A Novice’s Reaction to a Smart Growth Discussion

Book Review

Being a novice on any subject certainly should prompt many questions and desires for answers. This definitely is the case with exposure to a study presented in a booklet entitled Outsmarting Smart Growth produced by The Center for Immigration Studies and dated August 2003. The authors of this work are Roy Beck, Leon Kolankiewicz, and Steven Camarota. The trio are, in order, Director of Numbers USA Education and Research Foundation, an environmental scientist and natural resources planner, and Director of Research at the Center.

The authors begin by stating that almost all other efforts to analyze and combat population sprawl have focused on smart growth strategies that create denser settlement by changing land use patterns. Their major conclusion is that the sprawl is strongly linked to this country’s population growth, and that one-half of the rural land losses can be attributed to population increases, with the other half to changes in land use. What a startling revelation. Is not this rather elementary?And the more a population grew, the more it sprawled. Does this in itself present a problem? A public concern over the loss of rural land is noted. Are their fears legitimate?

Figures are presented on per capita sprawl compared with overall sprawl and per capita sprawl compared with population growth in 49 states, to prove their above points. The question arises as to whether any of this might represent a real problem. The matter must be put into context and perspective to make it relevant. What percentage of the total land area of the United States is involved in their comparisons. What are the relationships between supply and demand?

Thoughts turn to an articles entitled “New Continental Divide” by Michael Lind (Atlantic Monthly Jan.-Feb. 2003), which did a splendid job presenting a true picture of this country’s landscape, in which he documents the overcrowding of the cities on each of the coasts and the dying rural communities in the interior, including a catastrophic demographic collapse in the Great Plains. The latter he notes contains 1/5th of the nation’s land area, but only four percent of the human population. And the population of Los Angeles and its surrounding sprawl is higher than that of the Plains, which has an area five times that of all of California. As to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, they involve only 17 percent of the United States land area, but harbor 53 percent of its people, and they are concentrated in a relatively small percent of the involved counties. And, would you believe that only six percent of the land area is classed as residential, with 20 percent farmland, 25 percent rangeland and the remaining 49 percent wilderness and woodland?

Lind also discussed the agricultural picture, noting that since 1950 agricultural productivity increased by more than 100 percent, with land taken out of production eight times as fast as is consumed by suburban development. Lind’s pronouncements encouraged this reviewer to do a follow-up piece entitled “Let it be Known that the U.S.A. is Getting Wilder, and Moreso Every Day.” Something is wrong; all of this doesn’t seem to fit with the impressions that Beck, Kolankiewicz, and Camarota appear to be trying to create. Are we possibly confronted with social planners that are interested in changing the complexion of a free society? Notice that this is a question, from someone who is a novice in smart growth matters.

Hey, this is a free society, supposedly. Why not let people live where they want, unless a real major problem is objectively identified? Since freedom of choice still exists — up to a point — where a person lives, the type of residence, mode of travel, amenities and stuff, lifestyle are all a reflection of the individual’s or family’s desires. Some might question all this, but frankly it really is none of their business, unless it infringes on their rights. And, why do the authors refer to sprawl as devastation when it contributes greatly to their health, welfare, safety, and quality of life.

Unfortunately, the study report appears to be sprinkled with statements that are loaded against painting a true picture of the landscape.For instance, it states that anyone who has flown from New York City to Florida and seen the vast clusters of lights below, sweeping away as far as the eye can see, knows just how far advanced the process of mass urbanization already is. Of course, if weather conditions forced a slightly more westerly route the view would be decidedly different. The question can be asked as to how many people that fly, necessarily from city to city, have any idea of what they are flying over. Those relatively few who chose to travel by automobile and poke along on the back roads throughout the vast United States, on the other hand, have a true picture.

Then there is reference to the myth of superabundance. It is not a myth. Why are they not appreciative of the bountiful resources this great country has to offer? This is not to say that waste is acceptable, nor that planning is not necessary. Everything should be conserved, and remember that contrary to what most of the environmentalists tell you, conservation means wise use. And, what is this subjective, suggestive statement about open space rapidly disappearing under concrete, asphalt, and cinder block? Unfortunately, they can get away with it, since the vast majority of the people are urbanites and suburbanites, and that is naturally what they see when they look out the window. It is requested that these people who chose to live in sprawl, every once in a while thumb through their Rand McNally to visualize what the U.S. of A. really looks like. What thought do you suppose they wish to convey by saying that new subdivisions, industrial parks, and strip malls are shooting up like crabgrass?

It is stated that this study keeps an eye to the loss of rural land. Before one can objectively assess this matter they must recall the realistic picture that Lind painted in his Atlantic Monthly article. From a national standpoint, there certainly is no shortage. Juxtaposition may be another matter. The Center for Immigration Studies people discuss development that destroys natural habitat and agricultural land. What is this nonsense? Man cannot destroy habitat, but he can modify it to the benefits of some plant and animal species and the detriment of others. Try to visualize the fascinating ecosystems created by urban housing projects. And, increasing yields and free market competition have rendered many once productive farm lands superfluous from an agricultural standpoint.

