Vanishing Automobile update #9

Is Smart Growth a United Nations Conspiracy?

Recently, an on-line newsletter called eco-logic published an article claiming that "smart growth is Agenda 21," referring to a report published by the United Nations after the 1992 Rio de Janeiro conference on the environment.

eco-logic notes that dozens of cities, including Birmingham, Columbus, Kansas City, Knoxville, St. Louis, and many more, use "visioning" processes that always lead to the same conclusions: compact cities, transit emphasis, auto-hostility.
"Virtually all of the goals" of these plans "are recommendations set forth in Agenda 21," says eco-logic.

I appreciate eco-logic's research and exposure of "visioning" as a flawed process and its ties to international worries about sustainability. But eco-logic's fundamental premise, that smart growth is UN-inspired, is wrong.

Smart growth is not a UN conspiracy to reduce national sovereignty. Instead, it is an entirely home-grown product whose major effect will be to reduce individual freedom. While smart-growth advocates occasionally lean on the Kyoto treaty and other international products to justify their plans, they are not directed by or even inspired by the United Nations in any way.

To start with, no part of Agenda 21 mentions smart growth or any of smart growth's buzzwords, such as compact cities, traffic calming, transit-oriented development, pedestrian-friendly design, auto dependency, or sprawl. All Agenda 21 says about transportation is that governments should:

Develop and promote, as appropriate, cost-effective, more efficient, less polluting and safer transport systems, particularly integrated rural and urban mass transit, as well as environmentally sound road networks.

Despite the mention of transit, this recommendation can be satisfied merely by encouraging auto manufacturers to build more hybrid-electric cars such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight. Both Ford and GMC say they have such cars in the works. Many manufacturers are also working on fuel-cell technologies.

All of the main goals of smart growth, including compact cities, transit-oriented development, traffic calming, and pedestrian-friendly design, preceded Agenda 21 by many years. So did public worries, whether well-founded or not, over sprawl, auto dependency, and highway construction. Yet Agenda 21 does not even mention these goals or worries.

Though the term smart growth was not coined until later, the fact is that Agenda 21 was influenced by smart growth advocates, not the other way around. Without Agenda 21 and the United Nations, we would still suffer from smart growth exactly as we see it today. But without the promoters of the ideas that make up smart growth, we might not have Agenda 21, which is based on same concerns about the environment that motivate some parts of smart growth.

What planners call smart growth today came from many different sources.

This is an oversimplification, of course; many people and interests promoted many of these ideas. The point is that smart growth is hardly the cohesive product of one United Nations conference; if it had been, it might make a bit more sense. Instead, it is a hodge-podge of policies, some of which are in outright conflict with one another.

Some parts of smart growth (rail transit, subsidies to downtown) are almost pure pork. Other parts (minimum-density zoning, traffic calming) are serious infringements on freedom and commerce to favor a few interest groups. Almost nothing about smart growth will reduce energy consumption or air pollution, which is the goal of Agenda 21.

At the same time, eco-logic's other points are valid. Visioning processes are invariably heavily biased against low-density suburbs and automobiles. Even if they were not, they are inherently biased in favor of central planning instead of individual freedom. If we can envision the right future for our cities, why run the risk that freedom and markets might fail to achieve that vision? Instead, once we have the vision we must use central planning to impose that vision on the future.

The proliferation of visioning to the many cities mentioned in eco-logic only shows that we have given planners way too much power and credibility. All the things that planners have done in the past, including urban renewal, public housing, and the idea of building freeways through poor neighborhoods to remove "urban blight," have done far more harm than good. The lesson we need to learn is that planning itself is a fundamentally flawed concept.

(At this point, I have to say that Peter Gordon, Harry Richardson, and other market-oriented planners at the University of Southern California have it right: Planning should be aimed at letting individual freedom and the market work, not at supplanting them. But Gordon & Richardson are in the distinct minority of planners.)

Smart growth is not a UN conspiracy. It comes from our own urban planning schools and city planning departments.

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