North Idaho Slow Growth
Jan 28, 2022
“In addition to narrow streets and front porch design, Smart Growth communities have smaller lots with shallow front yards that spatially define the street and create a sense of enclosure. The garages are hidden in back, usually accessible by alleyways.”
Traditional Neighborhoods vs. Planned Communities
That sounds somewhat familiar. But not quite. My husband and both grew up in large families, living in "compact" homes, in "walkable" urban neighborhoods, and in spite of congested bathroom facilities and some strange neighbors, have fond memories.
Why then, am I such a harsh critic of Smart Growth? Aren't modern urban planners just trying to restore more affordable housing options and bringing back some of the features that made our childhood neighborhoods so charming? No, they are not. The "compact homes" promoted by Smart Growthers sound good on paper, but they are Frankenstein's monsters, intended to look like pleasant family neighborhoods, but built entirely with fake, dead, and stolen parts.
There are enormous differences between the traditional urban communities we knew and "smart growth" style "compact neighborhoods", in spite of misleading resemblences. The best way to describe this essential difference is perhaps, “authentic” vs. “synthetic”. In other words, in almost every aspect, the working class communities we grew up in were built, owned, controlled, and managed by the people who lived in them, rather than by urban planners, corporate ”investors” and large-scale “developers”; and the people who lived in them were mostly homeowners, not tenants. Our childhood neighborhoods, were, in a word, “authentic”, where as “smart growth” style urban communities are “artificial”. How fake are they? Let us count the ways.
Fake by Design and Construction—Craftsmen vs. Developers
I strongly suspect that most of the "housing experts" who extoll the virtues of "smart growth" have never built a house. In contrast, the men who actually built the “traditional neighborhoods” of our youth were skilled craftsmen, not wordsmiths. They purchased city lots and built efficient, inexpensive homes, in little time, without power tools. They had to build homes that were attractive and affordable because there were 20 other skilled craftsmen in the community with similar aspirations, and the families they were selling to didn’t have a great deal of money.
The reason that these independent craftsmen could build beautiful homes inexpensively is because they didn’t have to pay for an office, a secretary, a planner, an architect, a purchasing agent, a property manager, a finance guy, a tax specialist, a lawyer, and a marketing department. And they also didn’t have to donate thousands of dollars to politicians and “Smart Growth” propagandists in order to convince people that attractive, inexpensive homes on modest lots were a good thing.
The craftsman who built our family home on a 4800 sq. ft. city lot, had tools, talent, a credit line at the lumber yard, an apprentice, and a few buddies who did cement work, plumbing, and roofing for cash or trade. He didn’t need fancy architectural drawings since he had already built a dozen similar (but never identical) homes. He sometimes hired subs but there was very little these men couldn’t do on their own if they had to.
Sometimes these experienced craftsmen stuck to basics, and other times they added some spectacularly beautiful “extras” to their “compact homes". They did this because they were talented woodworkers, and in addition to throwing up houses quickly and efficiently, they could do wonderful build-ins, and gorgeous detailing. Many modest homes in my neighborhood had beautiful craftsman style built-ins that can only be had today in high end, custom built homes.
Corporate developers cannot and do not build homes as artfully as individual craftsmen did, but what is worse, they cannot build them nearly as inexpensively. A development corporation by its nature has an enormous amount of overhead and no real incentive to lower prices, because there is nothing resembling genuine competition between corporate home builders.
These well-connected corporations have transformed home-building from a craft to a protected, highly regulated industry, and industrial builders don’t have the time, talent, or inclination to do anything but stamp out cookie cutter models, and cut corners wherever they can. To illustrate the difference between traditional craftsmen homes and modern “urban villages”, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Fake Affordability—Inexpensive Homes vs. “Low Income Housing”
Modern urbanists never tire of talking about “affordable housing” and their push for ever increasing densities is always explained by concerns for “low income households.” But we have already established the fact that modern style “compact neighborhoods” will be built by for-profit corporations who will sell to the highest bidder. And who might that be? Certainly not low income families. In fact, it isn’t even middle income families.
