Urban Sustainability

The grand cliché of environmental policy, "sustainable development," has migrated into urban affairs, where the native politicians and bureaucrats have made it their own. An agenda has coalesced around the phrase. For the most part, it marks no radical departure from the old statist program; it is more evolution than revolution. America’s city leaders have learned some lessons from the mistakes of the past; they are less likely to launch a project with the scale and hubris of the urban renewal programs of the ’50s and ’60s. It’s not that they’ve figured out that planning itself doesn’t work. It’s that the new bureaucratic catechism, Re-Inventing Government, urges them to "steer, not row" and to act with a better sense of proportion.

Urban renewal. So the idea of urban renewal, of wiping out old districts and building new hoods from scratch, isn’t dead. It’s just a wee bit smaller, a wee bit greener, and loaded with a new set of justifications. In 1962, when Chattanooga was an old-fashioned smokestack city, it forced 1,300 households to move. Today, now that it’s repositioned itself as a "living laboratory" of sustainability, it’s forcing a mere 50 to make way.

The real beneficiaries of such policies are the developers who win contracts to build the new districts. In the old days, such transactions were considered somewhat shady; today, the relationship is called a "public-private partnership" and held out as an example of progressive civic policy.

The authorities season the new development with environmental rhetoric, so their policies will seem more "sustainable." Chattanooga’s city fathers have become experts at this, defending the most familiar downtown subsidies in green tones. The publicly-financed trade center is one of the oldest white elephants in the urban cookbook, but the Chattanoogans have discovered a new spice for it. When they expand their trade center, they’ll plant grass on the roof. Presto: bold new thinking!

New Urbanism. The new city-planning fashion is to impose high densities and mixed uses on suburban communities and low-density neighborhoods. The idea is to reverse the earlier fashion of wiping out high-density neighborhoods and eliminating mixed uses. The weapon, as before, is zoning. The guiding philosophy is the so-called New Urbanism, an ideology that claims to exalt human-scale, pedestrian-friendly living.

The New Urbanists do have a few good ideas. But they’re trying to impose their vision on people who don’t want it. At times their antics are almost comic, as in an story related by environmentalist Randal O’Toole. When the New Urbanists came to Oak Grove, Oregon, the Portland suburb where O’Toole lives, one planner declared, "To preserve the historic character of downtown Oak Grove, we propose to allow zero-foot setbacks of buildings." O’Toole asked the obvious question: "How does allowing people to tear down or build false fronts on existing structures ‘preserve’ their historic character?"

The answer is that the planners probably couldn’t tell Oak Grove from Moab. Their "historic character" was a Disneyish invention, one that would have overridden the town’s actual history, its actual character, and – not least – its actual residents’ actual preferences.

Urban growth boundaries. Growth boundaries are an increasingly popular nostrum, with Portland again held up as the model. (Portland and Chattanooga are the co-capitals of Sustainable America.) The idea here is to draw a line around a city and channel development into the land within it. The result is an array of market distortions: building on lands that are better suited for farms, farming on lands that are better suited for building, and political disenfranchisement of suburbanites, who are supposed to turn their right to self-government over to a regional planning caste. Which leads to the next piece of the program:

Regionalism.The Sustainables seem bent on shielding themselves from the two checks that citizens have on their power: the ballot box, and the ability to escape by moving. In the ’50s and ’60s, the feds encouraged local jurisdictions to consolidate into regional governments. That wasn’t very popular, so now they push the scaled-down, steer-don’t-row version of the same idea: regional governance. Instead of outright consolidation, you have "cooperation" and "coordination," encouraged by the usual set of carrots and sticks.

In the Portland area, for example, planning and transit decisions for three counties are centralized in a remote Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). Until recently, the MPO’s leaders weren’t even elected. Other cities rely on old-fashioned annexation; still others push limited forms of consolidation. In Chattanooga, the local establishment recently merged the city and county school systems, despite strong opposition from inner-city blacks.

The sustainability crowd loves to push books like Cities without Suburbs, by former Albuquerque mayor David Rusk, a paean to those cities that have merged with counties or systematically annexed suburbs. Rusk claims that such "elastic" cities can boast of more jobs, better education, and less economic and racial inequality. But critics such as Ed Zelinsky of Columbia University have subjected Rusk’s contentions to withering criticism, pointing out that the mayor ignored factors far more likely to account for the correlations he drew. One gross example: "Rusk pairs Madison, Wisconsin with Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and suggests that the superior education level of the metropolitan Madison workforce is attributable to the greater elasticity of Madison’s municipal boundaries. Perhaps. More likely some (probably most, maybe all) of that superiority reflects the presence in Madison of one of America’s outstanding state universities."

If anything, we should be further decentralizing power, giving city neighborhoods the autonomy the suburbs already enjoy rather than shackling the suburbs with the controls that are killing our cities. But that would make all this social engineering more difficult.

Visioning. Despite this faith in centralized management, the Sustainables present themselves as apostles of civic participation. This is true only if you consider the focus group a vital organ of direct democracy. "Civic participation" turns out to mean an effort to "consult" with "community leaders" during the "planning process."

Many cities, most notably Chattanooga, have gone through an elaborate "visioning" procedure. The planners meet with groups of citizens (often carefully vetted, and limited to those with the time and energy for this sort of thing). After a long process, full of brainstorming and debate, the gatherings endorse whatever it was the planners wanted to impose in the first place. But now the ideas are attributed to the masses.

Mass transit. Much of the Sustainables’ critique of the highway-industrial complex rings true: it really is awash in federal subsidies, and it isn’t tuned to local transit needs. But all this is even truer of the subway and light-rail schemes they offer instead. Furthermore, while the government’s roads don’t always go where they ought to, reflecting political pressures and pork-barrel corruption, millions of people obviously want roads to drive on – hence the oft-noted problem of congestion. Public policy failures notwithstanding, it’s hard to argue that the government is shoving cars down people’s throats. Meanwhile, ridership on such highly-touted transit projects as Portland’s light rail has been embarrassingly low, indicating that there isn’t much revealed preference for those modes of transport. (The only exception, New York’s knot of subways, reflects Manhattan’s unique cultural and geographic circumstances – and the fact that the system was originally built by private hands.)

An irony: the regional authorities the Sustainables hold so dear are some of the worst offenders in the road pork department. Chattanooga’s Chamber of Commerce recently produced a brochure advertising the sustainable business pleasures of its city; among the policies it promoted was the local authorities’ "questioning" of U.S. 27, a highway the state Department of Transportation wants to shove through the Alton Park neighborhood. And who designed this project? Chattanooga’s MPO.

Etc. There are good sides to the sustainable agenda as well, of course – for example, its opposition to federal policies (e.g., misplaced Superfund liability) that have prevented people from cleaning urban "brownfields" (contaminated areas). And some items don’t fall neatly into the category of good or bad. The idea of an eco-industrial park, in which one manufacturer uses another’s waste as raw material, is fine; such projects have been known to develop spontaneously. But in Chattanooga, it’s just another species of white elephant, a demonstration project to be built with federal funds and little regard for market realities.

In that, it is typical of the sustainability program.

Jesse Walker ([email protected]) is the 1997 Warren Brookes Fellow.