The Conservatism of Smart Growth

The Conservatism of Smart Growth

In light of recent Republican and Tea Party opposition to smart-growth practices, one could be forgiven for thinking that such principles stand in opposition to conservative values. But is that really the case?

A free market would, according to James Bacon, naturally lead to more efficient, livable and smart-growth driven communities. Credit: Steve Rhodes on Flickr

In Forefront this week, Thomas Wheatley highlights many of the political barriers to smart-growth development presented by Republican politicians and Tea Party activists. Wheatley cites attacks on a Florida law requiring localities to submit a community plan annually, Tampa voters rejecting a sales tax hike that would have funded transit, and an attempt to ax transit funding in Charlotte, N.C.

Certainly, many view smart growth as antithetical to American conservative ideals, and some may even consider urban planners to be, as Wheatley put it, “social engineers hellbent on converting the idyllic suburban fringe into dense zones the Soviets would envy.”

But does this outlook represent all conservatives?

James A. Bacon would disagree. In a post on his blog Bacon’s Rebellion, he explains his conservative rationale for supporting smart growth. In a preface to his post, Bacon argues that smart growth is actually neither liberal nor conservative at heart, that “efficiency is efficiency… cost effectiveness is cost effectiveness.” The post — based off a talk Bacon gave this past May at, believe it or not, the 20th Congress for the New Urbanism — pleas with conservatives, saying that “conservatives have thrown out the smart-growth baby with the liberal bathwater.”

Single use zoning, parking mandates and density limitation statutes are, to Bacon’s mind, examples of overburdening government regulation that has led to suburban sprawl. A free market would, according to Bacon, naturally lead to more efficient, livable and smart-growth driven communities. It has been government tampering, a big no-no in conservatism, that has led to sprawl.

Bacon’s arguments shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise. In a post for the Natural Resource Defense Council’s staff blog SWiTCHBOARD, David Goldstein also lays out why conservatives should support smart growth. For Goldstein, it comes down to “economic freedom.” Goldstein, too, believes that, “the market prefers smart growth” and that “the government…needs to stop barring the way.”

“Conservatives support limited government,” writes Goldstein, “and Smart Growth policies relax government interventions.” He goes on to ask the multibillion-dollar question: “How can advocates of limited government encourage a system in which governments spend over $100 billion a year on roads, which are then offered to users for free?”

It’s not only the less-prominent conservatives who are in favor of smart growth. In a recent post for Grist, Lisa Hymas writes about Mitt Romney’s years as governor of Massachusetts and his advocacy for smart growth. Hymas reveals that Romney, as governor, created the Office for Commonwealth Development, a powerful entity tasked with fighting sprawl.

During his governorship, Romney felt that “sprawl is … [an] important quality-of-life issue.” Anthony Flint, an advisor to Romney during this time, believes that for Romney, the issue is about efficiency: “From a business perspective, he thinks smart growth makes a lot of sense.”

It may at first seem surprising that there are conservatives out there who support smart growth. With anti-Agenda 21 Tea Partiers and Republican politicians every which way fighting densification and transit expansion, it would seem that smart growth is anathema to conservatives. But for Bacon, “smart growth is too important to leave to liberals.”

Tags: washington dcgovernancesmart growthmitt romney

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