Smart Growth Stupidity

For years, redevelopment has been pushing Austin’s low-income Latinos eastwards. A couple decades ago, the culprit was a highway: IH35, a road that runs over the land where Mexican homes once stood. Now some noisy trains are poised to do the job. Capital Metro, Austin’s transit authority, wants to lay tracks through East Austin, to carry commuters from the suburbs to the city center and back. They call the proposed system light rail, a phrase that once conjured images of streetcars but now seems to entail a much heftier, pricier system.

The allegedly light rail has its boosters in the area, mostly folks who expect their property values to jump once the trains start shooting by. (A speculative rumble has already begun, as people scramble to hold as much property as possible when the new development arrives.) But most of the support "seems to come from people who do not live in East Austin," comments Raul Garcia, a professor at Southwest Texas State University and member of El Concilio, a coalition of Mexican-American neighborhood associations. What benefits the project will bring, he suggests, will overwhelmingly favor outsiders. The costs, meanwhile, will fall on the less well-heeled folks who actually live in the community.

When the artificial inflation of property values starts, many people won’t be able to pay their rent any more. Buildings will be knocked down, the neighborhood gentrified. Taxes will go up to pay for the government’s new debt. Some property will probably be condemned to make way for the (not-so) light rail, much like when the government built the highway. Or — to use the comparison Garcia prefers — when the railroads cut through native lands in the last century, shunting the Indians into reservations.

"This is the only real Latino community left in Austin," comments Paul Hernandez, another Concilio activist. "The only one that has not been co-opted by the wannabe salsa-eaters, the people who think if they drink a Corona and eat a little salsa, they’re part of the culture." If East Austin is gentrified, he warns, that last bit of authenticity will wash away.

On top of everything else, Capital Metro doesn’t do a very good job serving East Austin travelers as it is. A transit plan meant to help East Austin’s interests would be a lot simpler and cheaper than rail: just maintain the buses better, start routing them through the underserved parts of town, make sure they run on time, and give them a real incentive to improve service by letting private jitneys and minibuses compete with them.

But the city’s rail scheme is designed to serve commuters and developers, not travelers within or from East Austin. As Hernandez puts it, "Someone benefits and someone pays. And the ones who are paying are the people who can least afford to lose."

The proposed railway isn’t the only policy that’s angered East Austin’s neighborhood activists. There’s the hike-and-bike trails the city wants to build, which also have people worried about eminent domain. (The city insists it will acquire the land only through voluntary purchase. Not everyone believes them.) Then there’s the power plant and — more P.C. but no less annoying — the recycling center, which sit in residential areas. "Whenever they want to get rid of trash somewhere," Garcia complains, "they put it in East Austin."

Light rail, hike-and-bike trails, recycling — it all sounds so clean and green. The Austin authorities call it "smart growth," a cliché popular among proponents of compact, eco-friendly cities. There’s a joke about that, down in the barrio: they say smart stands for Send the Mexicans Across the River Today.

You may have heard about a rebellion in land-use and transportation circles, about a new breed of planner who’s declared war on the old order of suburbs, shopping centers, and sprawling, car-centered development. But there’s another rebellion going on, one that’s received far less attention: the revolt of the poor sods who’ve met the new boss and realized he’s the same as the old. In Austin, Hernandez points out, "Downtown developers won a political battle over the suburban developers, and development shifted from the southwest to the east sector. It’s being marketed as a battle between environmentalists and developers, but it’s no such thing."

This wasn’t supposed to happen. We were supposed to see an to end the rule of humorless, high-handed bureaucrats muttering managerial buzzwords. Instead, we just got a new set of buzzwords: "smart growth," "sustainable development," "regional governance," and a dozen more cloying bits of bureaucratese, spouted by career citicrats with the unique ability to use the word "vision" as a verb without blanching. In Austin and elsewhere — Seattle, Chattanooga — putative reforms have turned out to be just another flavor of business-as-usual. Those buzzwords should have served as a warning: If you want to escape the world of cookie-cutter development, why turn to a crew so addicted to cookie-cutter rhetoric?

You want to know how bad it’s gotten? Last summer, speaking in Ashe County, North Carolina, Al Gore declared that "one of the environmental issues more counties like you are all taking on is this suburban sprawl issue, and we’re going to have to tackle that as a nation." That was a rather odd thing to say, given that the vice president was in a rural Appalachian community with few people to speak of, let alone strip malls or Dairy Queens. But Al Gore wasn’t reacting to the landscape around him; he was reciting from a boilerplate. (Of course, if you’re tackling sprawl "as a nation," you’re going to have a hard time coming up with policies appropriate for each specific place. Tysons Corner, Ashe County — what’s the difference? Stick’em all in the Omnibus Sprawl Bill.)

There’s nothing wrong with attacking the pork-heavy highway-industrial complex, or the malign designs fostered by earlier schools of zoning and planning, or the civic desolation wrought by urban renewal programs and ill-fitting freeways. But it’s no revolution just to shift the pork in new directions, impose a new set of unwelcome designs, and shove railways through poor neighborhoods that somehow survived the earlier asphalt onslaught.

Real reform doesn’t mean importing a new style of planning or a new breed of planner. It means bringing an end to top-down planning altogether, to this ridiculous cult of expertise, this idea that urban design is best left in the hands of a special caste of professionals. It means bringing back self-government and making the experts work for us instead of vice-versa. They may have superior technical knowledge, but that shouldn’t give them the right to decide how that knowledge will be deployed.

After all, if you want to add on to your house, you’ll probably hire an expert to design and build the addition. But the expert will have to do her work as per your specifications. She won’t remodel your home according to her own ideas of healthy living, build a new driveway through the neighbors’ front yard, then demand both families pony up for the privilege of living in her wonderland.

Real reform means restoring our control over our living environments. To libertarians and free-market conservatives, that means protecting property rights. To decentralists of the left, like the activists of East Austin, it might justify a little more government intervention, if that intervention is directed against absentee owners. Of course, it isn’t always clear where the line between these two approaches might be: some "private" neighborhood associations have taken on coercive powers once reserved for the government, while some suburban governments are so small and young that they might as well be voluntary bodies.

And the decentralist left and right can join together to oppose measures like Austin’s ridiculous railroad and the movement toward "regional governance," in which suburban governments cede authority to larger, less accountable authorities. Better to break up the cities, to allow neighborhoods more autonomy — if necessary, to let them secede.

That, really, should be the first demand of anyone out to undo the damage the planning class has done. Not to change power, but to disperse it: to break down the bureaucracies and boot out the buzzwords, and give neighborhoods like East Austin the rights now reserved for the wealthy suburbanites down the expressway.

For the past year, Jesse Walker was CEI’s Warren Brookes Fellow in Environmental Journalism.