The Big Myths About Growth
Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. - Edward Abbey
The issue of urban growth is permeated with stereotyping, platitudes, clichés, rhetoric questionable assumptions and outright myths. Statements such as "we have to grow or die", or "we have to grow to get new tax revenue" are repeatedly made to justify growth. They are often proffered as conventional wisdom and usually made in an unqualified manner with no supporting evidence.
We hear that same rhetoric repeated at public hearings, neighborhood meetings, town halls, city council meetings, planning commission meetings and right on up the ladder to the decision makers all across the country.
We are urged to make concessions, and sacrifices for development to gain alleged benefits such as new jobs, a bigger tax base, or some vague promise of economic prosperity. We are told that slowing growth would be disastrous and that even if we wanted to slow growth, it would be impossible.
But where is the analysis that give people the confidence to make such claims? When such rhetoric is accepted and not questioned, it results in many poor public policies that fail to serve the greater public welfare. It is important to get beyond the rhetoric in order to base local discussion and decisions on more substantive and objective information.
The solution to such rhetoric is incredibly simple: get better information! Then you may be able to challenge what has essentially become the mythology that surrounds urban growth.
The biggest myths are about taxes, jobs, economic prosperity and housing.
Growth provides needed tax revenues.
Reality Check: Growth tends to raise local tax rates. The direct and indirect costs of urban growth place new and greater demands on local resources and divert money away from other important public services. According to empirical data, it is unlikely that becoming a larger town or city will reduce our tax burden.
We have to grow to provide jobs for people in the community:
Reality Check: We can’t grow our way out of local employment problems. Growth just makes the problem bigger. This is a key ideological prop for the growth machine. This claim is aggressively promulgated by developers, bankers and Chamber of Commerce Officials. The real question is not whether growth creates jobs, but whether it reduces local unemployment.
We must stimulate and subsidize business growth to have good jobs.
Reality Check: Traditional economic development programs are often little more than corporate subsidies that act to fuel growth. Taxpayer money is wasted and few public benefits can be shown. This is a variation on Myth #2 that emphasizes business growth. The reasoning goes like this: People want good jobs; jobs come from businesses; therefore, creating a good business climate will result in more good jobs. A "good business climate" roughly translates to one with less government regulation, lower taxes, and a higher level of business subsidies. Look at the Padres and the Chargers as prime examples.
If we try to limit growth, housing prices will shoot up.
Reality Check: Growth controls can produce many benefits for a community and may even result in a better distribution of affordable housing than market driven growth.
Concern about how growth controls affect the availability of low and moderate income housing are legitimate. But such concerns should not be used merely to thwart and undermine growth controls. Rather these concerns should serve as the motivation to create responsible policies that truly address the community’s housing needs.
Environmental protection hurts the economy. We must be willing to sacrifice local environmental quality for jobs and economic prosperity.
Reality Check: Environmental protection is good for people and the economy.
Growth is inevitable. Growth management doesn’t work and therefore we have no choice but to continue growing. You can’t put a fence around our town.
Reality Check: You can establish limits to growth and you can create a "railing" around your community. Since there are practical and legal restraints to build a physical barrier to the movement of goods and people within the US, growth advocates suggest that there is nothing productive you can do to keep your community at the size you like.
Saying that "growth is inevitable" implies that we are helpless victims of change, that we must accept whatever growth is thrust upon us, and that our only choice is the manner in which we accommodate it.
We can rein in growth without fences. We can use a wide range of responsible policies and regulations to influence whether or not people and businesses choose to locate in our community. We can set limits of growth and even cap the ultimate size of our community. We can adopt policies that discourage undesirable kinds of growth. These can be composed of social, environment and economic standards that will direct growth and change in the community without blocking it entirely. The idea of unlimited, or forced, growth is repulsive. It implies a horrible sickness, like a cancer.
If you don’t want growth you’re a NIMBY.
Reality Check: NIMBYS have valid concerns and the correct term is NIMBY AGAIN!
NIMBY, an over used acronym is suppose to reflect a selfish attitude, an unwillingness to accept some undesirable development in, or near the neighborhood. They are also called ‘ANTI’s,’ ‘Gatekeepers’, ‘drawbridge raisers’ or ‘I got mines’. There are far too many examples of how these negative labels have been used against concerned citizens to neutralize opposition to growth.
However, a NIMBY is more likely to be someone who cares enough about the future of his or her community to get out and protect it. You can thank all of the great NIMBYS of the past for keeping hazardous waste dumps, major polluters and other nuisances out of your community.
