Chapter 1. Introduction to Smart Growth

On January 11, 1999, Vice President Al Gore announced the "Clinton-Gore Livability Agenda," which the media immediately dubbed the "war on sprawl."[1] "Too frequently, a gallon of gas is used up just purchasing a gallon of milk," claimed Gore. "Too often, if a parent wants to read a child a bedtime story, they call on a cell phone while they're stuck in a traffic jam, and try to explain why they can't be home in time for the child to go to sleep."[2]

As in so many wars, the first casualty was the truth. Few, if any, suburbanites live so far from a grocery store that they must consume a gallon of gasoline to get there and back. And, contrary to popular belief, average commuting times are fairly similar among large cities and small and have remained remarkably constant at around 23 minutes each way for many years.

Vice President Gore might be excused a little hyperbole if the war on sprawl were challenging truly important problems. But it is not. Russians say that "Americans don't have any serious problems, so they have to invent them."[3] Sprawl is one of those invented problems. Low-density suburbanization--which is what people usually mean when they say "sprawl"--not only is not responsible for most of the problems that its critics charge, it is the solution to many of the problems that sprawl opponents claim they want to solve.

The war on sprawl is really a war on American lifestyles. It combines a war on the suburbs that house half of all Americans with a war on the automobiles that carry Americans four out of every five miles they travel. Yet the suburbs provide an ideal medium between rural open spaces and crowded cities while occupying just 2 percent of the nation's land. Meanwhile, for most urban-length trips, the automobile is the fastest, most convenient, and most economical form of personal transportation ever devised.

Americans live in a wide range of possible lifestyles. A fourth of all U.S. residents live in rural areas away from any cities or towns. Another 10 percent live in small towns that are far from major urban areas. While 65 percent of Americans live in urbanized areas of 50,000 people or more, just a third of those live in the central cities such as New York, Seattle, or Dallas. Urbanized lifestyles range from low-density suburbs through medium-density edge cities to high-density city centers. All of these are valid lifestyle choices and they work for the people who live there.

But smart growth does not consider most of these lifestyles valid. If smart-growth planners had their way, almost everyone except a few rural workers and their families would be confined to high-density, mixed-use urban neighborhoods. If this sounds extreme, consider that:

This book will show that, to most smart-growth planners, black is white and white is black. When they say they want to give people choices, they mean they want to take choices away. When they say they want to relieve congestion, they mean they want to increase congestion so that people will be forced to ride transit. When they say they want affordable housing, they mean they want to make single-family housing unaffordable so that all but the wealthiest people will live in high-density housing. When they say they want to preserve open space for people, they mean they want to preserve it from people.

Smart growth is a convoluted web of policies and ideas, many of which only make sense in the context of the supporters who expect to benefit from them. Chapter 3 will discuss those supporters and show why most of them want more congestion and the other problems smart growth brings. But first we will examine some of the basic growth issues that led to the smart-growth debate in the first place.

1. Judith Havemann, "Gore Proposal Aims to Tame Urban Sprawl," Washington Post, 11 January 1999, p. A2.

2. Remarks by Vice President Gore on Announcement of Livability Agenda, Washington, DC, January 11, 1999.

3. Russell Working, "Pardon me if I'm rusty on what protests mean," The Oregonian 5 December 1999, pp. G1-G2.

4. Robin Franzen, "Preserving farms or abetting hobbyists?" The Oregonian, December 14, 1998,

5. Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (New York, NY: North Point Press, 2000), p. 146.

6. Oliver Byrum, "Edge Cities: A Pragmatic View," Journal of the American Planning Association, 58:395-396.

7. Charles Lockwood, "Edge Cities on the Brink," Wall Street Journal, December 21, 1994.

Thoreau Institute Home | Vanishing Auto Table of Contents