"Smart Growth" and "New Urbanism" Compared with "Large Lot Zoning" (Tom Lane) [ Home Page – Click Here]

(May 17, 2017) – Traditional "Large Lot Zoning" is "Greener" than "Smart Growth" within Urban Growth Boundaries . . . Copyright 2009 – 2017 . . . Tom Lane . . . Photographing California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington.

(2010-2011) Thesis and How Opponents and Proponents Define Smart Growth and Urban Sprawl Differently

Above: Creekside is a crowded, overpriced smart growth community of townhomes and homes, with virtually no yards in Kent, Wa. south of the Southcenter Mall and West of downtown Kent. This is looking Southeast at sunset towards Mt. Rainier in Oct. 2010.

(Tom Lane, Oct. 4, 2011)

Smart Growth is Anti-Family, Anti-Green, and Anti-Fiscal Responsibility.

That’s my basic thesis.

Photos on this web site show high density developments of towering condos with no native plants, no fruit trees, no gardens, no birds, no grape arbors, and no butterflies.

Smart growth offers no privacy, no trees, no lawns for the kids to play, and congested narrow streets unfit for walking, skateboarding, and bicycling.

Smart growth resulted from the overvalued idea that urban sprawl is somehow bad for the environment. However, homes in sprawling areas with large lots support mature trees, native plants, birds, wildlife, and active growing families. And, many large properties border wetlands and streams supporting wildlife. In smart growth urban areas, streams and wetlands can be diverted into retention basins and ephemeral ponds.

If I was a landscape architect, I’d have to design what your family desires, in order to stay in business. You would want a large backyard for the dogs and the kids, several fruit trees, and vegetable gardens. You would want a basketball hoop on the street, and a quiet street wide enough for skateboarding and bicycling.

On that note, here is one of the Seattle area’s best suburbs, Maple Valley, located about 30 miles southeast of Seattle. It was ranked the #1 suburb in the U.S. by Family Circle Magazine, Click Here for the article: http://www.familycircle.com/family-fun/travel/best-towns-for-families/?page=10

The Maple Valley Highlands HOA in Maple Valley, Wa., a suburb 30 miles S.E. of Seattle.

However, landscape architects, in collaboration with big construction companies, design smart growth projects, based on overvalued ideas such as the putative evils of sprawl. They have constructed their own equivalent sprawling dense communities of townhomes, several stories high, with little consideration towards the needs of families, native plants, and wildlife.  Issaquah Highlands near Seattle is a horrible example of this, and you can view my photos at this post.

I contend that there is nothing wrong with green sprawl on large lots of at least a half acre, with the preservation of native trees. In every sprawling major US city of over 500,000 persons where I’ve ever lived, except Albuquerque and Las Vegas, there are always nice parks and trails – with large trees or enchanting deserts – within a mile or two of my home or workplace.

In fact, even if every family of four lived on an acre, only 3% of the entire lower 48 would be occupied, according to Dartmouth professor Dr. William Fischel.

Obviously, we do not need to live on crowded approx. one tenth acre lots, such as the Woodside development by Port Blakely Holdings, who clearcut this entire property before buildings hundreds of homes in Kent, Wa. –

Homes on lots as small as approx. 1/10th an acre at the Woodside Development by Port Blakely holdings in Kent, Wa.

Currently, smart growth is a national trend perpetuated by several federal agencies, including the EPA and also President Obama, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and Deputy Secretary of Housing Ron Sims.

However, smart growth is a non-partisan issue, with members of both the Republican and Democrat parties on board. It’s just another trend in the long history of urban planning, currently taught in University departments of urban planning. As with any “trend” in sales and marketing, whether smart growth survives depends on supply and demand.

So far, smart growth and related concepts, such as urban growth boundaries and impact fees, have caused the massive foreclosure crisis and the international financial meltdown. Restricting the supply of homes in a city with urban growth boundaries causes a housing bubble, as is true when restricting the supply of any commodity.

Dr. Theo Eicher of the University of Washington found that Seattle regulations added $200,000 to the cost of every home.  Of course, you can buy a new house for just $200,000 in many areas of the country, without these regulations.

