Despite its eccentric organization and its focus on Portland, Oregon, 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 80 more 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 Oregon-based Thoreau Institute, makes clear how the arrogance of local planers, fueled by a vision of good urban life, has caused local government to be costly, inept, and despotic.
O'Toole points the way toward cities that pay more attention to the benefits of markets, property rights, citizen awareness, and common sense. Much of his argument is devoted to challenging the advocates of "smart growth" who love public transportation, restrictive zoning practices, and regulation generally.
He has a formidable challenger in the "new urbanists," who have an appealing vision of beauty they wish to see realized in American cities. They disdain "sprawl," monotonous suburbs, boring architecture, and long commuting times. Their desire to re-create elements of small-town America-tree-lined streets, small stores within walking distance, houses with front porches-appeals to frustrated urban dwellers of all political views.
Armed with the confidence of bureaucracy, many new urbanists and smart-growth advocates are perfectly willing to impose their vision on cities through planning commissions and the like—all examples of the Progressive legacy in American politics. In this way, local government, with its non-partisan character, it disregard of political parties and hence of all democratic politics, and its trust in administrativse expertise, is today the best example of the success of Progressivism. The American Founding's ideals of limited government (seen in its regard for property rights) and active citizenship might revitalize the cities while dismantling this administrative state. That is the challenge for students of local government today. In a field where Marxist tracts and bureaucratic apologetics abound, O'Toole's book is essential reading.
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This article appeared in the Fall 2001 issue of the Claremont Review of Books