Thursday, December 11, 2014

Opposing “smart growth” limits choices

I sent the following to the Star Tribune on 1999-07-31.  I think it was not published.  I can’t find the original article with a search of the Star Tribune, but you can find selections from Krinkie’s article at

Phil Krinkie begins his opinion piece on "Smart Growth" criticizing the ten principles "as developed by the Smart Growth Network and embraced by the Metropolitan Council", but nowhere does he quote them to prove his point. I went to the Web page of the Smart Growth Network ( and found:


The mission of the Smart Growth Network is to encourage development that better serves the economic, environmental and social needs of communities. The Network provides a forum for information-sharing, education, tool development and application, and collaboration on smart growth issues.


* Mix land uses.
* Take advantage of compact building design.
* Create housing opportunities and choices.
* Create walkable communities.
* Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place.
* Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas.
* Strengthen and direct development toward existing communities.
* Provide a variety of transportation choices
* Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost-effective
* Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions.

I don't see these principles "as a textbook example of how to win the debate by defining the terms." To me they are a clear statement that it is important to involve all interested parties in urban planning. I don't see them as either "New Age panache" or as "esoteric jargon." In fact, they are quite similar in style to the mission statements and principles found in the annual reports of many large corporations.

I don't see Phil Krinkie's problem that to "encourage stakeholder collaboration and community participation rather than conflict" is "vague, could-mean-just-about-anything gobbledygook."  Rather than only a developer appearing before a planning commission isn't it better to have the active participation of the neighbors, those who would lose land when a road is widened miles away from the development, those who would see old, familiar landmarks taken away, and anyone who would see an adverse impact on their lives?  There are few economic transactions in which the only interested parties are the buyer and the seller; land development is not one of those few transactions.

What is wrong with "high-density development" as part of "smart growth"?  Providing high-density development is giving more "housing opportunities and choices" and is no more "mandatory" than the current predominance of "low-density development."

What is wrong with "pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods"?  Should the only places available to walk be private areas (read "malls")?  "Pedestrian-friendly" doesn't always mean "no-cars"; it does mean separating as much as possible pedestrians from cars.  Mall parking lots could be made "pedestrian-friendly" by providing a raised aisle for drivers and passengers to walk from their cars to the building without concern of being backed over.

Why should the "smart growth crowd" provide "specifics on how they intend to implement their bold vision"?  The specifics are to be provided in the communities.  The mission of the "smart growth crowd", which includes Democrats, Republicans, and others, is to "encourage communities" and provide means for communities to meet a variety of development needs.  Of course "smart growth will be just another cobbled-together conglomeration of..." but what human activities which involve many interests don't become that way.  Most of the "Founding Fathers" died bitter because they saw their beautiful, republican structure governed by a disinterested elite turn into an ugly, democratic mess of squabbling interests ("The Radicalism of the American Revolution", Gordon S. Wood).

"Based on what" "we do know" low-density residential development has produced "more congestion" and "more pollution".  Just visit I-394 or Highway 169 in the morning or afternoon.  Which is a higher price: paying say, five dollars more a week on your groceries at the "quaint little pedestrian-friendly" corner store or paying thousands of dollars a year in capital and operating expenses for a car to get to the super-supermarket?  Many of us do know that many urban neighborhoods are "fun to visit" and we do "want to live there."

I have lived in little apartments, big apartments, small houses on little lots, and medium houses on medium lots.  I have lived in big cities, inner suburbs, outer suburbs, and the country. I have lived in three states and two foreign countries.  In every case I have found shortcomings and much to enjoy.

I can say from my own experience that "new urbanism" is not based on a nostalgic view of the teeming cities of the '20s and '30s" but of the 40s and 50s. I grew up in apartments and duplexes and single family homes on lots no bigger than the backyards of a typical suburban home. I enjoyed walking to school, playgrounds, movies, the Y, church, and other activities. At 10 years old I took streetcars and buses by myself downtown and other places more than a mile away.  I grew up with a sense of freedom because I didn't have to depend on adults to take me places that I wanted to go.  I didn't see "the crime, the noise and the filth" as any greater than in my suburban home of the 80s and the 90s. That is, in both places there were homes burglarized, some people played radios too loud, and slobs left food wrappers, cans, and bottles wherever it was convenient for them.  In both cases such disturbing events were not the norm; one generally felt safe, the neighborhoods were generally quiet, and one felt a sense of cleanliness and order.

I don't see where the Mission or Principles kick suburban life "around like a mangy mutt."  Isn't suburban life one of the mixed land uses?  Isn't suburban life one of the "housing opportunities and choices”?  Doesn't suburban life include open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas.  Shall all lakes be ringed with private houses with no access for fishing or swimming?  Shall all corn be trucked three days from Florida rather than be picked fresh in the morning?  Shall counties sell all the public parks for private development?  Think of the increase in the tax base!! Shall developers increase runoff to neighboring developments with careless grading?

"Sprawl" isn't so much "a pejorative catch phrase" as it is a description of any development that considers only the residences being built as important.  When no consideration is given to the many activities of the people who live in those residences then we definitely have "sprawl".  People require water and sewer; where is the water going to come from and where is the waste going to go?  Most people still work away from home; who is going to pay for the roads.  Children need to go to school; who is going to pay for the buses?  People need food; how far will they have to drive to just buy a quart of milk?  Wouldn't it be better if we were smart about growth and had public planning by hundreds or thousands of citizens rather than planning by a few dozen private interests?

"The truth, however, is that low-density development is" a "threat to Minnesota's rural areas."  If one considers all the land that is in the state of Minnesota, the conversion of land from rural to suburban for the whole state is not a problem.  However, if one considers the Twin Cities metro area then it is. I've known people whose residences have been threatened to make room for wider highways.  I've seen cornfields converted to upscale houses (on indecently small lots) because the owner couldn't afford to pay the skyrocketing taxes.  That was great corn, too! I myself gave up on a garden because deer had to range farther when their habitat was taken over by houses.  I guess low-density development isn't a threat to these rural areas because they don't exist anymore!

However, I don't see how smart growth is making the people living in these houses feel guilty.  What smart growth is asking is this the only way to go.  Is "living on large residential lots and driving their SUVs to work each day" the choice that everyone wants?  If everybody makes that choice, then many will be driving very slowly to work each day through concrete canyons like I-94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul.  They won't enjoy the view and will wish they hadn't told "planners to take a hike."