They say that where most Americans live they are denied the rewards of open space. How much space are they talking about? And, if such were a major desired quality, they could move. How much use is made of existing open lands and for what purposes? Many rarely receive a visit, except maybe during a hunting season. Most outdoor recreational use involves extremely low acreage. Reference is made to the conservationist aspect of sprawl. Let us remember that conservation means the wise use of the land and its resources, rather than preservation for some ethereal, emotional reason. It is interesting to note, at this point, that one of the authors stated that a large majority of the critics of the anti-sprawl movement on natural resource grounds do not themselves come from a natural resources management or environmental science background. Unfortunately, many of the graduates of those two fields of study have, for one reason or another, bought into the dictates of the radical, well-heeled environmental movement. Some may have sold their souls to a cause that has little respect for science.

Reference is made to the Madison, Wisconsin Biodiversity Project which identified sprawl as a primary cause of habitat loss, and the main threat to endangered species and biodiversity. Concern is expressed over fragmentation and corridor loss. Funny how all these environmentalists use the same pet language and how often it makes no sense whatsoever. It usually has the taint of the Wildlands Project which has an intense disdain for people and whose stated goal was to rewild 50 percent of North America. Caution must be exercised when exposed to these rantings.

Questions are raised as to why Americans hate sprawl and attempts are made to answer this. It is interesting that, if they hate sprawl, why their livelihood, lifestyle, and activities focus on this monster. The explanation might be that they have been duped by the many well-heeled, radical environmental groups and their accomplices in government service who play on their emotions and pull on their heart strings and yes, purse strings. What impression do you suppose The Nature Conservancy is trying to instill when it talks about saving the last great places? The study report states that Americans are increasingly concerned about worsening traffic, larger commutes, and loss of open space near residential areas. That is interesting in view of the way they so successfully adjust to such a distasteful environment, and it is obviously their choice.

Concern is expressed over the increase in tax burden over time as a result of population growth in and around cities. This undoubtedly is bound to happen when more services are demanded. Obviously, with the growth, there will be more people to pay the bill. Interestingly, no mention of the pro-sprawl case is made until page 35 of the study. They say that a number of libertarian and free-market media think tanks and politicians have risen to extol the virtues of sprawl. Hey wait a minute, sprawls have been around for years and they are very popular and have in many ways been very successful. At this point in their discussion they seem to retreat some in making the concession that rates of farmland and natural habitat loss might not be all that significant in the larger scheme of things. It is difficult, however, to determine if this is the authors talking or the renowned Julian Simon who is identified in their Endnotes. They even make the statement that none of the items listed earlier is uncontested. Why the change of heart? Then comes a dilly — “this does not in any way justify an attitude that there are no limits to human expansion and appropriation of the biosphere.” Why was this inserted? Who in their right mind would ever make a statement that there are no limits?

A few other concessions are made to the anti-anti-sprawlers. They recognize that individual freedoms are especially vulnerable and that maybe people should make their own choice of homes, free of social engineering. Maybe the authors took turns in writing different passages. They do, however, identify other critics who contend that efforts to bottle up sprawl are an overblown concern of an intellectual elite supporting exclusionary zoning in disguise. This is not just a contention. The proof is in the pudding. All one has to do is look over the goals of the many environmental groups; such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and Nature Conservancy and their consortiums such as the Northern Forest Lands Council and the Adirondack Park Agency.

There is much discussion of increased energy consumption, increased air and water pollution, cost to business, and traffic congestion. It would seem that these so-called problems should be the subjects of a separate study conducted by experts in the appropriate fields, and this country with its wealth certainly is capable of addressing and correcting any real ones.

It is indeed interesting, in light of the fact that this so-called study was conducted by a center for immigration studies, how little time and space was devoted to immigration issues. However, they did note that in the period from 1991 through 1996, 58 percent of the population increase was attributed to immigrants; either from actual immigration or births to immigrants. In 1950 the comparable figure was one percent and in 1970, 13 percent. This is indeed very striking, if not alarming. Obviously the time is long overdo to look very carefully at immigration policies and for the citizens to think about and make decisions on the future make up of the population. And since it is illegal, illegal immigration should be halted and existing illegals sent home.

Those who think that the smart growth people are no threat to the traditional American way should look to California, heaven forbid, where in 1991 a group of innovative architects and planners in California met and developed the Ahwahnee Principles, the preamble of which states that existing patterns of development seriously impair our quality of life. Symptoms include more congestion and pollution, loss of precious open space, inequitable distribution of economic resources, and the loss of sense of community. Then come the principles, including: planning should be in the form of complete and integrated communities containing housing, shops, work places, etc.; community size should be designed so that housing, jobs, daily needs are within easy walking distance; each should contain a diversity of housing types; should contain an ample supply of open space; each should have a well-defined edge such as greenbelts; community design should help conserve resources; street orientation, placement of buildings and use of shading should contribute to the energy efficiency of the community. Wow, what a utopia. Those who are not bothered by the smart growth element had better think again.

Smart growth solutions, which the authors seem supportive of, would result in: increased big brotherism, more control over people’s lives, distribution of wealth, subsidies, coercion, regulating use or means of travel, loss of property rights, increased welfare, and redistribution of people. Good-bye to the traditional American way of life.

This reviewer being a novice and fully realizing that he does not have the intellectual quotient to fully appreciate all this high level discussion must take a break, bringing this discussion to a screeching halt. Please excuse the screeching of the brakes.

Nate Dickinson
December 12, 2003

Email Nate Dickinson: rdickinson@nycap.rr.com

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