This is the abstract from a new report “Putting People First: An Alternative Perspective with an Evaluation of the NCE Cities ‘Trillion Dollar’ Report,” authored by Wendell Cox and published by the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. Download the full report (pdf) here.
A fundamental function of domestic policy is to facilitate better standards of living and minimize poverty. Yet favored urban planning policies, called “urban containment” or “smart growth,” have been shown to drive the price of housing up, significantly reducing discretionary incomes, which necessarily reduces the standard of living and increases poverty.
This makes the alleviation of poverty, the opportunity for better living standards and aspirations for upward mobility secondary to contemporary urban planning prescriptions. Despite this, calls to intensify land use regulations are becoming stronger and more insistent.
A New Climate Economy report (NCE Cities report), by Todd Litman, “Analysis of Public Policies that Unintentionally Encourage and Subsidize Urban Sprawl,” contends that the failure to implement urban containment policy (smart growth) costs more than $1.1 trillion annually in the United States. The urban containment policies favored by the NCE Cities report seek substantially increase urban population densities and transfer urban travel from cars to transit, walking and cycling.
There are serious consequences to such policies, which lead to lower standards of living and greater poverty. This report evaluates the NCE Cities report which places urban containment policy as its most important priority. This Evaluation report offers an alternate vision, focused on improving living standards for all, while seeking to eradicate poverty.
The NCE Cities report relies heavily on social costing and externality analysis of lower density development. While these are useful tools, they are ultimately subjective and should be used with great caution.
This Evaluation identifies a number of issues with respect to the NCE Cities report cost analysis.
1. Nearly 90% of the cost is attributable to personal vehicle use, and is based on a fixed cost per mile differential between the Most Compact (densest) quintile of US urban areas and the four quintiles that are less dense. This Evaluation finds a range of differences in per capita mileage among the quintiles that is far smaller than the NCE Cities report estimates. Adjustment for this and other issues would reduce the NCE Cities report cost estimate by nearly 85 percent, to a maximum that is under $200 billion. Other, unquantified issues are identified that could reduce the reduced estimate even further.
2. The NCE Cities report largely dismisses the housing affordability consequences of urban containment policy. By rationing land, urban containment policy drives up the price of housing and has been associated with an unprecedented loss of housing affordability in a number of metropolitan areas in the United States and elsewhere. Urban containment policy has also been associated with greater housing market volatility. This is a particular concern given the role of the 2000s US housing bubble and bust in precipitating the Great Financial Crisis that resulted in a reduction of international economic output.
3. Urban containment policy has significant negative externalities. A recent economic analysis associates an annual loss of nearly $2 trillion in gross domestic product in the United States with more stringent housing regulation. This estimate would nullify the NCE Cities report cost of dispersion estimate by more than 1.5 times. More significantly, it would dwarf the NCES Report cost estimate as adjusted in this Evaluation.
The purpose of public policy in cities is not to focus a particular urban form, planning philosophy, type of housing, population density, or mode of transport. The purpose is rather to seek better lives for people. The most appropriate form of urban planning policy is that which facilitates better living standards and less poverty. There is increasing evidence that urban containment policy is not only irreconcilable with housing affordability and price stability but also with better standards of living and reduced poverty.
Wendell Cox is Chair, Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California) and principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm.He is co-author of the “Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey” and author of “Demographia World Urban Areas” and “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.” He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.