California is in trouble: Unemployment is over 13%, the state is broke and hundreds of thousands of people, many of them middle-class families, are streaming for the exits. But to some politicians, like Sen. Alan Lowenthal, the real challenge for California "progressives" is not to fix the economy but to reengineer the way people live.
In Lowenthal's case the clarion call is to take steps to ban free parking. This way, the Long Beach Democrat reasons, Californians would have to give up their cars and either take the bus or walk to their local shops. "Free parking has significant social, economic and environmental costs," Lowenthal told the Los Angeles Times. "It increases congestion and greenhouse gas emissions."
Scarily, his proposal actually passed the State Senate.
One would hope that the mania for changing how people live and work could be dismissed as just local Californian lunacy. Yet across the country, and within the Obama Administration, there is a growing predilection to endorse policies that steer the bulk of new development into our already most-crowded urban areas.
One influential document called "Moving Cooler", cooked up by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Urban Land Institute, the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Protection Agency and others, lays out a strategy that would essentially force the vast majority of new development into dense city cores.
Over the next 40 years this could result in something like 60 million to 80 million people being crammed into existing central cities. These policies work hard to make suburban life as miserable as possible by shifting infrastructure spending to dense areas. One proposal, "Moving Cooler," outdoes even Lowenthal by calling for charges of upwards of $400 for people to park in front of their own houses.
The ostensible justification for this policy lies in the dynamics of slowing climate change. Forcing people to live in dense cities, the reasoning goes, would make people give up all those free parking opportunities and and even their private vehicles, which would reduce their dreaded "carbon imprint."
Yet there are a few little problems with this "cramming" policy. Its environmental implications are far from assured. According to some recent studies in Australia, the carbon footprint of high-rise urban residents is higher than that of medium- and low-density suburban homes, due to such things as the cost of heating common areas, including parking garages, and the highly consumptive lifestyles of more affluent urbanites.
Moreover, it appears that even those who live in dense places may be loath to give up their cars. Over 90% of all jobs in American metropolitan regions are located outside the central business districts, which tend to be the only places well suited for mass transit.
Indeed, despite the massive expansion of transit systems in the past 30 years, the percentage of people taking public transportation in major metropolitan regions has dropped from roughly 8% to closer to 5%. Even in Portland, Ore.--the mecca for new wave transit consciousness--the share of people using transit to get to work is now considerably less than it was in 1980. In recent months overall transit ridership nationwide has actually dropped.
These realities suggest that densification of most cities--with the exceptions of New York, Washington and perhaps a few others--cannot be supported by transit. Furthermore, drivers in dense cities will be confronted with not less congestion, but more, which will likely also boost pollution. The most congested cities in the country tend to be the densest, such as Los Angeles, Sen. Lowenthal's bailiwick, which is in an unenviable first place.
Then there is the little issue of people's preferences. Urban boosters have been correct in saying that until recently there have been too few opportunities for middle-class residents to live in and around city cores. But over the past decade many cities have gone for broke with dense condo and rental housing and have produced far more product, often at very high cost, than the market can reasonably bear.
Initially, when the mortgage crisis broke, the density advocates built much of their case on the fact that the biggest hits took place in suburban areas, particularly on the fringe. Yet as suburban construction ended, cities continued building high-density urban housing--sometimes encouraged by city subsidies. As a result, in the last two years massive foreclosures have plagued many cities, and many condominiums have been converted to rentals. This is true in bubble towns like Las Vegas and Miami; "smart-growth" bastions like Portland and Seattle; and even relatively sane places such as Kansas City, Mo. All these places have a massive amount of high-density condos that are either vacant or converted into lower-cost rentals.
Take Portland. The city's condo prices are down 30% from their original list price. The 177-unit Encore, one of the fanciest new towers, has closed sales on 12 of its units as of March, while another goes to auction. Meanwhile in New York half-completed structures dot Brooklyn's once-thriving Williamsburg neighborhood, while the massive Stuyvesant Town apartment complex in Manhattan teeters at the edge of bankruptcy.
Finally, it is unlikely that cities would be able to accommodate the massive growth promoted by urban boosters, land speculators and policy mavens. Aaron Renn, who writes the influential Urbanophile blog, says that most American cities today struggle to maintain their current infrastructure. They also have limited options to zone land for high-density construction, due in part to grassroots opposition to existing residential neighborhoods. Overall they would be hard-pressed to accommodate much more than 10% of their region's growth, much less 50% or 60%.
Given these realities, and the depth of the current recession, one might think that governments would focus more on basics like jobs and fixing the infrastructure--in suburbs as well as cities--than reengineering how people live. Yet it is increasingly clear that for many "progressives" the real agenda is not enabling people to achieve their dreams--especially in the form of a suburban single-family house. It is, instead, forcing them to live in what is viewed as more ecologically and socially preferable density.
In the next few months we may see more of the kind of hyperregulation proposed by the likes of Sen. Lowenthal. It is entirely possible that a hoary coalition of HUD, Department of Transportation and EPA bureaucrats could start trying to restrict future housing development along the lines suggested in "Moving Cooler."
Yet over time one has to wonder about the political efficacy of this approach. Right now Americans are focused primarily on simply economic growth--and perhaps a touch less on the intellectual niceties of the "smart" form. In addition they are increasingly skeptical about climate change, which serves as the primary raison d'etre behind the new regulatory schema.
Given the zealousness of the density advocates, perhaps the only thing that will slow, and even reverse, this process will be the political equivalent of a sharp slap across the face. Unless the ruling party begins to reacquaint itself with the preferences and aspirations of the vast majority of Americans, they may find themselves experiencing repeats of their recent humiliating defeat--manufactured largely in the Boston suburbs--in true-blue Massachusetts.
Americans--suburban or urban--may resist a return to unbridled and extreme Republicanism, whether on social issues or in economic policy. But forced to choose between Neanderthals, who at least might leave them alone in their daily lives, and higher-order intellects determined to reengineer their lives, they might end up supporting bipeds lower down the evolutionary chain, at least until the progressive vanguard regains a grip on common sense.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in Febuary, 2010.