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By Douglas Moran

Stupid Growth: So-called "Smart Growth" is a cancer on the community

Uploaded: Jun 7, 2014

Rule of thumb: Anything that needs to be labeled "smart" isn't.

Classic Brainteaser: "Why aren't there ants that are the size of elephants?" The answer in the brainteaser culture (predominantly adolescent males; favored by some tech companies) is: Weight increases as the cube of the size, but the strength of the legs increases as the square (the cross-section). The more sophisticated answer is that increased size requires substantially more infrastructure, for distributing nutrients, disposing of wastes, controlling muscles? For example, in a tiny animal, getting oxygen to the cells is much simpler because the cells are much closer to the surface (you don't need a complex distribution system and powerful pumps).

In discussions of growth across a wide range of disciplines, the routine characterization is a curve. There are typically sections of rapid growth followed by tapering off. A basic concern in managing growth is the problem of overshooting what is sustainable, and creating a collapse (rapid negative growth).

The two basic conventional reasons for pursuing economic growth are:
1.Support the growth of your own population.
2.Improve the economic well-being of your own population.

The current ABAG targets for population growth are contrary to both of these, but rather use the rationalization that population growth will continue uninterrupted and indefinitely at the hyper-growth rates of earlier decades. Growth in the previous decade (ending 2010) had been significantly less than projected. Based on that experience, the California Department of Finance reduced its growth projections for the current and coming decades. In 2012, Council member and economist Greg Schmid looked at the data and reports and discovered that ABAG had adopted much higher projections of growth. This allowed ABAG to assign much higher housing targets to Bay Area cities, which in turn forces cities to allow more high density development.

The desire of the region's political elite to have a population growth rate of 30% (or more) per generation (25 years) is the equivalent of expecting an ant to scale up into an elephant.
Request to commenters: Please don't quibble about the exact growth rate targets?they are frequently adjusted and re-apportioned among the various cities. Also, as targets they are bureaucratic constructs?the focus should be on the consequences of such targets.

When I sit in meetings on growth, it is very clear that ABAG and its allies have an agenda to push rapid increases in the Bay Area's population and to promote high-density development. For some of these advocates, this is ideological; for others, it appears to be financial self-interest. For some, high-density is the goal, which necessitates high population growth. For others, the causation is the opposite: They see high-density as needed to accommodate their desired high-population growth.

"Smart Growth" is inextricably entwined in these agendas. When I refer to "Smart Growth", it is to how it is actually practiced (note the name of this blog), not the vague theory/abstract goals (foot#1) that ignore the complexities of the real world and that are used to deflect objections and criticism with "Of course, that is not what the theory calls." It is a dogma that is advocated as broadly applicable, but that dismisses common real-world cases as irrelevant exceptions.

"Smart Growth" is predominantly used by those advocating rapid growth as a shield against pesky practical questions about the impacts of such growth, in essence, asserting that there is no need to consider the impacts of "Smart Growth" because being "smart" means that there will be no such impacts.

"Smart Growth" is based on an absurdly simplistic notion of cities: There are jobs, housing and commutes between the two. The importance of community has disappeared (it was a crucial part of the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee (CPAC) process in the mid-1990s). Although Smart Growth advocates often say they support "walkability", their actions are to the contrary: They routinely push to replace walkable destinations for the surrounding neighborhood with housing for the very few. This is an example of why I characterize "Smart Growth" as a cancer: It promotes excessive growth of limited types that displaces, and otherwise overwhelms, other aspects of the community required for healthy functioning.

Similarly, the Smart Growth advocates seem oblivious to actual experience: They claim that Smart Growth dogma will result in trip reduction, but what people I talk to report is that it replaces the destinations they went to with places they never/rarely go to (irrelevant, too expensive). They now have to go further and further to the places they actually visit, and because these are now special trips, trip combining?a key method of trip reduction?becomes less practical (when going elsewhere, that place is no longer on-the-way or only-a-small-detour).

Smart Growth advocates routinely use it to try to impose their social and cultural preferences on others. They present high-density housing and public transit as the one-true-way that people should live, and that those who differ are selfish and uncaring about the environment. Sometimes there is a cluelessness involved: For example, an advocate who lives and works near Caltrain stations just can't understand why Caltrain isn't a viable option for everyone's commute. Often there is a large measure of hypocrisy involved. In many hearings, I have heard advocates for high-density housing say that Palo Alto must become more like Manhattan (or even Tokyo). Some wax rhapsodically about living in a tiny apartment above a noisy restaurant on a busy street, but the ones I knew lived in large single-family houses with large yards.

The conflict in vision of what Palo Alto should be was recently stated very succinctly by Eric Filseth "? I think the core issue here is really simple. There are two conflicting visions for Palo Alto, and pretty much all of this other stuff stems from that. Vision A is we're a medium-density family town, a great place to live, with good schools to send your kids to. Vision B is more like San Francisco South ? basically the financial and professional hub of the Peninsula. The idea is that Palo Alto will accommodate regional growth through high density office and housing construction, near public transit, and with a thriving retail and entertainment sector to support it. That said, Vision B also comes inherently with unsolvable traffic and parking problems, pollution, and overstretched city infrastructure and schools. If you want Vision B, these things are the price. It is San Francisco South, for better and worse." (foot#2)

This is a big topic, and consequently, this is an introduction to be followed by postings on specific areas. My queue currently contains:
1. The Law of Supply and XXXXXX and other bad economics (now available)
2. Shills and Charlatans of "Smart Growth"
3. Should Palo Alto really aspire to be more like a Chinese factory city?
4. Public Transit Follies
5. Who Profits, Who Sacrifices?

---- Footnotes ----
1. Smart Growth: "Its goals are to achieve a unique sense of community and place; expand the range of transportation, employment, and housing choices; equitably distribute the costs and benefits of development; preserve and enhance natural and cultural resources; and promote public health." (Wikipedia)
2. At City Council meeting of 2013 December 2. Listen for yourself in the video (at 1:30:24)

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