In this post, I summarize the work of Dr. Joseph Gyourko of the Wharton School, defnining “Superstar Cities,” such as Seattle and San Francisco, where only the rich can afford to live.

However, there has always been a strong and appropriate market for smart growth condos, and lifestyle centers with urban renewal districts in downtown areas, for example, in University settings where students can walk to class, and hang out with friends at bars and coffee shops. But the vast majority of Americans prefer privacy and property in the suburbs, especially once individuals get married, have children, and move to the suburbs.

Given enough time, smart growth will be replaced with the next trend in urban design. The question is how much more damage will smart growth and urban growth boundaries cause to the housing market (and increasing unemployment) over the next several years.

On that note, smart growth author and researcher Randal O’Toole has produced a Planning Penalty Map showing the cost to different states of urban growth regulations:

Planning Penalty Map, Randal O'Toole, http://americandreamcoalition.org/penalty.html

Clearly, clearcutting (check: reformat link) native pine trees or desert cacti for high density housing and “gravelscaping” (check: reformat link) is inconsistent with the supposed green philosophy behind smart growth. High density urban areas where most surfaces are concrete creates an urban heat island effect, increasing city temperatures, and air conditioning costs. A lack of native trees results in high air pollution and increased noise from cars.

In addition, restricting development and infrastructure inside urban growth boundaries increases density, traffic, and air pollution, creating cities such as Boulder, Colorado that rival Los Angeles in terms of congestion.

Urban growth boundaries are unjustified when over 95% of US land area exists in a rural, undeveloped state. There is plenty of room for every family in the US to have one third of an acre. That’s just over twice what smart growth proponents sometimes design: one tenth acre properties.

Recent studies of human behaviour repeatedly find that homeowners are migrating to distant counties, so they can find cheaper housing on large lots, despite very long commutes. The growth in rural and exurban counties have been phenomenal in the past decade.

Baby boomers, in particular, are expected to migrate to rural areas – not high density smart growth townhomes – in the next decade. Among their goals include starting small farms, not walking to the theater from their towering smart growth condos.

All these observations clearly indicate that smart growth is a trend that will soon die out, except for young unmarried singles around University campuses. Meanwhile, this web site serves as a record of what’s going on, with photos of smart growth, and also traditional neighborhoods that I especially like, such as Mirrormont  and Maple Valley, in Eastern King County, southeast of Seattle:

Very nice Mid-Century modern home in Mirrormont, just sold in Summer 2011.

Proponents and Opponents Define Smart Growth Differently:

There’s no formal “definition” of “smart growth” on this web site. That’s because it’s truly in the eyes of the beholder.

So I’ve decided to provide two perspectives, simultaneously – from two individuals with divergent views: an urban planner, and a family with kids.

First, some background on the urban planning field. The student studying architecture, landscape architecture, geology, or biology pursues objectives unrelated to planning or land use policy.

In contrast, urban planners design cities from a multi-disciplinary perspective, using a wide variety of tools, from geology, architecture, census data, and geographic information systems (GIS).

Recently, a paradigm shift has occurred withing the urban planning field. Urban planners are suddenly concerned about the ambiguous adjective “sustainability,” and issues such as global warming, peak oil, and carbon emissions.

They have developed new urban design schools of thought, such as “new urbanism” and “smart growth,” reflecting civic design with a green flavor, and less of a carbon footprint.

This involves shortening commuting distances, to cut down on gasoline consumption and carbon emissions. At the same time, this crowds people into high density developments, such as homes on 1/10th of an acre, attached townhomes, and towering four story condos with no yards and no privacy.

(However, much of the green movement dislikes smart growth, such as those of us into organic farming, trail running, and mountain biking, because we require large open spaces.)

The urban planner views smart growth developments as a major historical accomplishment, in terms of both urban planning and environmental preservation. Therefore, the urban planner is very pleased to tell the world about sustainable urban design in graduate schools and design magazines worldwide.

