After two years of life under the Bush Administration, what we might call the "General Plan" for American is in the midst of a serious update. And it's not surprising that "smart growth" doesn't appear to be on the list.
After all, urban policy nowadays means homeland security, not livable neighborhoods. And it's a little hard to argue about all the problems of cities when cities are doing so well.
Cultural trends have combined with smart growth planning initiatives to make central cities attractive places again. Even downtown Los Angeles, arguably one of America's most inhospitable central districts, is experiencing a boom in housing demand and cultural life.
But maybe the biggest reason that smart growth isn't on the administration's agenda is simply that so many of the administration's friends are making a business out of opposing it. Under the banner of ideologues like Randal O'Toole, Director of the Oregon-based Thoreau Institute, and David Strom of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, the anti-smart growth movement has begun the air attack against smart growth and may soon send in the ground troops as well.
Conferences to rally the anti smart-growth constituency have been picking up in number. This new movement is busy working out talking points and collective strategies. At a three-day convention in February called "Preserving the American Dream," Strom called smart growth leaders "pointy-headed intellectual fascist[s]." At another symposium in Washington D.C. titled "Preserving the American Dream of Mobility and Home Ownership," the stated goal was to discredit and oppose "rail-transit boondoggles" and "restrictions on rural property rights."
So much for all those feel-good urban design and livability conferences. The political theory gauntlet has been thrown down by the property rights crowd. The attack on smart growth principles is not only constant, but it is consistent as well. The message: Smart growth is a set of ideas dreamed up by pinheaded intellectual planners out of touch with reality who want to cater to urban elites and deny the masses the things they really want and need, such as houses and yards and cars.
And upon just a bit of reflection, we have to admit that maybe the planners have lost the battle before it has begun. After all, the smart growth agenda has been primarily carried by architects and progressive infill developers working in league with redevelopment officials and transit agencies.
All of these groups have reaped financial benefits from dramatically revitalized central cities. But urban planners have mainly been relegated to a cheerleading role, having evolved into a profession that is shy about leading a charge. Smart growth -- or what we used to call good planning -- is probably a better "sell" as an on-the-ground reality than it is as a theory. Because the intellectual debate comes right back to a fundamental planning issue: Property rights for the individual vs. collective planning for society.
That's why I'm pretty certain that in the war about the philosophical merits of smart growth, planners will be outgunned. That is because full-blown debate over urban social theory is an arena that most urban planners have lost stomach for. This may stem from the dismal failures of post-war urban renewal, a movement that planning agencies once lobbied in favor of loudly and successfully.
As a case in point, most planners are unaware that the anti-smart growth movement even exists. Some of the movement's leaders are typical property rights advocates who want to do little more than argue intellectual constructs just as the smart growth thinkers do.
But the movement is already developing strategies on how to best win the hearts and minds of policy-makers. For example, Jon Caldara, president of the Golden, Colorado-based Independence Institute, warned that the anti-smart growthers avoid coming off as "cranky white men," and recommended that they play the race card by enlisting spokespeople like Joseph P. Neil, an African-American state representative from South Carolina. Neil has opposed development restrictions that protect rural lands from development in that state.
Like other lighting-rod issues forced on the American consciousness by Bush and the conservatives in Washington, smart growth will apparently now require highly politicized discussion. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but one that will challenge planners in an arena that they have all but left behind.
Stephen Svete, AICP, is president of Rincon Consultants, Inc., a Ventura-based consulting firm.