- On Wednesday Kaid Benfield, director for the National Resources Defense Council, asked how the “smart growth” movement, formed in the 1990s, could better fit today. His article was inspired by another written in a San Diego magazine, claiming “smarter smart growth” would better enable cities to combat sprawl and enhance livability. It focused on things like respecting community planning, conforming new developments to local character, tolerating “NIMBYism”, allowing density only incrementally, and concentrating retail on existing corridors rather than letting it spread. To this Benfield added that cities should “pursue communities suitable for a diversity of incomes, housing types, ethnicities, and old/new residents.”
Are these good ideas? Benfield’s last one about increasing diversity certainly is. But that’s what makes the others so counterproductive.
The problem with “smart growth”, after all, is precisely that it empowers existing citizens—and the government—to dictate growth, rather than the market. This causes nothing new to get built, since everything proposed gets shot down by neighborhood reactionaries, who feel entitled at public meetings to dictate how others should use their land. And if buildings are approved, they must follow onerous design standards that prevent them from being too tall, wide, colorful, modern, obstructive, etc. etc. etc.
As Benfield points out, this highly regulated, NIMBY-riddled, “smart” form of urbanism is already “mainstream in nearly every planning office in the country.” It has created cities that are not only unaffordable, since new construction can’t meet demand, but ones that, to my thinking, aren’t even that interesting. Cities like Portland that reflect the philosophy are certainly nice, but also safe, predictable, unchanging. They lack the dynamism and diversity of places like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, which grew during the industrial era, before the widescale micro-management of urban development. But unfortunately these cities too have since caved into the mantra, at the expense of the poor and the environment, and in defiance of what first made them great.
- This week another one of my articles got published, about San Francisco parklets and how they represent a rise in “tactical urbanism”. It was on Sustainable Cities Collective, a website run by the urban technology company Siemens.