Commentary: The Fallacy of Smart Growth, Part 1

Much community discussion about Smart Growth has been ongoing in the community recently. Absent from the discussion is sustainability. San Francisco can be characterized as a city employing the principals of smart growth. It is a good case study of the sustainability of smart growth over a long period of time.

I had the opportunity to spend time in the city over a period of 25 years through frequent visits. This has given me the opportunity to empirically experience Smart Growth from an outsiders perspective. Also, recently I had the opportunity to discuss Smart Growth with a second generation resident of the city.

His personal experience and insight demonstrates the fallacy of Smart Growth and the ramifications to a city’s future. Don grew up in San Francisco, the son of a longshoremen. He told me, the city is unsustainable. I asked him to elaborate. He told me that his father and mother, and all of their friends now live outside of San Francisco as his childhood home became too expensive for his family to keep. He commutes hours to visit with them. In his experience, as the city implemented Smart Growth principals, it displaced longtime members of the community as the property values increased and they got taxed out of their ability to keep their home. In essence Smart Growth forced them out of their homes.

What about the people who now live in the city’s downtown? According to Don, what is happening is that the 20 and 30 year olds move in full of nostalgia for the notion of a community experience but they soon realize that the “experience” is nothing like the fantasy of it, and they soon move out. “It’s a revolving door, they move in and then move out”.

In other words, Smart Growth does not create a sustainable community, rather it creates a revolving door of transients intent on establishing roots but soon realizing that roots are difficult to establish in a community in constant transition with expenses exceeding their ability to live there, thus making Smart Growth unsustainable over time.

The problem lies in the revolving door. As people move out, new outsiders move in to fill the void. Although this seems like a good scenario for taxing purposes, the problem lies in that as the city grows vertically a larger concentration of people are grouped together leading to more crime and an increase in other community ills. More importantly, rather than increasing the tax base, Smart Growth actually forces citizens to pay more in taxes as the tax base is now fully supported by the concentration of people who have to deal with more crime. At the same time, as crime increases, other sources of tax revenues like gasoline decrease because of a lesser reliance on automobiles leading to higher taxes on the concentrated properties. Thus the revolving door extends from people to higher property taxes in general; an unsustainable cycle.