Monday, July 21, 2008

In between the bright lights and the far unlight unknown

Since the beginning of their existence liberals have yearned to destroy the suburbs. The idea of people freely choosing to live in safe, spacey neighborhoods in homes with trees, yards, and (gulp) driveways is an affront to much of what they hold dear.

For the most part, they haven't been able to come out and say this directly of course. Instead, they've couched their plans in seemingly innocent terms like "smart growth" and "sustainability." But no matter what the wording, the end goal has always been to limit people's freedoms to decide for themselves what kind of community they would like to live in. Much better to have the "experts" in planning and government decide for them where they should reside.

Now, as Joel Kotkin related in Saturday's WSJ, in California the planner class--in the form of Attorney General Jerry Brown-- has latched onto global warming as the latest excuse to drive this suburb destroying agenda forward:

In the meantime, Mr. Brown is taking aim at the suburbs, concerned about the alleged environmental damage they cause. He sees suburban houses as inefficient users of energy. He sees suburban commuters clogging the roads as wasting precious fossil fuel. And, mostly, he sees wisdom in an intricately thought-out plan to compel residents to move to city centers or, at least, to high-density developments clustered near mass transit lines.

Mr. Brown is not above using coercion to create the demographic patterns he wants. In recent months, he has threatened to file suit against municipalities that shun high-density housing in favor of building new suburban singe-family homes, on the grounds that they will pollute the environment. He is also backing controversial legislation -- Senate bill 375 -- moving through the state legislature that would restrict state highway funds to communities that refuse to adopt "smart growth" development plans. "We have to get the people from the suburbs to start coming back" to the cities, Mr. Brown told planning experts in March.

Because he knows better and he's not above using the full force of the government to make it happen. Whether the people want to or not isn't his concern.

The problem is, that's not what Californians want. For two generations, residents have been moving to the suburbs. They are attracted to the prospect, although not always the reality, of good schools, low crime rates and the chance to buy a home. A 2002 Public Policy Institute of California poll found that 80% of Californians prefer single-family homes over apartment living. And, even as the state's traffic jams are legendary, it is not always true that residents clog roads to commute to jobs in downtown Los Angeles or other cities.

Neither is whether these plans would actually help reduce global warming.

Ali Modarres, associate director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University Los Angeles, believes the density-first approach is ill-suited for areas like L.A. County, where most residents and jobs are dispersed among subregional "nodes." Research by Mr. Modarres, co-author of the powerful book "City and Environment," demonstrates that people living in nodes -- Pasadena, Torrance, Burbank and Irvine -- often enjoy considerably shorter average commutes than do a lot of inner-city residents. Many of these people commute through tangled traffic to get to jobs on the periphery.

"I have no problem trying to find solutions on global warming," Mr. Modarres told me, "but I doubt these kinds of solutions are going to do anything. The whole notion that through physical planning you can get a lot of people to abandon their cars is pretty iffy."

Mr. Modarres also points out that forcing developers to build near transit lines, a strategy favored by "smart-growth advocates," does not mean residents will actually take the train or bus. A survey conducted last year by the Los Angeles Times of "transit oriented development" found that "only a small fraction of residents shunned their cars during rush hour."

There is also little punch behind the science used to justify the drive to resettling the cities -- and plenty of power behind the argument that suburbs are better for Mother Earth. Several prominent scholars -- including University of Maryland atmospheric scientist Konstanin Vinnikov, University of Georgia meterologist J. Marshall Shepard and Brookings Institution research analyst Andrea Sarzynski -- have found there is little evidence linking suburbanization to global warming, pointing out that density itself can produce increased auto congestion and pollution.

The antisuburbanites also ignore evidence that packing people together in cities produces "heat islands." Temperatures in downtown Los Angeles sometimes reach as much as three degrees centigrade higher than outlying areas. Recent studies in Australia have shown that multistoried housing generates higher carbon emissions than either townhomes or single-family residences because of the energy consumed by common areas, elevators and parking structures, as well as the lack of tree cover.

None of this matters because the real goal of all this has little or nothing to do with global warming. It's about telling you where you can and can't live. What you can and can't drive (if you're allowed to drive at all). What you can and can't eat and drink. Where you can and can't smoke (pretty much everywhere now). How much you can heat and cool your home. Etc, etc.

Oh and by the way, these rules only apply to the people not the planners.

A report by the Los Angeles Weekly's Dave Zahniser -- entitled "Do as We Say, Not as We Do" -- found that a lot of prominent "smart growth" advocates in Los Angeles live in large single-family homes, some of them long hikes from mass transit. Mr. Brown himself, not long ago, moved from a loft in crime-ridden downtown Oakland to a bucolic setting in the Oakland Hills.

What, you don't expect HIM to live in the city do you?

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