Smart Growth: When Polls and Reality Diverge

We are not in favor of unsustainable living, but identifying and implementing sustainable practices is more complex than it might appear…

It is common knowledge among pollsters that what people say may differ from what they do. This is particularly the case when a question has a “politically correct” answer (see “spiral of silence”).

In the case of Smart Growth, survey results might lead planners to misperceive how people want to live and commute. Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren at the Cato Institute provide an example:

Consider the survey results published by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Wisconsinites were asked where they would like to live. Only six percent said in a major city. The largest group, 44 percent, said in rural areas; the second largest group, 27 percent, preferred the suburbs. At first glance, one might think the Clinton/Gore campaign to promote “livable communities” (densely developed communities) would be resisted by a majority.

But the survey went on to ask, “where would you prefer development to occur?” The most popular response (34 percent) was “in a major city.” Another question: “Do you favor zoning laws that would encourage communities to have smaller houses on smaller lots within walking distance of shopping and work?” Yes, said 76 percent. But when asked, “Would you be interested in living in such a development?” 65 percent said no…

Conduct a poll on whether the government should promote mass transit, and 70 percent or so will respond yes. Ask those same people whether they regularly use mass transit or would if it were more available, and the same number (or even larger) respond no.
The website of Smart Growth America prominently features the results of the 2007 Growth and Transportation Survey sponsored by the National Association of Realtors® and itself. SGA reports:

75% of those polled said that improving public transportation and building communities that don’t require as much driving were better long-term solutions for reducing traffic. Only 21% said that building new roads provided the best solution.

Americans are more concerned that ever about the impact of growth and development on the changing climate. Nearly 90% believe new communities should be designed so we can walk more and drive less…

80% prefer redeveloping our older, existing urban and suburban areas rather than building new housing and commercial development at the edges of our existing suburbs…

More than half of those surveyed believe that businesses and homes should be built closer together to shorten commutes, limit traffic congestion and allow residents to walk to stores and shops instead of using their cars. Six in 10 also agree that new-home construction should be limited in outlying areas and encouraged in inner urban areas to shorten commutes and prevent more traffic congestion.
Now contrast this with the results of the 2002 “Housing Choice and Smart Growth” (PDF) survey sponsored by the National Association of Home Builders and the National Association of Realtors:

Whether the home owners lived in the city, an inner suburb or the suburban fringe, their responses to questions about quality of life indicate that Americans are happy with the neighborhoods where they have chosen to live [see Figure 7]. Some 92 percent of those who live within a city said they are somewhat to very satisfied with the quality of life in their neighborhood, a finding comparable to responses from those who live in a close-in, established suburb (96 percent), outer suburbs (96 percent) and rural areas (96 percent). And the vast majority think the quality of life in their community has remained the same or is getting better…

Responses to a question about three hypothetical choices found that 82 percent of home buyers prefer to live in the suburbs. Consumers were asked to choose their preference among three hypothetical choices: Buy a small single-family home in the city, close to work, public transportation and shopping; buy a small single-family home in a suburban area close to the city; or buy a large single-family home in an outlying suburban area with longer distances to work, public transportation and shopping.

“The options reflect the market reality that in most cases a family can buy a larger home in outlying suburbs for considerably less money than they can in the city or close-in suburbs,” Garczynski said. “When offered the same options in real life, many families of comparable means do choose larger homes in the outer suburbs.”

Buying a large single-family home in an outlying suburban area, with longer distances to work, public transportation and shopping was the choice of 42 percent of the households, followed by buying a small single-family home in a suburban area close to the city, 40 percent. Eighteen percent of the households said their first choice would be to buy a small single-family home in the city close to work, public transportation and shopping.

“When it comes to individual behavior, the responses about the homes they have purchased and their desires about their next home indicate that individual consumers want a larger home on a larger lot,” Garczynski said. “They express far less concern about the time and distance of the commute to work, proximity to the city or the availability of public transportation.”

The survey asked consumers to rate the importance of 11 quality of life factors. Quality of community and neighborhood was rated very important by 80 percent of respondents. This was followed closely by crime rate, 79 percent, and price of home, 78 percent. Some 67 percent of the respondents rated the size and features of the home as very important, followed by builder’s reputation, 62 percent; size of lot, 54 percent; quality of the school district, 44 percent; highway access, 34 percent; and close to work, 31 percent. Scoring lowest were convenience to public transportation, 11 percent, and close to shopping, 24 percent.
We are not trying to suggest that the National Association of Home Builders survey is necessarily more valid than Smart Growth America’s. The divergent results do suggest, however, that people should be skeptical about polls on this subject, and place more reliance on actual behavior observed in the real world.

