Is "Smart Growth" the Ultimate Oxymoron?

Growth may increase efficiency, productivity and abundance, but population growth and the development and infrastructure needed to accommodate it often detract from quality of life. Have we passed the point where the marginal benefits of growth outweigh the marginal costs?

Many people are now troubled by the United States' building and development boom, and the resulting loss of farmland. Loss of productive farmland and habitat for wild species are widely recognized problems. Population growth is the underlying cause of these problems and others, including urban sprawl, growing energy consumption, social alienation, urban decay, lack of affordable housing, an increase in the number of people without healthcare insurance, and many more. "Smart Growth" has been billed as the solution to our environmental problems.

But is it?

Smart Growth, the Sierra Club, and the National Association of Home Builders

The Sierra Club and the National Association of Home Builders, two organizations with ostensibly very different goals, both use "Smart Growth" as the buzz word to support their positions. Both organizations use the term in somewhat different ways, but in at least one important respect the meaning they attach to it is virtually identical.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) defines Smart Growth as "employing ... innovative land- use planning concepts" and finding "smarter ways to higher densities" (emphasis added). NAHB's Statement of Policy on Smart Growth defines Smart Growth as growth that meets "the underlying demand for housing created by an ever- increasing population and prosperous economy by building a political consensus and employing market- sensitive and innovative land- use planning concepts."

The Sierra Club declares that "smart growth is intelligent, well-planned development that channels growth into existing areas, provides public transportation options, and preserves farmland and open space" (emphasis added). It is important to note that the Sierra Club's goal of "channel[ing] growth into existing areas" inevitably results in higher densities, exactly what the NAHB espouses.

The Sierra Club's stated goal is to preserve open spaces by encouraging higher density living and building on vacant or abandoned lots called brownfields rather than invading areas outside of already established towns. Among many claimed benefits, higher density living is supposed to encourage the use of public transportation, thus requiring less energy consumption per capita and providing more pedestrian- friendly towns. It is claimed that this will in turn help to alleviate some of the isolation felt by modern city-dwellers while preserving open space -- laudable goals.

Although the goal of making communities more "livable" is important, neither the Sierra Club's nor the NAHB's concept of "Smart Growth" addresses the fundamental question: Is higher density living environmentally friendly, or sustainable, in the long-run? To answer this question, we must apply the concept of carrying capacity to the Sierra Club's and NAHB's conception of Smart Growth.

Carrying Capacity and Our Ecological Footprint

"Carrying capacity" refers to the number of individuals who can be supported in a given area, within natural resource limits, and without degrading the natural, social, cultural, and economic environment for present and future generations. The carrying capacity for any given area is not fixed. It can be altered by improved technology, but often it is changed for the worse by the pressures which accompany a population increase.

As the environment is degraded, carrying capacity actually shrinks, leaving the environment unable to support even the number of people who could have formerly lived in the area on a sustainable basis. This means that no population can exceed the environment's carrying capacity for very long.

Another way of thinking about carrying capacity is to consider the average American's "ecological footprint." This footprint comprises the demands each individual's consumption puts on the land, water, food, energy, waste assimilation and disposal capacity of the environment. The average American footprint is calculated to be about 12 acres, an area far greater than that taken up by one's residence and place of school or work (considered all together). The footprint, in other words, includes use of the environment from which resources and consumable goods are imported and into which pollutants are discharged.

Crowding a person's living space does little to change their ecological footprint. Indeed, it often increases one's ecological footprint because higher density living frequently increases per capita energy use.

It is easy to see that unfettered population growth drastically affects the carrying capacity. In fact, the current population of the U.S. uses carrying capacity that is outside of the United States. While carrying capacity factorscan be imported, worldwide the energy and topsoil used to grow food are still being depleted. Importing and exporting will not solve the problem. We must recognize that there are limits everywhere.

"Carrying capacity," not land area, is the criterion for determining whether a policy like "smart growth" is ultimately tenable.

The Unpleasant Surprise of Exponential Growth

Many people hear that the U.S. population is growing by 1.1% annually and think that this is of no concern. But any country whose population is increasing by "only" 1% per year will double in size in 70 years! A small number of doublings produces a large number of people very quickly.

To find the doubling time of a population at any given annual rate of growth, divide 70 by the annual percentage growth rate (in this case 1.1%). Current trends are as follows:

(D = doubling time)

(P = annual percentage growth rate)

D=70/ P

If P=1.1%, then D = 70 __

1.1 = 63.63 years!

Within 65 years! Within your lifetime, or your own children's probable lifetime!