As the following chart shows, the income disparity between working class families and the ultra-wealthy is now so great that investors can outbid working class families for any and all homes in urban areas, and then turn around and rent their "investment properties" to frustrated home-seekers. But better than renting a single family home, is renting a fourplex; hence the push for ever increasing densities, and never-ending subsidies for "low income" renters.
The contrast with traditional urban neighborhoods could not be sharper. The working-class home owner, no matter how modest his hovel, was a freeman. A subsidized, permanent renter, no matter how well appointed his abode, is a serf.
"Smart Growthers" are unwilling to face-up to the real cause of inflated home prices. Sky-rocketing housing and land prices are a direct consequence of laws, subsidies, and tax-rates favorable to the investor class. But instead of addressing the fantastic inequities in property ownership by changing laws and tax-rates that benefit real-estate investors, they promote densification and subsidies, policies that also benefit the investor class. For all practical purposes, "Smart Growth" is in league with the land barons, and they relently promote the idea of "housing options" to divert attention from the real problem: artificially inflated home and land prices. There are no “entry level” housing opportunities for anyone in these so-called “smart cities” and the "smart growthers" don't care.
Fake Community—Permanent Residents vs. Temporary Renters
Another aspect of traditional neighborhoods that modern urbanists strive mightily to reproduce in their planned communities is sociability and a “sense of place”, but developing a sense of attachment to neighbors takes time and permanent connection, things that renters rarely have. The average length of tenancy is 2-3 years, whereas home-owners usually reside in the same location for 6-20 year. That's all the difference in the world in terms of establishing "community."
And even when residents live for long periods in one establishment or are able to purchase a "unit", there are CC&Rs in virtually all newer developments that restrict individual expression among property-owners. The uniformity of “smart growth” planned communities, built and maintained by a single developer could not provide a more powerful contrast to the variety of unique properties in traditional neighborhoods. The building covenants and professionally landscaped common areas impose a corporate, institutional feeling upon neighborhoods, the exact opposite of a “sense of place.”
Fake Progress—Organic Growth vs Planned Economies
The artificiality of "smart growth" communities extends to their commercial districts, which are under even greater threat of predatory investment than residential neighborhoods. The densification of urban districts has transformed almost every traditional business district in “smart cities” into high density, corporate “mixed use” complexes, on land that is now too valuable for independent local businesses to own. Instead of a “Mainstreet” full of independently operated drugstores, hair-dressers, restaurants, realtors, and delis, new urban commercial centers are large, corporate owned complexes, inhabited by chain stores and franchises, run by managers not owners.
The over-riding problem of the "new urbanism" is that their corporate-designed, artificial communities offer very little agency for anyone but wealthy investors and urban planners. Everything about them, from densities, to building design, to rents and CC&Rs, to landscaping and terms of occupancy is decided by agents of “developers” instead of residents; and by anonymous “stakeholders” instead of local business owners.
There is nothing resembling free enterprise in either residential or commercial "planned communities" and little organic growth. "Smart Growth" is monopoly capitalism not free enterprise, and in its treatment of people as interchangeable clients, it is more akin to communism than anything resembling democracy.
Self-government is frankly impossible when "investors" own all the land, all the homes, and all the businesses in a region. No neighborhood structure imposed top down by planners and corporate overlords can possibly be attractive to anyone but the plutocrats they are intended to benefit. "Smart Growth" and the "New Urbanism" are both fake movments, that evince fake concern for a fake affordability crisis, and fake problems with "urban sprawl" in order to justify policies that benefit the already fantastically wealthy "stakeholders". Their communites are fake, their cities are fake, and their arguments are fake. Fake fake fake.
Be smart. Don't fall for the fake promises of "smart growth" advocates.
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