Another hazard is that respondents might answer a question sincerely but be wrong. For example, one might assume that living in a large apartment building is more energy-efficient per square foot than living in a single-family home, but this is not correct.

In Oregon, a bastion of smart growth planning, durable consumer demand for conventional homes with yards is evident, despite planners’ best efforts to encourage high-density development near mass transit and within Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary. The unfortunate result of these mismatched desires has been increased suburbanization, as families seek affordable homes in areas outside Metro Portland’s authority. Traffic congestion has surged as Metro Portland emphasized investment in mass transit over road-building, even as cars remained a popular mode of travel. Despite the establishment of a light rail line, the 2000 Census shows that transit’s work trip market share remains 20 percent below the 1980 Census rate.

The Sustainable Northampton initiative conducted its own survey in 2006. It found that 54% agreed that “New Homes Should Be Built in Walking Distance of Commercial Areas”. It also found that 89% agreed that “Development Should Be Encouraged At Densities And Locations That Can Support Transit”. In light of the foregoing, it would be wise not to infer that most people will actually buy homes based on these criteria.

It is also entirely possible that many respondents were not fully aware of the tradeoffs involved in densification, in particular, the potential loss of urban greenspace. In the same Northampton survey, 90% agreed that “We Should Protect More Open Space & Wildlife Corridors”.

Planners must take into account how people will actually act when they make major life decisions for themselves as individuals. It is risky to rely on mere words and abstract propositions, especially when the “correct” answer is well known.

See also:

Reason Magazine: “Dense Thinkers” (January 1999)
A recent survey of Portland residents should give the New Urbanists pause, even as it apparently confirms their agenda. The poll found that most Portlanders do in fact support Metro’s plan. But then the poll asked where people would live if they had a choice: the city, the suburbs, or rural areas. The same majority said “rural areas.” That response might seem odd, but it’s in keeping with the New Urbanism, which produces in abundance everything its adherents claim to oppose: congestion, pollution, unaffordable housing, and higher taxes.

Seeing Like a State: Planning Gone Awry in the 20th Century
[Scott] argues that centrally managed social plans derail when they impose schematic visions that do violence to complex interdependencies that are not–and cannot be–fully understood. Further, the success of designs for social organization depends on the recognition that local, practical knowledge is as important as formal, epistemic knowledge…

The anonymity induced by Brasilia is evident from the scale and exterior of the apartments that typically make up each residential superquadra… For superquadra residents, the two most frequent complaints are the sameness of the apartment blocks and the isolation of the residences (“In Brasilia, there is only house and work”). The facade of each block is strictly geometric and egalitarian. Nothing distinguishes the exterior of one apartment from another… Part of the disorientation arises from the fact that apartment dwelling–especially, perhaps, this form of apartment dwelling–fails to accord with deeply embedded conceptions of home. Holston asked a class of nine-year-old chidren, most of whom lived in superquadra, to draw a picture of “home.” Not one drew an apartment building of any kind. All drew, instead, a traditional freestanding house with windows, a central door, and a pitched roof… the design of the residential city militates against individuality… (p.126-127)

From time to time [Jane] Jacobs stands back from the infinite and changing variety of American cities to express a certain awe a
nd humility: “Their intricate order–a manifestation of the freedom of countless numbers of people to make and carry out countless plans–is in many ways a great wonder. We ought not to be reluctant to make this living collection of interdependent uses, this freedom, this life, more understandable for what it is, nor so unaware that we do not know what it is.” The magisterial assumption behind the doctrines of many urban planners–that they know what people want and how people should spend their time–seems to Jacobs shortsighted and arrogant… (p.140)

Most cities are the outcome…of innumerable small acts bearing no discernable overall intention… [Jacobs praises the unplanned city, saying,] “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody… The main responsibility of city planning and design should be to develop, insofar as public policy and action can do so, cities that are congenial places for this great range of unofficial plans, ideas and opportunities to flourish.”

…A city that was extensively planned would inevitably diminish much of the diversity that is the hallmark of great towns. The best a planner can hope for is to modestly enhance rather than impede the development of urban complexity. (p.142-143)

…Jacobs quotes with approval Stanley Tankel… “We will have to admit that it is beyond the scope of anyone’s imagination to create a community. We must learn to cherish the communities we have, they are hard to come by.”

