Dumb Growth

Last year, when the Tennessee legislature passed the Urban Growth Policy Act--nicknamed the "smart growth" law, after the most recent fad in city planning--it didn't want to leave anything to chance. So it required every city and county in the state to come up with a 20-year growth plan by 2001. The lawmakers assumed that, given the right data, planners could discern local growth needs over the next two decades and guide development in "smart" directions.

The cracks in that scheme are already beginning to show: It turns out that the data are hardly as clear or simple as the legislature apparently assumed. Planners in Hamilton County, for instance, have received figures projecting high population growth in Chattanooga. That may well happen, but at the moment the city's population is actually shrinking. The small towns and unincorporated zones around the city, by contrast, are supposed to grow at a rate much lower than they're currently seeing.

The researchers responsible for the data--a team of figure sorters at the University of Tennessee's Center for Business and Economic Research--have some reasonable-sounding explanations for their projections. It's possible, they suggest, that a suburb that's expanding relatively quickly now will reach a plateau well before 2020.

But that's only one interpretation of the data, Hamilton County Executive Claude Ramsey told the Chattanooga Times and Free Press that the numbers "don't make much sense." Another critic, Collegedale Town Manager Bill Magoon, used a blunter word to describe the projections: "crazy."

One important factor in how the area develops, of course, will be the growth plan itself: County planners may not know what will happen over the next 20 years, but the decisions they make now will surely have an effect. If they declare that growth will be concentrated in Chattanooga, they'll put more infrastructure in the city and less outside of it. They'll also let the city annex more land.

That would suit the Chattanooga municipal government, which has an obvious interest in steering development toward the city. (The same city has spent the last year trying to take over its local water company, another useful tool if you want to direct growth.) It would also suit whichever developers are closest to the local government: With planners making decisions that will render some land very valuable and other land essentially undevelopable, it helps to be on the inside track.

In other words, planners can be swayed by local interests, and planners' data aren't always clear. Here's hoping some wise Tennesseans will bury the city's plan in a time capsule, retrieve it 20 years later, and compare it to what actually transpired over the two decades just passed. If anyone's still talking about "smart growth" in 2020, the contrast just might smarten them up.

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