However, smart growth and cap and trade are new kids on the block, joining already established green movements such as organic farming, permaculture, and the construction of suburban multimodal trail networks by avid mountain bikers, that have been around since the 1960’s. Whether smart growth will be “sustainable,” or merely just another trend in the fascinating history of urban planning, remains to be seen.

Indeed, the average family is not impressed with smart growth. Most families prefer a traditional house with a yard. Smart growth creates problems that families dislike, such as heavy traffic volumes, crime, drugs, and heavily congested and polluted urban areas. The top menu includes two Smart Growth Surveys, where most residents valued homes with yards over smart growth principles.

Therefore, the flight of families to large lots on suburbs continues, even if this means commuting 40 miles each way and consuming hundreds of dollars per month in gasoline.

Cartoon from the Washington Post, April 24, 2010. Accessed August 9, 2010: http://tiny.cc/bnhle

Let’s look at how an urban planner would define “smart growth,” versus a working class family with kids, on several levels:

The urban planner who likes smart growth define it as: “Walkable, bikable neighborhoods with lots of sidewalks, formed in a compact design where one doesn’t have to drive everywhere.”

Those who dislike it say, “Sure, that part of downtown is walkable and bikable, just like my older son’s college town in Durango, Colorado. But I still have small kids, and they want to play basketball on the cul-de-sac. I don’t want to live in a home owners assocation (HOA) that prevents curbside basketball hoops. And, I want to let my big dogs off leash, sometimes, in the local woods. My husband grows tomatoes and corn, and corn needs over a hundred square feet to pollinate.”

OK…how about the issue of Global Warming?

Urban Planner: “Global warming goes down, since everyone walks, bikes, or takes the train to work.”

Family: “Who wants to walk in the constant rain in Portland, or the driving heat in Phoenix? I don’t have time to wait at the park and ride for the train. And, I have to make 3 trips after work: pick up my kids, mail documents for my job at the post office, and go to the grocery store. It’s easier just to drive.”

Tom notes: In reality, in most cities, less than 5% walk, bike, or ride mass transit to work. The majority drive, except in small, compact smart growth towns such as Ithaca, NY, Durango, Colorado, and Ashland, Oregon. We’ll discuss these places on this web site. Smart growth might work, but not in large cities with long commutes with several stops on the way home.

That link can be added with Corvallis, Or – Add Link here.

On Open Space:

Urban Planner: “Urban growth boundaries preserve surrounding wetlands, forests, and farmland from development.”

Family: “The City is too crowded inside the boundary, with towering condos and townhomes just 10 feet from the street, and no large trees. It’s unsightly with high traffic. We prefer the distant suburbs on a large lot. Then, I can have my bird feeders and walk into the national forest with our dogs, and our kids ride their mountain bikes. And, my kids visit a large skateboard park down the street (Click here for Summer Skating from Jessica Hunter photography.)

In the City, air pollution makes me asthmatic in the heavy traffic around the smart growth condos. If I did live in the City, I wouldn’t be able to get to the urban growth boundary, because traffic is horrible. How is so-called this “smart growth” any different than L.A.?

The family would enjoy the Mountain Bike Jumps in an Old Growth Forest in the park in the Mirrormont HOA, an unincorporated area of large 1 to 5 acre lots, on S.W. Tiger Mountain near Seattle:

Mountain bike jump in an Old Growth Forest in the Mirrormont HOA of 1 to 5 acre lots, in unincorporated King County, on SW Tiger Mountain.

Housing Affordability?

Urban Planner: “Due to our efforts as planners, along with our consultants, housing in the City is now suddenly affordable! You can buy a condo for just $250,000! That’s a bargain, when most older Victorian homes downtown are going for nearly a million. Condos now rent for just $1500 a month!

Family: “I can buy a home in the suburbs on land for the same amount as in the City. And, my kids can mountain bike and fish in the local stream.”

Here’s the well known Duthie Hill Mountain Bike Park in Sammamish, Wa., a suburb northeast of Seattle:

Duthie Hill Mountain Bike Park, Sammamish, Wa.

Public safety? Education?

Urban Planner: “Now we’ve finally re-created the old-fashioned ideals of Community within Cities. High density condos, with wide sidewalks, urban plazas, and lifestyle centers bring people together from all backgrounds. We have the finest schools, built with energy efficiency standards, and encompassing environmental education in the curricula, with field trips to the City’s watershed.”

