Today and in the past, social engineers have been defining the ideal plan for human settlements. The Thoreau Institute published an article in May 2005 called Smart Growth and the Ideal City.1 In the article, what appears to be a contemporary description of smart growth and urban planning is actually a forty-seven year old description written by University of Moscow planners in a book entitled: The Ideal Communist City. In the book,
“The soviet planners saw several advantages to such high-density housing. First, it would be more equitable, since everyone from factory managers to lowly janitors would live in the same buildings.” “Second, the soviets believed apartments would promote a sense of community and collective values.” And “third, high-density housing was supposed to allow easy access to public transportation.”2
Leonie Sandercock, an Australian modern planner, describes her ideal city in her book, Cosmopolis II: Mongrel Cities in the 21st Century.
“I dream of a city of bread and festivals, where those who don’t have the bread aren’t excluded from the carnival. I dream of a city in which action grows out of knowledge and understanding; where you haven’t got it made until you can help others to get where you are or beyond; where social justice is more prized than a balanced budget; where I have a right to my surroundings, and so do all my fellow citizens; where we don’t exist for the city but are seduced by it; where only after consultation with local folks could decisions be made about our neighbourhoods; where scarcity does not build a barb-wire fence around carefully guarded inequalities; where no one flaunts their authority and no one is without authority; where I don’t have to translate my ‘expertise’ into jargon to impress officials and confuse citizens.”3
Students at the Graduate School for Architecture at Cornell University describe their theory on how to change the American Dream. They call their theory the Buell Hypothesis.”4
“Demographic trends to environmental impacts are conditioned by narratives, or stories, that convert those negotiable values into apparent truths.”
“One such story is known as the “American Dream”.”
“The single-family house has defined settlement patterns throughout the United States, particularly in suburban and exurban areas. For more than a century, these patterns and their underlying story have been reinforced by zoning codes, housing policies, construction techniques, architectural designs, […]”
“The Buell hypothesis, at its most basic, is as follows: change the dream and you change the city. The single family house, and the city or suburb in which it is situated, share a common destiny. Hence, change the narratives guiding suburban housing and the priorities they imply, including spatial arrangements, ownership patterns, the balance between public and private interests, and the mixtures of activities and services that any town or city entails, and you begin the process of redirecting suburban sprawl.”
Local Government Commission who sponsored the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference also believes in the smart growth principles. They call them The Ahwahnee Principles and in the preamble they state:
“Existing patterns of urban and suburban development seriously impair our quality of life. The symptoms are: more congestion and air pollution resulting from our increased dependence on automobiles, the loss of precious open space, the need for costly improvements to roads and public services, the inequitable distribution of economic resources, and the loss of a sense of community.5
Many of the smart growth planning ideas are not necessarily undesirable. It is doubtful that citizens would categorically object to bike lanes, sidewalks, less traffic, planting trees to reduce the heat island effect, energy efficient technologies, pollution mitigation, parks, affordable housing, etc… What is undesirable is the assumption that this is what Americans want and that they are agreeable to the methods being used to implement these plans.
Private property rights are a unique American asset. Americans understand that wealth must be created and owning private property becomes the capital needed to create that wealth. Take a person’s property even a part of it and you take away his wealth and his liberty to determine his own future. In Ayn Rand’s book, The Virtue of Selfishness, she comments on man’s inherent right to property.
“Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.”6
The greatest challenge to radical smart growth implementation in America is private land ownership. Nevertheless, inappropriate compensation and regulatory taking of private property or parts thereof have become a ubiquitous mechanism by which property is being controlled or taken. There are an increasing number of property owners who are unable to use their land as they choose and are unable to recover the losses that result. The growth of government regulations to control land use has resulted in foreclosures in some instances and in others perpetual slavery to the regulators. Conservation easements, greenlining, zoning classification changes and urban growth boundaries are just a few of the mechanisms used by smart growth engineers to implement their 21st Century plan.
Historically, any changes in planning come with unintended consequences to the property owner–residential or commercial. Presenters at the Conference were aware of the added challenges they face when implementing smart growth. They often mentioned gentrification, displacement and disinvestment as outcomes they were trying to avoid. Nevertheless, the belief that the global community is threatened by social injustice, a deteriorating ecosystem and runaway global warming due to human activities now presumes that the rights of an individual must be subsumed to the benefit of the community.
On the issue of protecting private property, The Bill of Rights states that a property owner has “the right to receive just compensation when the government takes private property for public use.”7 Though state and federal law requires the protection of private property rights, over-reaching regulations are voiding this protection and wreaking financially disastrous consequences. Debates over land use policies and fairness are vital if our country is to retain its wealth, its liberty–its American Dream.
In a 1976 William and Mary Law Review the authors state that
“Governmental decisions in the field of zoning, subdivision regulation, capital expenditures, transportation planning, and other areas have a profound effect on land owners. Some decisions create wealth overnight; others destroy economic values. Because these phenomena were not officially recognized in the past, the windfalls enriched the few, frequently at the expense of taxpayers at large, while the destructions of value were borne solely by the hapless land owners.”8
James Madison, known for his writings on the importance of protecting private property wrote in 1792,
“That is not a just government, nor is property secure under it, where the property which a man has in his personal safety and personal liberty, is violated by arbitrary seizures of one class of citizens for the service of the rest. “9
Progress is inevitable and vital to civilization. Conservation and stewardship of our natural resources are essential for our survival. The question is: How do we protect our liberty within the framework of sustainability so that future generations are prosperous and free and not oppressed by another socialist experiment?
- Smart Growth and the Ideal City, p.1, www.ti.org/vaupdate53.html
- Martin, R., Meisterlin, L., and Kenoff, A., The Buell Hypotheses: Rehousing the American dream, preface
- Local Government Commission, The Ahwahnee Principles: for resource-efficient communities, http://www.lgc.org/ahwahnee/principles.html
- Rand, A., The Virtue of Selfishness, 1964, Penguin Group, p. 94
- Bartke, R. W. and Lamb, J.S., Upzoning, Public Policy, and Fairness: A study and proposal, Volume 17, Issue 4, 1976, William and Mary Law Review, p. 701-702
This is an excellent post, helping to explain the long strategy to shift Americans from their love-affair with living in detached housing in the suburbs/exurbs, to accept urban housing and mass transit as the beatific vision.
Our organization recently published a report exploring similar ideas and much of the impetus for that report comes from the website we both rely on, New Geography.
The report is entitled The American River Parkway’s Suburban Setting: The Sacramento Dream, A Vision & Policy Primer from the American River Parkway Preservation Society (April 9, 2012), and is online at http://www.arpps.org/Report5-SuburbanSetting.pdf