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Friday, March 31, 2006


Smart Growth and Elections

Any current discusion about urban growth is packed with loaded terms and other rethorical gimmicks. Sprawling cities are seen as a threat to the environment, to public finances and even the social fabric of cities. However, EPA smog ratings show that metropolitan areas with the lowest population densities have the fewest air pollution problems. The alleged depletion of open space is negated by the fact that less than 5% of the nation's land is developed and only about one-quarter of the farmland loss since 1945 is attributable to urbanization. According to the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), when assesing the costs of suburbanization on local governments "the evidence is mixed on infrastructure costs and wether low-density development causes them to increase." Although Smart Growth advocates claim that urban sprawl increases the cost of public services, the NCPA does not support their conclusion and the Center's studies explain, "while some infrastructure costs fall as density increases, as a rule increases in density are accompanied by increases in population and in the level of general spending."
The Smart Growth movement suggests that the individual decisions of city dwellers will not result in a desirable urban outline and that local governments must take a stronger, more "constructive" role in the planning of urban development. Yet, aside from creative names that imply an intellectual superiority (Smart Growth) and elicit combined feelings of modernity and traditional values at the same time (New Urbanism), these proposed plans of urban planning do not present any clearly innovative solutions to the challenges of customary urban planning.
What has become an unruly debate of Smart Growth vs. Free Sprawl, however convoluted and unsolved, will probably continue to gain importance and to become more contemptous with the increasing number and size of urban regions and their ever growing political importance.
In his article Suburban Sprawl gains momentum, Stephen Ohlemacher explains how according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, the "nation's population is shifting south and west, to the distant suburbs of metropolitan areas," Ohlemacher adds, "the fastest-growing counties in the United States are suburban, rural or a mixture of both as more people seek big yards and open spaces, even if that means a long commute."
Growing urban centers, especially those "fastest-growing counties," may be increasing in political significance as well. It could be the reason why the debate over urban growth is so loaded and heated. The latest gubernatorial race in Virginia is drawing attention to the increasing importance of issues regarding urban growth when it comes to national elections.
Reporter Keith Shneider, in an article for the Michigan Land Use Institute, describes how newly elected governor of Virginia Timothy Kaine,
"staked his election on a strategy of directly confronting
the causes and consequences of rampant development,
and his victory has prompted strategists in both parties
to conclude that the politics of growth could be a crucial
factor in a presidential election, perhaps as early as 2008."
The evidence that Schneider bases his claim on is what he calls "basic electoral math" :
"The last two presidential elections were decided in the
fastest growing counties of a select group of states,
including Virginia, Florida, Colorado, North Carolina, and
Ohio. In 2004, half of President Bush's 3.5 million vote
electoral margin came from the 100 fastest-growing counties,
97 of which voted heavily Republican."
In adittion to the statistical significance of these counties characterized by fast urban growth, the author explains, "growth is one of the top three voter priorities in all of these fast-developing counties." Schneider's article suggests the existence of a trend that would inevitably raise the profile of the debate for Smart Growth vs. Free Sprawl.

The question that should follow Schneider's conclusion is, once the debate over the issue of how to deal with urban growth reaches a level of political prominence such as described by the author, can solutions be constructed, assesed and implemented outside the realm of political manipulation? If the direction of urban development becomes a protagonist in the rethoric of campaings and a vehicle for the mobilization of votes, any treatment of the subject will center around political and not economic efficiency. Can the politization of urban sprawl eliminate any chance of constructing sound and effective solutions to the problem of growth management?

"Can the politization of urban sprawl eliminate any chance of constructing sound and effective solutions to the problem of growth management?"

Interesting question. Is you answer yes?
I think there is a great chance that the answer is "Yes." In fact, by posting the question I was implicitly suggesting that to find a "sound and effective" solution in the political arena, once the issue becomes electoral rethoric, is not very probable.
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