The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths: How Smart Growth Will Harm American Cities
Bandon, Oregon: The Thoreau Institute.
560 pp., $14.95
Despite its eccentric organization and Portland-centrism, O'Toole's collection of essays is the best introduction to urban quality of life issues available today. The book serves multiple purposes: It contains 40 short, op-ed length chapters on urban affairs topics, almost twice as many on "smart-growth myths," case studies on Portland and other cities, and numerous useful tables of facts, statistics, and websites. The myths include the assumption that urban sprawl leads to economic and environmental ills. O'Toole, a much-honored policy analyst with the Thoreau Institute, in Oregon, makes clear how the arrogance of local planners, fueled by a vision of good urban life, has caused local government to be costly, inept, and, most troubling of all, despotic.
O'Toole points the way toward cities that pay more attention to the benefits of markets, citizen awareness, property rights, and common sense. Much of his argument is devoted to challenging the advocates of "smart growth" with their love of public transportation, restrictive zoning practices, and general fondness for regulation.
He has a formidable challenger in the "new urbanists," who have a particular vision of beauty--in fact, often appealing--they wish to see arise in American cities. They disdain "sprawl," monotonous suburbs, boring architecture, and long commuting times. Their desire to recreate elements of small-town America, such as treed streets, small stores to walk to, and a variety of styles of houses, especially those with front porches, appeals to frustrated urban dwellers of all political views. Armed with the confidence of bureaucracy, many new urbanists and other smart-growth advocates are unfortunately willing to impose their vision on cities through planning commissions and other examples of the Progressive legacy in American politics. Their mentality is evident in their perverse eagerness to increase urban congestion as means of making more costly some of out freedoms, such as those involving automobiles. The new urbanists would replace one hierarchy with another.
In this way, local government, with its non-partisan character, its disregard of political parties and hence of all democratic politics, and its trust in administrative expertise, is the best example of the success of Progressivism today. The Progressivist-scorned American Founding's ideals of limited government (seen in its regard for property rights) and active citizenship might revitalize the cities while dismantling the administrative state. That is the challenge for students of local government today. And in meeting that challenge they will make an incomparable contribution to national self-renewal. In a field where Marxist tracts and bureaucratic apologetics abound, O'Toole's book is essential reading in this vital cause. --KM
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