Tuesday, January 18, 2005

"Smart Growth Will Be Driven by Greed and Envy"

So said Geoffrey Anderson from the Environmental Protection Agency this afternoon at the Greensboro Historical Museum.

Anderson was in town to present the 2004 Smart Growth Award to the City of Greensboro for the Southside development. (Most of the credit for that project should go to Sue Schwartz, who is the city's chief neighborhood planner, and just an all-around great person. You rock, Sue! . . . ahem . . . now, back to what Mr. Anderson said.)

What really struck me about Anderson's talk was how un-regulatory it was. He started by noting how much smart growth in the US has been locally driven, and is not the result of state or federal mandates. Southside is a perfect example of that. Greensboro wanted to help a blighted area, came up with a novel development ordinance, and just got it done.

Anderson also noted that the market for this kind of development is already strong and is growing because of changing demographics in the U.S. Whereas traditional housing developments since the 1950's have been aimed squarely at the classic nuclear family (2.2 kids and a dog), that kind of family is a shrinking part of the housing market. As generation X-ers delay marriage and baby boomers' nests empty, there will be an increasing demand for a variety of housing types. (For evidence of this see the previous post, where both younger and older commenters express a desire for non-suburban housing.)

If Anderson is right, why does the development industry keep doing the same old thing? Don't developers respond to market conditions? Anderson says they're "responding rationally to public policy." That is, 1950's-era zoning ordinances practically mandate single use neighborhoods and strip development. In most cities, he says, it's illegal to make a pedestrian friendly, mixed retail / housing / office development.

Anderson's policy suggestions for promoting smart growth were surprisingly libertarian (Sam, Rusty, and Tom please take note): make the process more predictable for developers, ease restrictions on zoning, on traffic engineering regulations, on parking requirements, and – get this – on federal environmental regulations. He went into detail about how an urban infill project in Atlanta went forward only after the EPA backed off some of its rules. (Well, he is a Bush EPA guy, after all.)

He also made this rather startling pronouncement: "The enviros [environmentalists] also need to say 'yes' more often, or this kind of development won't happen."

Finally, although he noted that local smart growth ordinances have been very popular at the ballot box, he predicted that smart growth will be successful because of its inherent desirability and profitablity. "In the end," he said, "smart growth will be driven by greed and envy."

Ralph Nader, meet your new friend Gorden Gekko.


D. Hoggard said...

Sorry I missed the presentation but I was working on an infill development down in Charlotte.


Michael said...

I think that part of it is a never ending cycle of the developers build what they perceive the market demands, and the public demands what the developers build because they think that although this isn't really the house I want, it is what the public demands, so I must buy it to maximize resale value. Even if this perception is not correct, the cycle feeds itself. Of course, as you say, zoning also play a major role.