Randal O'Toole's "Dense Thinkers" (January) prompted more reader commentary than usual, so we decided to devote a special section to it. Here are some of the letters, along with O'Toole's response.
"Dense Thinkers" hit the nail on the head. It thoroughly exposed the flawed "New Urbanism" that is being foisted on the Portland, Oregon, metro area. It also sends a powerful warning to other areas where residents have been gulled into thinking Portland is a model to emulate.
Thanks to the efforts of Randal O'Toole, along with John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute, Mel Zucker of the Oregon Transportation Institute, Ted Piccolo of Atlas Oregon, Larry George of Oregonians In Action, and others, more and more people in the Portland area are opposing high densities, rigid urban growth boundaries, ineffective and costly light rail, get-out-of-your-car policies, and loss of quality of life.
Urban residents are now getting a taste of the state-dominated land use planning system that has been victimizing rural Oregonians the last 25 years. The state mandated that 97 percent of all private rural land be zoned for farms and forests, with little or no regard for the suitability of the land for farming or forestry and with no compensation to the landowners who were downzoned.
Thank you so much for the excellent article on Portland, Oregon. I personally am sick of seeing Portland viewed as a model when it is nothing to take pride in.
I am the attorney for the Dane County Towns Association in Dane County, Wisconsin. We have been fighting the same kind of radical, coercive collectivism for years. Recently, we mounted an all-out effort to defeat a new land use and transportation plan proposed by the Dane County Regional Planning Commission which expressly followed the New Urbanism line. We lost, but we succeeded in raising awareness among the small communities in our county. This year, we converted that awareness into action and mobilized these communities to support dissolving the Regional Planning Commission.
Dane County, WI
Randal O'Toole says land use planners who favor high-density cities over suburban sprawl are "Dense Thinkers." He rightly notes that the automobile is central to the post-1945 population shift from cities to suburbs and, more recently, exurbs.
O'Toole implies that the car's ascendancy over other forms of transportation is the natural result of private choices in the market. But the use of cars is heavily subsidized by government. The construction and maintenance of roads is the largest and most obvious way government favors cars. These dollars far exceed those the government spends subsidizing rail, air, and foot transportation.
Also, the costs of cars' pollution are not fully borne by those who do the polluting. This negative externality is another government subsidy for cars over those forms of transportation that pollute less.
The exodus from cities to suburbs is, to a large extent, just another product of the government's social engineering. Why, then, would REASON celebrate it?
Stephen J. Ware
Professor of Law
Cumberland School of Law
Randal O'Toole is right: New Urbanism is as shallow a planning fad as garden suburbs and slum clearance. But it's not entirely wrongheaded. The New Urbanists acknowledge that some of the most pleasant communities we have in our cities were designed in the 18th and 19th centuries without building codes, land use zoning, property setbacks, and all the current paraphernalia of local government controls. I'm thinking of Old Town in Alexandria, Virginia; Georgetown, now probably the highest-value area in the D.C. metro area; Nob Hill in San Francisco; and Greenwich Village in New York City. Government controls have made it impossible for developers today to build on lots as small as those typical in such neighborhoods. The New Urbanists are at least aware of the damage done by current land use and occupancy controls, which prevent the diversity, spontaneity, and flexibility that many people find attractive in these old areas.
Also, our cities' low densities--or "sprawl," as the New Urbanists vilify it--are not entirely the product of people's desires about how they wish to live. Most planning controls specify minimum lot sizes and minimum requirements of other kinds and effectively dictate maximum density levels. Moreover, the politics of local government gives considerable muscle to people protesting townhouses, apartments, and indeed almost any development.