February 1999, Number 256
Al Gore's Livable Communities:
A Program in Search of a Problem
Among the many poll-driven proposals in President Clinton's FY 2000 budget is his new Livable Communities initiative to provide the suburbs with more money for mass transit and loans to buy land for parks and greenbelts. While seeming to be little more than a generous handout to suburbanites, Clinton's newest exercise in trickle-up economics also includes an unprecedented effort to inject the federal government into local decisions on development, land use, and transportation by funding and promoting "smart growth" strategies that regulate what people can build and where they can build it.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will be in charge of cultivating and funding these smart-growth strategies among metropolitan jurisdictions. According to the White House, these strategies will include, among other actions, "compact development incentives" (row houses and apartment buildings) and "ways to manage the economy and workforce to reinforce the region's overall development strategy."
HUD, the reader may recall, is the federal agency recently described by its own Secretary, Andrew Cuomo, as a "poster child for inept government…plagued for years by scandal and mismanagement." Having spent half a century wreaking havoc on America's central cities through its ill-conceived urban renewal schemes, the Clinton-Gore team has directed HUD to "manage the economy and workforce" of America's thriving suburbs.
The prospect of imposing such bumbling ineptitude on America's most successful communities actually may be the least onerous aspect of the initiative when compared to what the Clinton-Gore effort might well inflict on communities through the Environmental Protection Agency's bureaucratic shock troops. EPA Region 1 Administrator John DeVillars wasted no time in letting America know what he had in store for the New England region he will control under the Livable Communities program. On the day the President's budget was released, DeVillars announced in Boston that EPA will use its statutory authority aggressively to oppose and reshape development and infrastructure projects that contribute to sprawl.
Although enhanced bureaucratic guidance and more money for transit, land, and planning are the key elements of the President's plan, the initiative also funds the restoration of historic rail stations, hiking paths, and biking paths, as well as safety education, scenic beautification, and school design. In a creative effort to broaden the political constituency for the program, the smart-growth initiative even includes money to fund pre-sale background checks on prospective handgun purchasers!
Just what pressing national purpose this new suburban initiative is directed to is not obvious, although a cursory reading of the abundant anti-suburb/anti-sprawl literature suggests that resentment and disdain for lifestyles dissimilar to those of the Washington elite are powerful motivating factors. Such disdain may explain Administrator DeVillars' enthusiasm about prohibiting certain consensual commercial acts that unenlightened suburbanites and central-city exiles might otherwise consummate in legitimate efforts at self-improvement. Long-time anti-sprawl advocate and "New Urbanist" James Howard Kunstler best captured the essence of the elite's angry disdain toward suburbs when he observed:
When we drive around and look at all of this cartoon architecture and other junk we've smeared all over the landscape, we register it as ugliness. This ugliness is the surface expression of deeper problems--problems that relate to the issue of our national character. The highway strip is not just a sequence of eyesores. The pattern it represents is also economically catastrophic, an environmental calamity, socially devastating, and spiritually degrading.
Ouch! Fortunately, for the many Americans who still believe that where they live is their business, not HUD's, EPA's, or the Vice President's, the federal case against the suburbs rests on nothing more than angry emotions, because the facts won't support it. Today's roads are not more congested; they are less so than in the past, and costly mass transit systems are still the slowest way to get to work compared to commuting by car. In
Portland, Oregon--the New Urbanists' Nirvana, a forthcoming Heritage Foundation study reveals that Portland's traffic congestion is nearly as bad as New York's and projected to be worse than Los Angeles' within the next decade and a half. Indeed, congestion is worse and the air dirtier in the densely packed cities and older, close-in suburbs than in the more distant 'burbs.
As for using up the land, less than 5 percent of America's land is developed for commercial or residential use, and new development consumes only 0.0006 percent of the continental U.S. each year. For reasons that should be obvious from this rate of land use, expanding urban areas do not jeopardize farm production. Since 1950, gains in farm productivity led to a 15 percent reduction in U.S. agriculture acreage, while production has risen by more than 105 percent. At current rates of urban expansion, it would take more than 250 years to urbanize the amount of agriculture land taken out of production between 1960 and 1990.
Indeed, as a result of a centuries-long trend of withdrawing marginal farm land from production and the growing concentration of the U.S. population in large metropolitan areas encompassing older central cities surrounded by "sprawling" suburbs, the extent of reforestation along the eastern seaboard--where America's population is at its most dense and most of the land is privately owned--is estimated to be the greatest since the American Revolution. And species once thought to have been driven to extinction in the East--including the mountain lion--are returning to this newly emergent wilderness.
Despite this impressive record of improvement, critics of individual choice and private property abound, as they always have; but now they have a friend in the White House who is prepared to put the resources and power of the federal government behind their agenda. And quite probably for the first time ever, these issues will likely come before the Congress. Fortunately for freedom-loving Americans, the impressive body of analytical work on growth controls and sprawl produced by many of the conservative and market-oriented national and regional think tanks will play an important role in keeping the federal government out of an issue more properly the responsibility of state and local governments.
Ronald Utt is Grover M. Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs at The Heritage Foundation.
NOTE: A list of publications relevant to urban issues is featured in the "Commerce, Infrastructure & Regulation" section on page 7. Also, if you have written on the subject of urban sprawl, please send a copy of your publication to The Insider. We plan to include a special listing of these publications in next month's issue.