Family: “I don’t want my kids hanging out on those dark alleys around those condos, especially with those low night light ordinances! They’re full of gangs and drugs, leftover from what was here before you put those condos up. I don’t have any drugs in my suburb. And, my Church and school teach conservative family values; the schools in the City are too liberal and don’t teach the basics anymore.  I want wide streets that are safe to walk on, day and night, with bike lanes.”

Indeed, here are bike lanes and sidewalks, and a two lane turn lane,  along an improved stretch of East Lake Sammamish Boulevard in Sammamish, Wa. east of Seattle:

Improved section of East Lake Sammamish Blvd. in Sammamish, Wa. with wider traffic lanes, bike lanes, and sidewalks.

As you can see, two people have defined “smart growth.” One loves it, one hates it. This web site explores controversies associated with “smart growth.” While I’m generally opposed to this new paradigm in urban planning, however, I endorse some of the principles such as pedestrian and bicycle friendliness.

Those who are for and against smart growth have different ideas about: 1) how much role the government should have in planning neighborhood design, and: 2) what is aesthetically appropriate for an urban setting.

I also reject the notion that “smart growth” is a conspiracy from either the United Nations (UN), Agenda 21, or the Democrat party. Both parties gain financially from smart growth, since architects, planners, and politicians are members of both parties. In terms of the UN Conspiracy folks, they’re sometimes the same paranoid people with silly ideas of conspiracies from Jews, Mormons, Masons, Christians, and gays.

Although it is true that certain political parties and other groups may practice “exclusionary zoning” for whatever reasons, this can often be readily explained by the NIMBY attitude that we all have, since everybody fears change on some level.  I know of Republican and Democrat communities that both practice exclusionary zoning with high impact fees and/or urban growth boundaries and/or smart growth and/or other considerations.

Finally, I am a fiscal conservative / social liberal (i.e. perhaps a “Dennis Kucinich” or “JFK Liberal”?), and therefore, I feel that exclusionary zoning is unfair to the poor, and is best avoided.  I agree with Mark Levin’s positions on property rights, although like most of his listeners, if I ever met him I’d probably confess, respectfully, that he’s “too far to the right for me.”

Whether or not smart growth, mass transit, cap and trade, and other “trendy” environmental paradigms become established remains to be seen. If the Republicans win Congress this fall (they did, in 2010), that could block the smart growth and cap and trade agenda of President Obama, Ron Sims, and Ray LaHood.

If Obama loses in 2012, it’s interesting to note that Rick Perry in 2009 Governor Rick Perry vetoed the legislature’s smart growth bill, stating that growth issues should remain at the level of local communities. And, that’s my perspective as well. Overall, smart growth is a non-partisan issue, with support from both parties, although it is mostly from the far radical left. If you like strong centralized planning over land use, then you’ll like smart growth, and probably not like this web site, except for the cycling and walking posts.

Here’s what the family (and I) would both equally enjoy. Large lots 40 miles south of downtown Seattle in Bonney Lake, Washington, in the shadow of Mt. Rainer, just 40 minutes from the entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park and national forests.

As an environmentalist, I object to the method of development here, involving clearcutting of native vegetation (note the exposed gravel hillside below, and the second photo of clearcutting nearby). I prefer to see vegetation preserved during construction. While I have no issues with sustainable timber harvesting in national forests, I am a strong proponent of forest preservation in urban areas, including tree ordinances that enhance property values for everyone.

Large homes, large lots, and ample outdoor recreation options, in the shadow of Mt. Rainier in East Pierce County, Washington state (near Seattle).


2 comments on “(2010-2011) Thesis and How Opponents and Proponents Define Smart Growth and Urban Sprawl Differently

  1. Ashley

    We are republican in thousand oaks, and have bike lanes and an urban growth boundary. But we do not have smart growth, it sounds horrible.

  2. Hcat

    Never trust anyone who says he is a “fiscal conservative and social liberal” only the wealthy classes take this view.

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