One of the more bizarre commentaries on the recent Harry Potter film sensation was a column in the Charlotte Observer recently in which the writer, one Samuel Staley, equated the mediocre English place where Harry grew up with Smart Growth, the American movement for more efficient and environment-friendly land planning and design. The lesson the writer was trying to draw equated the modest Dursley house with what he called the evils of "politically imposed ideas of urban design."
Yes, it sounds pretty silly, and it is. But it's also worth examining in a little detail, as this analogy exposes some of the erroneous -- some would say deliberate -- misinformation spread by anti-Smart Growth lobbyists.
Mr. Staley is the author of a book that argues Smart Growth should only come from market forces, a point of view that has no place for public policies for communal good. From this perspective, if solutions to the economic and environmental problems of sprawl come from anywhere but the (so-called) free market, they're dismissed as social engineering, or "politically imposed ideas," and therefore judged irrelevant and somehow un-American.
I always insist on the qualification "so-called" as the free market is anything but free. It is manipulated by government policies at every turn, from interest rate cuts to corporate welfare and beyond -- and free marketeers are among the first to cry for government subsidies to help industries in trouble, or to ease the pain of market forces on the consumer, such as government intervention to curb high gas prices.
The "free market" approach to Smart Growth operates from the principle that the consumer knows best, or in Mr. Staley's words, "that the consumers and. . .homeowners are in the driver's seat." An ironically fitting choice of words indeed, although I suspect the irony is lost on their author.
What is the patriotic response of these consumers and homeowners to the current crises of terrorism in southern Asia and the Middle East? We go out and buy more large, inefficient vehicles that increase our dependency on foreign oil and make us more vulnerable to the volatile politics of that tormented region. Our consumer choices worsen our condition, not improve it, and increase the chances of our nation being held hostage by oil exporting nations who generally despise us.
It would be far more patriotic to buy smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles that reduce our vulnerability, but that point of view is rarely heard. Our gluttony continues, unabated, and even the awful fiery deaths of nearly 4,000 New Yorkers can't shake us from our habits of slothful self-indulgence. We fix flags to our SUVs instead, and think we're doing our part for national security.
With such fundamental misconceptions about the state of the world beyond our suburban borders, would any rational person trust these consumers to lead us anywhere -- let alone out of the sprawling environmental quandary we find ourselves in? Not likely. As consumers, we got ourselves into this mess in the first place.
The better way out is a more effective public policy that promotes communal interests such as more breathable air, cleaner water, better environmental stewardship, more efficient use of taxes, higher design standards and a longterm view that ensures these public interests aren't steamrolled by private property deals based purely on short-term profit.
The free market all-American Harry Potter, Mr. Staley argues, would be much better off than his pallid English namesake. The American Dursleys would have "their own house and a yard to boot. They would also have a garage, probably attached to their house."
Oh, bliss! Nirvana! An attached garage! Long live America, the place where you don't have to walk anywhere for anything! Those poor deprived Brits! Can we ever feel anything but pity for poor English Harry -- having to trek a few meters from the car to the front door?
Leaving aside the fact that the Dursleys do actually have their own house and yard (it just happens to be smaller than the typical American domestic extravaganza) this rather strange argument equates Smart Growth with forcing patriotic, freedom-loving, SUV-driving (are these synonymous?) Americans to live like the Dursleys, "stacked side by side."
This is the first I've heard of this idea, and I've been promoting "Smart Growth" for a couple of decades, long before it was called Smart Growth. Staley's example illustrates the level of misunderstanding, or deliberate false information, that is evident in so much of the free marketeers' propaganda.
The truth of the matter is that Smart Growth is about choice, about having different options for living that suit different people or suit the same people at different times of their lives. The cycle of independent young professionals in their townhome/loft/apartment becoming suburban parents in their single-family detached house and aging into downsizing empty nesters in their hassle-free condominium, is only the most obvious example.
Add to this commonplace scenario the premise that all Americans, young, middle-aged and old, deserve the opportunity to live in walkable communities, then you have a true Smart Growth vision. These are communities that include different housing options, where shopping, workplaces and parks are close at hand, and where everyone has a choice each day how to move around, be it by car, bus, bike, train or on foot.
This hardly sounds like the demonized social engineering or "politically motivated urban design" so maligned by Mr. Staley and his cohorts, does it? Of course not. It describes instead the very best American examples of small towns and city suburbs handed down to us by our grandparents from the first decades of the 20th century.
No planner or architect I know has desires to make Americans live like the Dursleys. This shameless shibboleth is constructed simply to scare Americans into staying with the status quo, restricting their consumer choice to ones that suit the financial interests of certain segments of industry.
In the case of Charlotte, Smart Growth means clusters of higher density communities near transit, providing the hip urban lifestyle for the terminally trendy, mixed with large areas of low density housing further out for those who lust after lawns and their half-acre slice of the American Dream.
This gives choice. It's pretty smart. But will we get it? We're muggles, after all. *