Even the smallest fraction of steady growth leads eventually to doubling and redoubling. As illustrated by the parable of a king's wise man who asks the king "only" for grains of wheat to be doubled when placed on each successive square of a chessboard -- one grain on the first square, double on the second, double again on the third, and so forth -- exponential growth "starts slow and finishes fast." The wise man ended up being owed more wheat than the kingdom produced.

The U.S. has become one of the fastest growing countries in the industrialized world. We won World War II with a population of 135 million. Between 1950 and 2000, we grew from 150 million to 278 million. If we continue 1.1% annual growth the U.S.A. will approximately double its population size to about 500 million by 2050.

Likewise, it took until 1950 for the world population to reach 2.5 billion. Since then, it has doubled once, reaching 5 billion in 1987. Consider that the world grew by 2.5 billion in those 38 years -- an amount equal to all previous population growth in all of human history!

If current trends continue, the U.S. population growth will more than overwhelm this country's own carrying capacity and will increasingly -- as long as we have dollars -- impel us to import carrying capacity (e.g. oil and other raw materials) from elsewhere. On a daily basis, the U.S. imports $1 billion more in goods and services than it exports! Although trade creates jobs overseas, it also is true that imports of carrying capacity factors into the U.S.A. may be seen someday as an intolerable price.

The Population Carrying Capacity of the United States

Consider the long-term carrying capacity of the U.S.: a study by Dr. David Pimentel, a Cornell University Agricultural Sciences Professor, entitled "Food, Land, Population and the U.S. Economy," found that, annually, in the United States: more than 2 million acres of prime cropland are lost to erosion, salinization, and water-logging; after a century of over- intensive farming, half of Iowa's fertile topsoil has been lost; every year, more than half a million acres are lost from cultivation as urbanization, transportation networks, and industries spread over the nation's croplands; each year, we pave over or convert to developed uses an area of land equal to the size of Delaware; we are depleting water from our aquifers, on average, 25% faster than it is being replaced.

In sum, the United States has exceeded its long-term carrying capacity already.

Dr. Pimentel's calculations have sobering implications for the future. If present trends continue, the doubling of our population will reduce the arable land base by over 50% by 2050. By 2030, food exports would thus also cease as we would need to consume everything we produce. The $40 billion we currently earn from food exports would end, making it more difficult to pay for needed imports, including oil. Domestic food prices would rise by 300-500%, by Dr. Pimentel's estimate. Even if water management is substantially improved, the over 500 million Americans of 2050 will have only 700 gallons/day/capita, considered a minimum for all human needs. This assumes even distribution, which is not likely because much of our population and agricultural production is in arid and semi- arid regions. Approaching 2050, most of the oil and natural gas in the United States will be exhausted and world supplies will be ever closer to depletion. By Dr. Pimentel's estimates, in order to maintain a relatively high standard of living, the population of the U.S. should be 200 million or less.

Considered through the lens of carrying capacity, it is clear that high- density living, which the "Smart Growth" proponents advocate, is not a solution to the problems of environmental devastation. More people living closer together simply demand more resources from areas in which they do not live. High density living does nothing to stop the pressure to "overshoot" carrying capacity. Moreover, city living tends to separate people from a sense of natural limits. This distance between city living and ecological reality makes it easier for urbanites to forget that there is an environmental impact to almost every human action, and, therefore, to every additional human being.

The carrying capacity concept indicates that there is an optimal population size and also a maximum limit to the number of people who can be supported in a given land area without degrading the environment. Regardless of how tightly-packed within (or "sprawled" outside of) an urban area people choose to live, any city can survive only by the constant importation of resources and exportation of wastes -- increasing numbers of people require increasing inputs and generate increasing outputs.

Merely concentrating humans and their built environment in higher densities cannot compensate for the fact that an ever-increasing number of people ultimately requires an ever- increasing amount of resources, pollution absorption capacity, waste management facilities, infrastructure, and arable land and/or energy inputs. The view that high-density human settlement protects wilderness or farmland or open space, in the long run, is illusory -- these lands are increasingly stressed by the demands of burgeoning populations in "high- density" areas. Long-term solutions require adoption of policies that will result in U.S. population stabilization. The reality of urban-living does not match the ideals of New Urbanism. The contemporary reality of high- density living is, unfortunately, skyscrapers, crime, crowding and pollution.

