Opinion: Daily Journal

Smart Growth: It’s Even Dumber

RALEIGH – Smart Growth isn’t just dumb. It’s also dangerous.

Set aside the economic and fiscal case against the kind of dense, transit-friendly, auto-unfriendly development patterns that bureaucrats and editorialists like but the vast majority of North Carolinians don’t and never will. Set aside the fact that such development reduces home affordability, increases traffic congestion, worsens air pollution, and boosts the cost of government. Here’s something else that Smart Growth trendiness will cost you: higher crime.

According to a piece in the latest Reason magazine (not yet online), careful scholars of the subject have known this for decades. In 1972, Oscar Newman explained in his book Defensible Space why land-use patterns that maximize density and common spaces lead to more dangerous neighborhoods. Newman, a professor of urban design at Washington University in St. Louis, saw firsthand how such development had resulted in higher crime and vandalism.

“The larger the number of people who share a communal space,” Newman wrote, “the more difficult it is for people to identify it as being in any way theirs or to feel they have a right to control or determine the activity taking place within it.” Instead, he suggested, communities should allow private households and businesses to subdivide large portions of public spaces into privately owned or at least privately controlled spaces.

For every shibboleth of the Smart Growthers, Newman and other empirically driven students of urban design (like the co-author of the Reason piece, Stephen Town, who works as an architectural liaison officer with the West Yorkshire Police Department in England) have a seemingly provocative, but on second thought commonsensical, response. Build more sidewalks and footpaths to encourage walking, and ditch cul-de-sacs in favor of interconnected street grids? These policies increase access and escape opportunities for criminals. Make use of alleys to hide cars from view? They also hide burglars and crime victims from view. Require garages to be in the back of the home? Car burglaries will rise. Increase density? This creates larger common areas, such as parking garages, that reduce safety.

A British study found that New Urbanism/Smart Growth housing patterns have five times the crime and cost police departments three times as much to keep secure as neighborhoods built along Newman’s defensible-space standards. It is telling, write Town and Reason co-author Randal O’Toole, that some defenders of high-density living will, when pressed, downplay the importance of safety in favor of words like “accessibility” and “openness.” It shows that they aren’t really motivated by the desire to satisfy customers’ highest priorities, which often involve the safety of their persons and the security of their belongings.

But we already know that Smart Growthers are little interested in what homeowners, renters, shoppers, commuters, and entrepreneurs actually want. If they cared about that, they wouldn’t favor Smart Growth – the latest in what is likely to be a perpetual series of utopian schemes dreamed up by those who, deep down, just know better how the rest of us should live.

Hey, it’s a free society. Sell your car and get a good pair of walking shoes. If you like, devote one of the rooms in your new third-floor loft to your model monorail. But leave me alone – and pay your own homeowners’ insurance.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.