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Editorial> Demonizing Smart Growth
Julie Iovine considers how urban planning got pushed into a political hot button.
An illustration of the key TOD components from the report
Courtesy RACTOD/Flickr

Here’s a trip: Go to Google and search the words “smart growth” and “transit-oriented design.” There, on website after site, numerous thoughtful expressions describe the goals and values of planning for density that are now current in today’s urban planning and design circles. And it’s all positive stuff about how each effort creates “vibrant livable cities,” “enhances neighborhoods and involves local residents,” “protects farmland,” “provides affordable housing” and “creates spaces with a rich variety of options for living and working.” Promises of the American Dream, right?

Now step through the funhouse mirror, search for “Agenda 21” and smart growth or transit-oriented design, and fasten your seat belt. It’s rough out there. At a community meeting, an elderly lady in Maine is told that urban planners want to take her home away; the American Thinker website warns against smart-code zoning and states flatly: “Smart growth plans usurp property rights and constitutional rights.” The Heritage Foundation rails against “land use regulations that would force Americans into denser living arrangements, curtail freedom of choice in housing, discriminate against lower-income Americans”; use of bicycles, subways, and trolleys is deemed especially subversive. Ominously, the American Policy Center writes that “citizens in community after community are learning what their city planners are actually up to.” Even the blandest do-gooder rote statement, “through consultation and consensus-building,” is treated as if those were trigger words for the Manchurian candidate to seize control.

The root cause is Agenda 21, the terrifically sci-fi-sounding moniker of a generic and non-binding resolution that the United Nations passed in 1992 to endorse sustainable practices world-wide; 178 governments signed on, including the United States under George Bush. As The New York Times reported in a front-page story on February 4, Agenda 21 has always been fodder for paranoid extremists. But now with a helping hand from the Tea Party, frenzied, sometimes even violent opposition to anything related to Agenda 21 is on the rise.

Smart growth and TOD (uh-oh, a too resonant acronym: tod is German for death) have somehow landed in the soup of anti-government pot-stirrers obsessed with Agenda 21. And so urban planning finds itself on the hit list of un-American activities. As do public private partnerships, public transit funding, and sustainable development. (On February 3, the House Ways & Means Committee passed a bill to remove mass transit from the Federal Highway Trust Fund for the first time in 30 years.)

Taking on crackpot paranoids is a no-win endeavor. And yet any architect who has presented at a contentious community board meeting has probably witnessed even calm citizens demonstrating a visceral fear of density, as if Thoreau were whispering in their ear that even one ex-urban transportation hub and mixed-used high rise would spell the end of all ponds everywhere. A scary thought, for sure. And scarier still for anyone working in the urban realm—whether architects, planners, government policy makers or developers—when it seems that careful thinking about the future is now treated as tantamount to loss of citizen sovereignty.

Somehow, the language needs to be inverted so that the public understands that planning is not about taking away rights and spaces from individuals but rather about empowering them to set a pace and order of change that works. The anti-intellectual streak now coursing through much political discourse is dangerous not only for the future of intelligent planning but for the future, period. In any case, whether accommodated intelligently or fueled indiscriminately, growth isn’t going to stop.

It may seem ridiculous to take seriously website weirdos seeing Terminator plots between the lines of every land use reform. But we ignore them at our peril. Back at the Google search, there are only four pages before positive “smart growth” websites give way to paranoid cranks; and only one and a half pages before sites about TOD start twisting darkly. As the Times noted, on January 13, the Republican National Congress added a resolution to their platform stating that the “Agenda 21 plan of radical so-called ‘sustainable development’ views the American way of life of private property ownership, single family homes, private car ownership and individual travel choices, and privately owned farms; all as destructive to the environment.” It’s the “so-called” that we need to address right now by better clarifying that planning is really about enriching not destroying prospects in America.

Julie V. Iovine