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There's Nothing Libertarian About Sprawl

Like any small-‘l’ libertarian, there are those moments when perception or a comment from a self-described libertarian has me doubting our philosophical confederacy. My latest such experience involved incredulous cynicism directed at the anti-sprawl movement. A casual exchange at a West Philadelphia used book store alerted me to the anti-anti-sprawl libertarian.

Being in the business of economic development and public policy I was taken aback. Although well aware of the widespread hesitation surrounding the motivations of the so-called smart growth movement, I rarely came across outright denunciations of sprawl mitigation. Hearing such evidence slip from someone I presumed to be an ideological ally really piqued my curiosity as to the prevalence of such sentiment.

Beneath the first tranche of situational resistance to smart growth lies a very real and growing opposition. Mostly libertarian-leaning, this counter-movement relies on tenets of individualism and government non-interference to parry the growing momentum of the anti-sprawl chorus. They have a point. The smart growth movement is dominated by those who prefer the blunt instruments of government power to market choice. Understandably, the mere carriage of the anti-sprawl campaign by the left inevitably elicits strong reactions from those on the right, especially from those unable to divorce policy from its proponents.

A prominent pillar of the anti-anti-sprawl effort comes from the Independence Institute, whose richest barbs are reserved not for your generic proponent of density but for the trendy smart growth movement. In an interview with the Frontier Center for Public Policy, Jon Caldera of the Colorado-based Independence Institute offers the sound bite version of his organization’s position:

In Colorado, for instance, where “smart growth” proponents have been very active and successful in many cities, the costs of buying a home have skyrocketed. The median price in Denver for a home is $270,000 – in my hometown of Boulder it is over $400,000 – in American dollars and that is directly because of “smart growth” activities. People should be free to own their property and do what they wish with their property.

There is both truth and omission here. Caldera’s pricing assertions are not only correct, but follow nation-wide patterns. Enforced density has indeed bred higher prices. A well-known example of this effect came from Oregon’s once-heralded Urban Growth Boundaries, which were meant to constrain development within a fixed area to encourage density and transit-friendly development. The result was not only a spike in real estate prices, but an embarrassing ‘skip-over-effect’ that produced greater sprawl, further away. UGBs have since died a convulsive death except in such places where the prepackaged high-brow language has been used to cloak intentions to price-out the poor.

The costs of density are not a function of density itself, but of supply and demand. Given the overwhelming incidence of sprawl in this country and the relatively low amount of high-density development, much of the price issue comes from the very market mechanisms that the Independence Institute claims to promote. High demand will produce conditions where units are allocated according to price. Though I suspect it might, it should come to no one’s surprise that the unit-cost to deliver utilities is significantly lessened with higher density.

Even more troubling is the notion that opposing sprawl is somehow antithetical to property rights. This is wrong on so many levels. As prevailing zoning law exists today, land-use patterns are inherently biased against density and towards single-uses. In most cases it is illegal to reproduce a classic, mixed use American main street.

In essence, the prevailing zoning regime is one that discourages density, generally increasing the unit-cost of the dense, mixed-use developments that are available. The best way to alleviate density’s high costs is a system that does not inherently favor sprawl and allows for greater density.

I am hardly an opponent of cars, but the uncertainties of the energy markets and the stop and go traffic in which Americans face are hardly the American dream. Indeed, there is nothing un-American about talking a leisurely walk to the drug store or the corner diner, but to build such places almost guarantees a bruising zoning board battle.

The grossest irony about smart growth’s top-down approach to alleviating sprawl, which is fundamentally reliant on a multilayered, crisscrossing regulatory agenda, is that the anti-sprawl movement was pioneered by New Urbanism, a movement scaled to the individual. New Urbanism is a push to re-inject humanism into the urban landscape through the efficiency of land-use. Although New Urbanism certainly shares certain goals and philosophies with smart growth, its takes a grassroots, not overtly partisan approach that is grounded in considerations for human choice and economic growth.

The sprawl issue is not a left-right talking point, and it is certainly not a libertarian ideal; rather, it is a problem rooted in a zoning paradigm that limits choice, restricts use and produces a bevy of negative externalities for which the taxpayers end up footing the bill. To suggest that the bleak asphalt lakes and plastic canopies of signage is somehow the market’s final product is not only ill-informed, but undermines free enterprise itself.

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