Wednesday, March 10, 2004
The Chronicle Herald,

Parable of the Noon Gun: What’s urban planning really for?

By Brian Lee Crowley


There’s a famous story about a factory where, every day, a gun was fired from the main administrative building signalling that it was time for lunch. A management consultant asked the man who fired the gun how he knew when it was actually noontime. He said that he was guided by the town clock, visible out his window at the town hall across the road. The consultant went across the road and asked the town manager how he knew his clock gave the right time. “It’s always right by the noon gun” was the reply.

In other words, none of the so-called “experts” actually knew what time it was at all. But they were convinced that because they only listened to each other’s unfounded prejudices they must be right.

This parable is strangely applicable to the HRM and their current campaign against so-called “urban sprawl”. George McLellan, HRM’s top bureaucrat, was busy the other day wagging his finger in the face of the business community, giving them a “reality check” about how things were going to be done in the future. Expect more taxes, fewer services and, above all, a restrictive plan that is going to prevent that nasty sprawl from disfiguring the face of the city. This follows hard on the heels of the HRM’s development moratorium while it puts together a 25 year plan for the region.

Now we’re talking about a policy guaranteed to drive up the price of housing, hurting particularly low income people and visible minorities. It’s also a policy that will damage employment and growth in the economic engine of a province still burdened by 10 percent unemployment.

So the evidence would have to be pretty strong that suburban growth is a dreadful bane. Where is it? Well, other than “experts” repeating to each other their prejudices that “sprawl” is bad, the evidence isn’t there.

Don’t believe me? A recent book, Smarter Growth, states, “more than 30 years of research has failed to find consistent negative impacts of low-density residential and commercial development”.

The authors survey more than 475 studies on urban sprawl, and document the lack of consensus among the authors of these studies about the impacts of low density development and widespread automobile use.

 

The density of some of the most desirable big cities in the world, like Paris and London, has been falling, not rising, for a century.

In the United States, according to urban development expert Wendell Cox, the costs of low density urban and suburban development work out to about $30 per person. On the other hand, the per capita cost of local government has gone up more than ten times that amount over the past 20 years. In other words, local government has grown fat and costly, but “sprawl” is not the cause.

Most of the things that the advocates of “high density” development associate with “sprawl” are worse in high density cities than in low density ones. Housing affordability is worse. Traffic density is worse. Local government costs are higher. In Portland, Oregon, the Mecca of the anti-suburban movement, the residents have just rolled back many growth restrictions by referendum because they were fed up with bossy city officials telling them how to live.

And anyway, land use planning cannot regulate migration into or out of the region; it cannot control business formation, expansion or failure; it doesn’t set interest rates or the movements of the TSE; it does nothing to promote discovery of new offshore gas deposits; and it cannot regulate the birth rate. In fact, most of the factors that influence regional growth rates are beyond the direct control of local governments. But it’s not too hard to drive up the tax burden and housing costs and drive people to more welcoming satellite communities, like Windsor, Chester or Truro.

In a world in which you get your medications without prescription over the Internet, in which you can choose your profession, your mate, your sexual orientation, your reproductive timetable, your music, your religion and your political philosophy, the notion that somebody gets to dictate arbitrarily how big a lot you can have for your house or where you can build, is ludicrous and unnecessary. Yes, make developers and their customers pay the costs of the choices they make and services they consume. That done, there is little reason to second-guess their decisions of where to build and live.

Halifax is poised to enjoy significant growth. There is little that George McLellan and HRM’s hectoring can do to stop it. But they can do damage at the margins, drive investment outside the HRM, force up the cost of housing and lower the quality of life for many, all in the name of a planning philosophy that imposes the aesthetic preferences of a politicized and activist few on the many who just want to be left alone to live as they see fit.

Get your finger out of our face, George, and do something useful, like getting the snow off the streets.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (www.aims.ca), a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: bcrowley@herald.ns.ca