Office of Smart Growth on the Chopping Block

Yesterday, in a legislative session, the House Appropriations Committee voted in favor of eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Smart Growth.  This is not at all surprising to me, and I’m kind of left wondering why it took them so long to take this political step.  Make no mistake: it is a purely political vote.  If the goal of Republicans is to get the economy moving, chucking a government agency that seeks to help cities do that most efficiently is the wrong way to do it.  But since it’s the EPA, apparently anything is worth cutting.

Some of my readers may be wondering what Smart Growth is.  Smart Growth refers to a group of practical and time-tested policies and best practices that are based on a philosophy of sustainable urban growth, economic development, and effective governance.  Smart Growth promotes urban and suburban densities and mixes of land-uses that make it possible for residents to walk, bike, or take public transportation to accomplish at least some of their daily activities, such as grocery shopping or banking.  In other words, Smart Growth promotes greater transportation choices. Smart Growth advocates for better efficiency in tax-payer financed government services – such as transportation planning, water treatment facilities, and public health assets – by reducing parochialism and addressing these regional issues on a regional level.  Smart Growth asserts that local economies can be more vibrant if locally-owned and operated businesses are given priority over chain and big box stores, because a much greater portion of the profits produced by local commerce gets invested right back into the community.  Smart Growth contends that “growth,” often maligned by hardcore environmentalists, is actually good, as long as it is done intelligently and efficiently.

Now, before my conservative friends crucify me for blindly supporting a government program, let me assure you that I’m not a purist on this.  Smart Growth advocates tend to be a little overly optimistic about the practicality of some of their plans.  Some would say they are nostalgic for the past when communities worked.  I think they are right to do so in that their goals involve getting us back to a point where communities were healthy and vibrant, but some of them have not quite stepped into the realities of the 21st century.  For instance, Smart Growth contends that historic preservation is pivotal to the success and revitalization of older cities.  I agree, but this can be taken too far.  I recently attended a meeting ofSalt Lake City’s Historic Landmark Commission, where the committee voted against allowing a low-income home owner to install more up-to-date and energy-efficient windows on non-visible side of her home.  Why?  Because it would compromise the historic integrity of the structure?  Sorry, but that’s a bunch of crap!  As summers get hotter and winters colder, as seems to be the trend (whether human-caused or not), we’ll see if anyone can afford to pay the utility bills of those outdated, historic homes.

Additionally, I am not wild about the Office of Smart Growth being housed at the EPA.  Sure, there is a big connection there between efficient growth, effective governance, and environmental responsibility; but the main point is about development, and that’s where the focus should be in a struggling economy.  I would support the defunding of EPA’s Office of Smart Growth as long as it is restored to relocate it to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  That is where the office, in my mind, is most appropriate and can be most effective.

But, for some reason, I have my doubts that this is the plan that the House has in mind.  The ideological bias against any environmental regulations is insanely high right now on the Republican side of the isle.  The idea is that if we could only stop worrying about human health and environmental quality, then we could get our economy going for sure!  It’s pretty shortsighted.  I somehow doubt that we can sustain an economy without a healthy labor force and quality natural resources, but that’s just me.

It’s pretty much the same with Smart Growth.  It is not as widely known as the EPA, so it is not as widely maligned; but it is easily seen as just another example of the overreach of local, state, and national government.  I have a hard time buying this as an argument, though.  We are constantly bombarded with government plans to build more and wider roads and freeways, not to mention allowing wealth-sucking big box stores to blow away the local competition.  We don’t complain about these government plans.  We don’t see these attempts at social and economic engineering as government overreach.  Why not? 

Because the uncomfortable truth is that we like government interference in some cases (freeway expansion, keeping certain developments out of our neighborhoods, preventing gay marriage, helping us save for and get medical care in retirement, etc.) and react against it in others.  Unfortunately, Smart Growth is just different enough from our realm of accepted government-supported life that conservatives see it as a European socialistic threat.  Am I way off-base here?

If you are concerned about this, please contact your Congressional representative and tell them to vote to keep the Office of Smart Growth.  It is pretty clear the House will vote to eliminate it, but who knows what the Senate will do.  Unless I don’t know who Barack Obama is anymore (entirely possible these days), I think both chambers will need a 2/3rds vote to override his veto if it gets that far.  But in these insane political times, you never know what’s going to happen.