore them if they wish. Unfortunately, in Maryland over the last decade, that’s exactly what many have been doing.”

This “unfortunate” behavior by free people is consistent with the conclusion of Robert Bruegmann, author of Sprawl: A Compact History, who found that low density development was “the preferred settlement pattern everywhere in the world where there is a certain measure of affluence and where citizens have some choice in how they live.”

Deconstructing Density

Under the new PlanMaryland, Priority Funding Areas essentially become urban growth boundaries. People still can choose to live outside PFAs, but new housing can be built at no greater than one unit per 20 acres, making such dwellings unaffordable to all but the extremely rich. Ninety percent of new development must be inside the PFAs at a minimum density of 3.5 units per acre.

The impact of increased densities is hard to gauge when presented in this manner, but 3.5 units per acre converts to 2,240 units per square mile. Maryland averages 2.62 people per dwelling unit, so the minimum population density for almost all new development will be on a scale of 5,846 people per square mile, a density higher than Portland or San Francisco, and just shy of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Furthermore, reviewing previous drafts of PlanMaryland leads one to believe that this minimum density will be the exception to the rule of even higher densities. The earliest draft available for public comment, April 2011, was unapologetic about the need for significantly higher densities, saying this “threshold for new development – a relatively low density of 3.5 units per acre – is not accommodating growth in PFAs as needed to minimize continued impacts on our rural and resource lands and industries.”

A later draft, September 2011, established ranges for “medium density” (3.5 to 10 units per acre) and “high density” (10+ units per acre) and repeatedly showed a preference for the high density classification, which converts to a scale of at least 16,704 people per square mile.

For example, on page 18 is the complaint that incentive-based planning “hindered high-density urban development,” and page 35 says there would be dramatic per capita savings “if 25 percent of the low-density development projected to be built from 2000 to 2025 was shifted to high-density development.”

But a strange thing happened on the road to the final draft: high density was euphemized. The sixteen-page Executive Summary does not once mention density. “Low density” makes numerous appearances in the final draft in the context of wasteful land use patterns, and “high density” appears just once.

Instead, PlanMaryland relies on the phrase “compact development”. A comparison table, laughably labeled “Low Density versus Compact Development,” steers clear of medium or high density labels even though, when converted to population per square mile, the “compact” living arrangement would be more than seven times Maryland’s current density.

To discern the density thresholds that Maryland planners have in mind, consider, PlanMaryland claims that “Compact development leads people to drive 20 to 40 percent less, at minimal or reduced cost, while reaping fiscal and health benefits.”

This appears to be lifted from the influential 2007 Growing Cooler report, sponsored by the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education, Smart Growth America, and other advocacy organizations. The authors call on “all housing growth” to be built at an average density of 13 units per acre (21,798 people per square mile), in order to increase the overall metropolitan density to 9 units per acre (15,091 people per square mile) by the year 2025. There’s not a lot of room for detached single family homes in this scenario.

PlanMaryland’s Best Practices section highlights White Flint in North Bethesda for redeveloping “an auto-dominated suburban strip into an environment where people walk to work, shops and transit.” This project puts 1,400 apartments on 32 acres, for a density of 44 units per acre.

Hyattsville’s Arts District is recognized because “this mixed-use community features row homes, condominiums, live-work units, shops and a new community center,” but there is no room for detached, single family homes among the 500 dwellings crowded onto 25 acres, or 20 units per acre. Also featured is Carroll Creek Park that has 300 residential units, all multi-family, mixed among commercial and office space along a linear 1.3-mile strip.

As a “Traditional Neighborhood Development,” Kentlands is closer to the norm, and features some single family housing among its mix of shops, apartments, and condos, but the 1,655 residential units on 352 acres is still 35 percent higher than the “minimum” densities mentioned in PlanMaryland, and thirteen times the state’s current density level.

These places are architecturally striking and aesthetically attractive, but they are unaffordable to most of the state’s population. Furthermore, the dearth of detached single family housing, the predominance of multi-family dwellings mixed with (not nearby) other uses, and dramatically higher densities are not at all what an overwhelming majority of people want in Maryland or anywhere else.

The emergence of Smart Growth in Maryland is indicative of the movement in general: For successful implementation, it would be necessary to replace incentives with mandates, and continue to rely on euphemistic language to avoid a candid discussion of density.

In October, I spoke — along with Wendell Cox and a few others — at a technical forum on PlanMaryland, addressing many areas of concern including density. Signed into law by Governor Martin O’Malley in December 2011, PlanMaryland weakens the authority of local governments, eviscerates property rights, and expresses hope for declining interest in the single family home.

Defenders will argue that most people support Smart Growth; after all, O’Malley and others like him were popularly elected. Yet these politicians never campaign on the specifics of Smart Growth, such as how many people per square mile they believe is necessary, or what kinds of restrictions they will impose on single family housing in the suburbs, or the impacts on affordability.

The September draft of PlanMaryland said, “PlanMaryland, we believe, is what the public says it wants and deserves in government.” Tellingly, this statement is missing from the final report. That’s because what planners want and what people prefer are starkly different.

Ed Braddy is the executive director of the American Dream Coalition, a non-profit organization promoting freedom, mobility and affordable homeownership. Mr. Braddy often speaks on growth management related issues and their impact on local communities or at

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