Jill Stewart is the campaign director for the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, a Los Angeles measure proposed for the March 2017 ballot that would essentially freeze new development in the region. It’s fundamentally a NIMBY campaign in response to the region’s haphazard planning and entitlement process.
The Planning Report recently interviewed Stewart, in which she badly misstates urban theory (and evidence) on smart growth:
In a TPR interview in February, you said: “I have not been impressed by the new urban theory that very dense development through neighborhoods near bus stops, and so on, is going to reduce congestion. In fact, we’ve seen the opposite.” Is that assertion consistent with what you learned campaigning for NII?
Absolutely. I think most people are realizing that it is another failed urban theory put together by academics that have zero proof that it works.
The new mantra in every big city feels the same, essentially being: “We are all going to change the way we live.” I’m from Seattle, and I was there for a recent vacation. My Seattle friends and I were dreaming about a more intelligent way to go if we weren’t caught up in the urban planning religion that has gripped so many people. It’s comforting that a majority of residents are not gripped by this mantra. They do not buy into it.
When I discussed with my friends, we talked about how people are going to start working at home more. People are also starting to take Uber and Lyft more. It is a completely different world that is not built around fixed rail lines and coming into a big city center to work. The big city center is very 1980s or 1990s.
We came up with a way to resolve this: by rewarding the way people really behave. As more people work at home and stay off the roads, they should get a massive tax rebate, as long as they can prove it. Staying off the streets and not using the infrastructure should be rewarded. Often, the city of LA adds taxes to people who work from home. That’s backwards.
The urban planners are stuck in a different world. They are saying that everyone needs to move close together and cram their children into places where there is nowhere to play. The theory that people enjoy living around the noise and congestion is wrong, and we need to respond to how people really live.
Where to begin? First, I’ve yet to meet any urban planner who says that everyone “needs” to move into compact, transit-friendly neighborhoods. Rather, the argument is that we don’t have enough of these neighborhoods, at least at affordable prices, to even give people the option of living there, if they seek a lifestyle that is not car dependent. Los Angeles certainly provides plenty of options for suburban-style living, but not so much for low-crime, walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods. And when the region does provide those options, the demand is through the roof, leading to high rents and home prices that keep out all but the wealthiest.
Second, the urban theory of smart growth has never been about “reducing congestion.” With growth comes some congestion, but growth in the right places means people have the option to drive less and therefore spend less time stuck in traffic. So the theory is really about reducing per capita driving miles.
And there’s plenty of evidence this works. Just look at any map of greenhouse gas emissions per capita, which is largely a function of vehicle miles traveled: it’s always lowest in compact urban centers near transit. People in these areas don’t need to spend much time in traffic, if at all.
But ultimately, if you’re simply anti-growth — or anti-growth anywhere near you — then none of this information really matters. But if you care about housing affordability, the environment, and creating better, more connected and convenient neighborhoods, then it’s important to get the facts straight.