…[T]here is little doubt that [Jacobs] has put her finger on the central flaws of hubris in high-modernist urban planning. The first flaw is the presumption that planners can safely make most of the predictions about the future that their schemes require… Second, thanks in part to Jacobs, we now know more about what constitutes a satisfactory neighborhood for the people who live in it, but we still know precious little about how such communities can be fostered and maintained. Working from formulas about density, green space, and transportation may produce narrowly efficient outcomes, but it is unlikely to result in a desirable place to live. Brasilia and Chandigarh, at a minimum, demonstrate this. (p.144-145)

Wendell Cox: “METROPOLITAN DENVER AT RISK: How Densification Will Intensify Traffic Congestion, Air Pollution and the Housing Affordability Crisis”
What is in vogue is not always correct…

Planners and architects in the 1950s thought that 20-story public housing projects were the answer — the same projects that are being imploded around the country today…

Energy Intensity Less in Single-Family Homes Than High-Rises
An implicit assumption in many of the briefs for Smart Growth is that multi-unit dwellings are more resource-efficient than single-family homes. However, Department of Energy Tables show that this is not true, at least not on the basis of energy per square foot of living space.

Metro Portland’s Long Experience with Smart Growth: A Cautionary Tale
Restrictive growth policies actually caused increased suburbanization in Portland, which now has the 10th greatest suburbanization rate in U.S. As home prices went up in the site-restricted metropolitan area, families moved further out to find affordable housing. Portland actually has rates of suburbanization that are close to that in metropolitan areas with so-called “white flight” and other central city problems. This phenomenon increases vehicle miles traveled as it lengthens commutes…

Denser multi-family housing requires more costly construction techniques, further increasing the cost of housing…

The notion that potential homeowners would prefer to pay the higher cost of high-density housing as an alternative to the traditional home/yard/neighborhood environment style of raising families is wrong. The percentage of families moving to the Portland area that buy or rent within the UGB [Urban Growth Boundary] has fallen dramatically since site restrictions were implemented…

Randal O’Toole: “The Folly of ‘Smart Growth'”
…despite the shortage of single-family housing, Portland residents have failed to embrace Metro’s high-density developments…

New York Times: “Vibrant Cities Find One Thing Missing: Children” (3/24/05)
After interviewing 300 parents who had left the city, researchers at Portland State found that high housing costs and a desire for space were the top reasons…

The New Draft Sustainable Northampton Plan: Balancing Compact Growth Against Taxes, Urban Greenspace, Homeowner Preferences
Mishandled campaigns for density can trigger an intense political backlash. In suburban Portland, voters recalled a mayor and two council members over dense development and a neighborhood light-rail alignment (Farris, p.23). Farris, an Associate Professor in the Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture at Clemson University, recommends a smarter Smart Growth approach that takes into account the facts on the ground and citizen preferences:

…smart growth advocates should be realistic about the amount of development that will occur in built-up areas versus outlying open land as various stakeholders consider future policies. The U.S. population is expected to double in this century. It is hard to imagine that a large percentage of that growth will occur in existing built-up areas.

Smart growth advocates should focus especially on encouraging higher-density quality development on open peripheral land. The discussion in this article suggests that this is where most development will occur. Perhaps up to 20 percent can be infill in cities and the older suburbs (this would be a big increase from present patterns).
Our Column in Today’s Gazette: The Hidden Risks of ‘Smart Growth’
Portland discovered that people tend to hang on to their cars, even as density increases. The city’s population density is about 45 percent higher than the average of the largest 200 metro areas. Its “vehicle miles traveled” per square mile is 42 percent higher.

Besides hoping that people will stop driving, another critical assumption of smart growth advocates is that it’s cheaper to add density to existing urban infrastructure than to add infrastructure to new areas. Harvard researchers Alan Altshuler and Jose Gómez-Ibáñez find that the reverse is true.

Berkeley, California: Cautions on Infill
We cannot let planners and developers decide what we will do with our lives. I never hear planners discussing psychological health and cultural values. Planners have a different approach. As one Berkeley planner told me, no matter what they build, eventually those who can or must tolerate the new, worse environment will replace those who can’t. As this happens, resistance to further degradation lessens. But I reject this “race to the bottom.” And with enough time, planners and developers could also train Americans to live like drones in anthills—but why let them?

Pictures of Northampton Streets at Various Densities