"Not eating chard. That's what all those weirdos eat at their stupid picnics on the Hungry Ghost lawn." -Nina

December 25, 2007

Is Adam Cohen Onto Something?

Community Radio Hour played host to NoPornNorthampton founder, North Street Neighborhood Association point man, and North St. resident Adam Cohen on Sunday evening to talk about his views on Smart Growth, and the proposed condominium development by Douglas Kohl in the woods behind View Ave. An audio file of that show will be available at the CRH blog shortly. Audio file here.

That show, and the material referenced in it that Adam is continually posting to the NorthAssoc.org website, served as the impetus for a follow-up discussion on Smart Growth taking place at the Paradise City Forum Yahoo Group and in emails between Adam Cohen and Mary Serezze, my co-host at CHR.

The discussions are intriguing, and the parties involved raise some valid points. Adam argues that Smart Growth is at times elitist, crime inducing, and helps facilitate the very sprawl it was meant to alleviate, via families looking for and buying larger homes with yards further away from the city center, increasing environmental costs. As well, he argues that mass transit, aside from in major metropolitan areas such as Chicago or New York, is less efficient in energy use and reducing traffic than the private automobile. Others argue he is cheery picking data, quoting out of context, and is trying to further an agenda that will help prevent the aforementioned condo development from being built in his neighborhood as it is now planned. Adam writes in an email to Mary,

I can appreciate that some environments may not lead to the best outcomes for certain people. However, this can be hard to predict in advance. Where I choose to live is an intensely personal choice, and I'd prefer to make my own mistakes in this area, rather than have the government tell me that I must live in a dense neighborhood, or I must live on a 10-acre lot, or in some other particular setting...Laws might have some justification if it were proved that suburban living and detached homes are dramatically less efficient than urban living. However, we have presented evidence to the contrary on NorthAssoc.org.
He then cites reports that lend affirmation to his various claims, and continues,
If you have a vision of Northampton as an EcoVillage, I would be interested to see examples of other towns that have successfully traveled this path. We could then more easily see which elements of those towns might work well in Northampton. If such examples are hard to find, however, or if they map poorly to our city, then I think a high degree of caution and humility is warranted. As we discussed, history is littered with busted utopias and wrecked neighborhoods. With respect to crime, I would welcome factual evidence that smart growth principles reduce crime, or at least don't make it worse. To say that defensible-space measures like cul-de-sacs merely push crime around is speculation. Such an argument could be made against a wide range of crime prevention strategies. I don't think a policy of passivity or indifference about crime will sit well with many people. There were lots of residents at that Hawley Street meeting about the suspicious fires. If citizens want anything from their government, they want it to care about their safety and security.

I see a potential for the Smart Growth debate to become a power struggle between "Hamp" and "Noho". As we cited in Smart Growth Winners (Rich People) and Losers (Other People), many aspects of Smart Growth can be hard on people with less money:
Smart growth is great if you are an upscale professional, preferably without children, who can score a relatively large apartment fairly close to work. It's a lot less fun for the majority trying to cram your family into four or five rooms... Smart growth is great if you can afford to have everything you buy delivered, or are in excellent physical condition with a physically undemanding job; it is not so great if you have to come home from your shift at the nursing home to lug groceries a quarter-mile down the street, and then up three flights of stairs. Smart growth is great if you can afford to eat in the plethora of restaurants; it is not so enjoyable if you have to scrape up an extra 20% for the ingredients in tuna casserole. Smart growth is great if you have a nanny to take the kids to the park during the day; it is not so terrific if you have to choose between wasting several precious hours standing around the playground, or letting your kids languish inside. Smart growth is great if you can afford taxis when you need them; it is not so good if you are forced to take three busses to get somewhere you really need to be. Smart growth is great if your family members are all affluent enough to take care of themselves; it is not so fulfilling when you have to shove your ailing mother into the kids room when her resources fail.

Adam raised some concerns there that are routed in some truth, and he strikes a chord with many. Mary writes him back with arguments made that too are very engaging,
Adam--I share a bit of a libertarian, lower-case L, perspective with you, and am wary of top-down planning solutions imposed by government "experts." But remember that what appears to be free choice is often supported and subsidized by government. The landscape of the detached, suburban home is not entire market-driven. The government has traditionally subsidized car-oriented development through its highway programs, tax structure, and military defense of cheap and plentiful oil.

I don't buy all of the claims made on behalf of "smart growth." To give only one example, (and there are many), Ward 3 resident Paige Bridgens likes to point out that if intensive energy inputs are no longer available to power waste disposal in a post-carbon future, that neighborhoods without land will become public health disasters.

The problem with the fires on Hawley Street is troubling--I am not advocating "passivity" in the face of crime--of course crime must be aggressively fought by local government. But I am not interested in living a fear-based life. Our government fans the flames of fear when it wants to violate our civil rights--witness the Patriot Act. I (and many people and families I know) would rather take our chances and live openly, interacting with all kinds of people in a real town, than hide away in a 100% safe, homogenized, antiseptic cul-de-sac.

As for light rail, of course it is not always the answer. But in certain circumstances, it makes a lot of sense. Passenger rail up and down the Connecticut River could, I believe, be well-used and efficient. A link between Amherst and Northampton might ultimately make life easier and more enjoyable for everyone who has to make that commute. The environmental consequences of building another bridge (or of expanding Exit 19) trump the "convenience" of driving in this case. This will be a decision made by the government, not by individuals. Let us hope it is a wise one.

As for the Hamp v. Noho thing, ask Gene Tacy what he thinks. He's about as "Hamp" as you can get, and he is a strong proponent of building for a sustainable energy future.

I certainly am not a fan of "forcing" families with young children to live in small apartments without yards. This is a bit of a straw-man argument--lots of in-town houses and apartments are spacious and are sited with nice yards. And lots of families want to live in town. Just because in-town housing does not appeal to everyone does not mean that there is not a strong market for it.

Bottom line, this is really all about the Kohl development. I think it is unfortunate that the language of "smart growth" and "new urbanism" is being used to help a well-connected developer tear up a section of woods and build 30 condos. I would rather examine the Kohl development on its own merits than try to discredit policies which may actually hold some real value.
And over at the PCF, David Kutcher adds a comment in response to a post about the topic, writing,
While it's true that libertarianism is against government planning and anti-free-market initiatives, it also believes in one principle that is very "smart growth", namely that those who use greater resources must pay more and not rely on subsidies. For example, a developer that builds in outlying areas would need to pay more to run services to the development and receive services from the City, or one that builds houses with an expanded footprint would need to compensate the community for this development as they are "taking by force resources of the community beyond their fair share". You pay extra to take more than your fair share as opposed to being compensated by the government for "doing the right thing".
David notes that this article at Planetizen says it better than he could. Others have also added their thoughts, and as you can see the discussion is very informative and engaging. In the end, Adam acknowledges a point made that the data he picks unfairly illuminates only failed attempts at Smart Growth, and raises a very valid question in response:

"You acknowledge that we have provided examples of failed attempts at Smart Growth. The question then becomes, why did they fail, and how can Northampton avoid this fate?"

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