Thus, in the long-run, Smart Growth alone will not provide for sustainable communities. When in-fill projects run out of space and high- density development reaches capacity, sprawl will resume unless population growth stops. Smart Growth is counterproductive; it tries to make overcrowding seem not only more pleasant, but also the ethically more responsible choice, while ignoring the reality that more people use and over- use natural resources, whether they are physically located inside or outside the higher density area.

Land-use management, in general, and Smart Growth specifically, only slows the pace of sprawl, spreading congestion and the loss of open space. Without population stabilization, slowing the pace of sprawl through high-density living is not a solution and it obscures the need for a solution. In light of the carrying capacity criteria, population stabilization is the only solution.

Bottom line:

Sustainable population growth in a world with finite resources and land area is an oxymoron; no possibility of such "Smart Growth" exists. In light of this, a number of purported truths regarding growth are, in fact, myths.

Populaton Growth Myths

Myth: Population Growth is a Net Revenue Enhancer

The first myth is that population growth provides new tax revenues that will decrease the burden on existing property owners. Empirical studies quickly put this myth to rest. Carrying Capacity Network's report "Beyond Sprawl: The Cost of Population Growth to Local Communities" concluded that, nationally, the addition of one person to a community costs current residents in that locality an average of $15,378. This sum is the cost of providing added infrastructure and services so that the per capita access to amenities is not diluted by growth. According to Eben Fodor, in his bookBetter Not Bigger: How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community, existing property owners' property taxes usually increase as a result of new development, and the largest tax increases are usually felt in those communities with the most rapid population growth.

Myth: Growth is a Necessary Job Generator

In addressing the myth that growth is necessary to provide jobs for residents of the community, Fodor cites national research that found no statistical relationship between a city's growth rate and its unemployment rate across 25 of the nation's fastest and slowest growing cities.

Myth: Controlled Growth Causes Higher Costs

Fodor concludes from a research survey that in some growth-control cities, housing is more affordable than in comparable cities experiencing fast growth.

The Cause of Population Growth in the United States

But where does all this growth come from? Immigration and the children of recent immigrants currently account for about 70% of U.S. population growth. The other 30% comes from the "demographic momentum" generated by "baby boom" mothers now having children. Of this 70%, over two-thirds is caused by legal immigrants and their offspring, and the remaining one-third from illegal aliens and their offspring. Although, initially, most immigrants do not consume as much as Americans, they soon adopt American consumption patterns. The Executive Director of the Sierra Club, Carl Pope, has conceded as much. In a 1994 interview on National Public Radio, he commented on the long- term environmental implications of mass immigration:

"In the short-term, it is undoubtedly true that immigrants have a relatively modest impact on pollution levels and environmental degradation, because they are not able to yet consume the way the rest of Californians do. But I think we have to be realistic, people do not come from most other countries to the United States to live the way they lived in those other countries."

The Solution for the U.S. Population Growth Crisis

In order to provide future generations with adequate natural resources and a tolerable quality of life, we should aim to reduce our consumption to sustainable levels. Per capita consumption reduction is not enough to provide for sustainability if the population continues to grow. To prevent our population from ballooning we must address the 70% (and this percentage is rapidly increasing!) of our population growth caused by mass immigration. Carrying Capacity Network advocates an immigration moratorium on all immigration in excess of 100,000 per year.

What You Can Do:

At the local level, you can help pass an immigration moratorium resolution in civic groups, city councils, etc., just as the City Council of Aspen, Colorado, did in 1999. Local activism is key because grassroots action at the local level is instrumental in activating change in public policy. At the same time as advocating a moratorium, we should oppose government policies that encourage sprawl, such as subsidies for road development.

Remember that population stabilization does not imply stagnation. Communities can continue to maturation by improving themselves and responding to the changing needs of their citizens. Professional planners are an important part of this development. The American Planning Association (APA) has called unsustainability "a far-reaching issue that extends well beyond the realm of today's urban and regional planner," which suggests openness to searching for real solutions. The APA further recommends future-oriented planning practices that recognize "environmental limits to human development." Planners recognize the limitations of Smart Growth. Politicians, the NAHB, and the Sierra Club need to recognize this as well. Sensible and voluntary limits that further the interest of citizens in maintaining a high quality of life could be determined for a locality or region much the same way William E. Rees and Mathis Wackernagel estimated the ecological footprint for Vancouver, B.C. If communities will push for an immigration moratorium as a logical necessity that follows from estimating their "ecological footprint," we will be taking a giant step toward sustainability. So prepared, activists can work more effectively to stop local growth.

Donate as generously as you can to CCN so we can intensify our efforts, achieve an immigration moratorium, and provide the United States with a sustainable future for our families, our communities, and our nation.

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