People who want slow growth tend to be those who really care very much about the future of their communities and want to protect what they value for generations to come. They are usually volunteers such as the RCPG who are willing to contribute their time generously to improve the community or the environment. Is it more accurate to refer to such a person as anti-growth or as pro-community? Are you an anti growther or a dedicated civic volunteer concerned about the future of your community?
Most people don’t really support growth management or environmental protection.
Reality Check: A majority of the public does in fact recognize the importance of environmental protection and the need to manage growth.
In numerous studies conducted nation wide, state by state and by the Federal Government, on average, over 70% of respondents believe that maintaining a quality environment is more important to economic growth than relaxing environmental standards. And in areas that have experienced rapid growth, public opinion surveys consistently show that a strong majority of the public will support policies to curb growth. In 1988 a survey of LA residents showed that 75% favored slowing or stopping growth. We all know how well the politicians listened to that.
We have to "grow or die". Growth makes the economy strong and creates better paying jobs.
Reality Check: The short term benefits of additional growth may not outweigh the longer-term costs.
The bias toward continual growth in gross economic out put is apparent in the professional terminology. A non-growing economy is labeled as "stagnant" or ever "recessionary", rather than the more accurate and neutral term, stable. The former terms imply rot, decay, and decline, which the latter implies balance and equilibrium.
Vacant or undeveloped land is just going to waste.
Reality Check: Open space and farmland are valuable and irreplaceable assets that contribute significantly to every community.
Studies by the American Farmland Trust consistently show that farmland and open space pay more in taxes than they require in services, providing a net surplus to the community. In other words, cows don’t go to school.
Frederick Co., Md. Found that farmland and open space required only $.53 in services for every dollar paid in taxes, creating a surplus and helping to make up for the budget shortfall created by residential lands. Residential land required $1.14 in services for every dollar paid resulting in a 20 million net loss to the county in 1995.
Another assumption is that undeveloped land is producing nothing. At the very least it contributes taxes to the community, or the Co. which we seldom see.
We all feel regret at the loss of a particular area of open space. What was that land contributing that makes us miss it. A relaxing view, a sense of comfort, tranquillity, an oasis of nature, a buffer from noisy roads and factories? Perhaps we’re also disturbed by the permanence of the loss. The farmer’s sheep will never graze the pasture that has sprouted a golf course, a mall, or a housing development.
A persons visual preference is no basis for objecting to development.
Reality Check: The beauty of the land is priceless and its destruction is permanent! Citizens like us who oppose a development because it will ruin a pleasing view, or an attractive natural setting are often; frequently trivialized and dismissed by local officials and developers who feel that profits and economic criteria are what is most important. However, that pleasing view may be one of the most significant qualities of our community. Too many people tend to dismiss the benefits of natural landscapes. As a matter of fact, a 1994 study by the National Association of Home Builders found that the single most important factor affecting the market value of a home was the surrounding environment. The ‘right’ view can make a $100,000 home sell for twice as much. When visual preferences carry such a price tag, they can hardly be dismissed as trivial.
Environmentalist are just another special interest. There is no such thing as the public interest.
Reality Check: Environmentalism is both a general interest and a public interest. The idea of public interest has fallen on hard times. Nobody can put a finger on the precise definition of the concept. As a result environmentalists (and civic activists) are labeled as just another special interest.
Business groups typically represent the narrow, private, profit-making interests of a relatively small segment of the community. The focus of these groups is on maximizing short-term economic gain for their particular industry, and they are undoubtedly a special interest in the political sense.
On the other hand, an environmentalist typically represents a broad range of interests and multiple values that are oriented toward protecting the current and future value of our environmental support system. The outcome of the environmentalists interest is the long term welfare of all citizens and the natural habitat we ultimately depend upon. There is rarely any personal financial reward gained by the environmentalists position and more often this representation comes at personal cost.
The concept of democracy is one of governing in the public interest. But our system of representative democracy has many limitations and needs to be continually bolstered by local public involvement processes. We can start by making sure that citizen involvement committees, such as RCPG, the County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors are composed entirely of citizens who do not have even the slightest hint of any direct financial conflict of interest in the decision at hand.
There are many more myths that you will run across. Here are a few to consider and be on the lookout for others. Consider these:
Reality Check: Growth is heavily subsidized.
Reality Check: Build it and they will come
Reality Check: Small is beautiful and enough is enough.
Reality Check: Change is inevitable, but not necessarily good.
Excerpts from: Better Not Bigger; Eben Fodor. New Society Publishers, 1999
Sources: American Farm Land Trust
American Planning Association
Santa Barbara Planning Task Force
Inst. Of Government Studies, U.C. Berkley