Thursday, January 5, 2012

Is sustainability for Commies?

Here's something I keep wondering: If you drew a Venn diagram with one circle being people who say they believe free markets need little intervention and that government has no business telling people what to do with their property, and another circle being people who think there's a liberal conspiracy to force apartment buildings and stores into suburban residential neighborhoods now restricted to single-family houses on large lots, how big would be the part of the Venn diagram where the two sets overlap?

My guess: Huge.

Somehow some people have gotten the idea that land in a city (and suburbs) would, if left to the natural laws of economics, shape itself into quarter-acre and half-acre lots with one house sitting in the middle. They don't seem to get it: Valuable land, without zoning restrictions, would attract higher income-producing uses. Apartment buildings. Stores. Office towers. It's government intervention that is keeping all those high-priced neighborhoods near Charlotte's SouthPark mall as single-family homes. Large-lot subdivisions are often built in times and places where that's considered the highest and best use (to use real estate speak) of the dirt. But as cities evolve, a lot of those neighborhoods hold land that becomes more valuable for other uses. Examples: Myers Park, Dilworth, Elizabeth, Barclay Downs. Keeping those valuable areas zoned for single-family residential may or may not be wise public policy that's a debate for another day but it's clearly not letting the free market have its way. So why have some parts of the tin-foil cap crowd decided that efforts to build more high-density neighborhoods, i.e. "sustainable development," is a global socialist plot using a U.N. policy called Agenda 21 to co-opt municipal governments all over America?

Think about it: Wouldn't big-government socialists be the ones wanting regulations to override private ownership, via single-family-housing zoning?

It's part of a larger mystery.

Why did preserving the environment come to be seen as "liberal" instead of just, well, smart? Seems to me the liberal-conservative battles ought to be fought over the best methods with which to ensure resources aren't depleted and water and air remain clean. After all, those things are important necessities for human life, not to mention long-term local and national economic health. Some would argue government regulations are the best method. Others would argue that regulations don't work, or aren't enforced, or that a private market approach works better, as in cap-and-trade programs. But why would anyone argue that to be a true conservative you shouldn't care about the environment?
After all, the environmental movement has had plenty of Republican champions, including President Richard Nixon. Former N.C. Govs. Jim Martin and Jim Holshouser and Charlotte's long-time U.S. Rep. Alex McMillan are all Republicans who understood the importance of conserving land and using government to try to ensure clean air and water.

Indeed, after Republican City Council member Edwin Peacock III, who chaired the council's Environment Committee, lost his seat in November, I called longtime Charlotte environmental activist Rick Roti to get his sense of Peacock's role. "He has been, especially for a Republican, a more balanced leader," Roti said. Understand, Roti doesn't just blindly compliment politicians. He has served on multiple stakeholder committees, chaired the Charlotte Tree Advisory Commission and is now president of the nonprofit Charlotte Public Tree Fund. He has seen the sausage being made, from up close, and probably has psychic scars to prove it.

So what I'm about to say probably betrays my own inadvertent stereotyping. Out of routine, I asked Roti what party he was in. "Republican," he said. "People are often surprised when I tell them that." Uh, yep.

He favors Republican financial policies, he said. "When it comes to the environment, they're [the Republican party] not where where they need to be."
What does this have to do with sustainable development and Agenda 21? Only this: One of the key goals underpinning advocacy of sustainable development is to improve and protect the environment by helping people live in ways that use less energy: Less driving, more walking and bicycling and transit. Living closer together, to save building energy and make transit easier (see the part about less driving). Of course, one hugely important reason to do this, in addition to saving a lot of money and energy, is to try to combat human-caused global climate change. But for some reason, that, too, has become a red-blue litmus test. If you believe the world's climate scientists, you must be a liberal elitist.

Again, it seems to me the liberals and conservatives ought to be arguing over what's the best way to fight climate change, not about whether it exists.

Here's a final thought about the relationship between sustainable development, and policies, and politics. It's in an op-ed in the Boston Globe, "A frugal answer to zoning pitfalls, needlessly slashed,"  in which Paul McMorrow, an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine, writes about the congressional move to de-fund an Obama initiative, the Sustainable Communities program. Lodged in Housing and Urban Development, the program was trying to get multiple federal agencies EPA, HUD and the Department of Transportation to work more efficiently together and to promote policies to curb sprawling development. (Clarification, 1/6/12: I consulted with officials in the HUD Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, which coordinates federal policy with DOT and the EPA. They say the office remains very much alive, as is the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, the collaboration among the three agencies. What lost funding is the grants program, which in 2011 awarded a $5 million regional planning grant to the Charlotte region, among $96 million in regional planning and community challenge grants around the country.)
McMorrow notes that sprawl is fiscally wasteful for governments: "If we’re going to build new homes and businesses anyway, we should at least construct them in a way that’s not deliberately wasteful," he writes. "This wastefulness applies to the open space that sprawl consumes, as well as the enormous cost of developing and maintaining the infrastructure serving new suburbs and exurbs."


Hickner said...


Seriously, though, your last paragraph, on fiscal wastefulness, brings to mind a post you may have seen by Aaron Renn:

Mary Newsom said...

Hickner, thanks for the link. I hadn't seen that post, though I've seen others that make similar points.

I loved this comment on the Renn piece, from someone calling himeself/herself Jarrett:

"There is, however, an underlying problem with greenfield development. Agricultural land next to cities will always be worth more if zoned for development. The illusory cheapness of greenfields, as distinct from brownfields or infill, generates a preference for infrastructure-intensive growth that overburdens the government’s resources, as Aaron notes. If greenfield sites were more accurately priced to reflect all these impacts, less of it would be developed.

So government controls on greenfield development are needed as a basic act of fiscal self preservation. That’s the core message of Aaron’s post to me. Growth management should be a conservative project."

Anonymous said...

Yup. Folks are for regulation of things they don't like, like abbaoirs, but against regulation of things they like. Pick up the trash, but don't put it down.

Anonymous said...

The notion of a free market is laughable and quaint and without top to bottom campaign finance reform the system stays like it is- bought, paid for and end of story.

Anonymous said...

Making environmental advocacy a political issue is a uniquely American phenomenon. I once taught a course on sustainble design that had two internationsl students in it. Near the end of the course during a group discussion, they finally felt comfortable enough to challenge "us Americans" on this issue. I teach my students to avoid the use of the words "green" and now even "sustainable" in favor of terms like "high performance" and "optimally designed" because of the negative connotations evoked by use of the former terms. If I could have 30 minutes in a room with people of any political persuasion and psychological scema, I think I could make the case for sustainable design objectives. The case is based on numbers -- population growth and resource use -- and not on opinion. As you say, it is only how we go about confronting these numbers that should be up for discussion. Thanks for a great column.

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