How smart is ‘Smart Growth’?
During the past few years, we have heard theories about global warming, overpopulation and global industrialization that have many government officials calling for dramatic changes in the way we live. This "environmental" alarm has caused governments across the world to re-evaluate the way they conduct business and gives governments an excuse to increase regulations on products and industries in the name of becoming more environmentally conscious. Even though there is no solid scientific proof that we are on the brink of an environmental disaster, the media have sensationalized global warming theories while totally disregarding information that contradicts the present day hype. This type of blind acceptance of unproven doctrines could lead Hawaii into very difficult economic hardships if we refuse to question unsubstantiated evidence just because it is popular with a vocal minority of people.
This year the concept of "smart growth" is the buzz word that has taken hold in the Legislature. Smart growth is an urban planning and transportation strategy that focuses growth in the center of a city to avoid urban sprawl. The main principles of smart growth are compact, transit-oriented, walk and bicycle friendly land use, including neighborhood schools and mixed-use developments with a range of housing choices. This theory sounds like an idea that should be studied for feasibility in future planning. Unfortunately, instead of gathering data on real life examples, elected officials, including many in Hawaii, have fully embraced the smart growth principles without doing sufficient research.
Portland, Ore., has fully embraced smart growth. In the late 1970s, the government officials of Oregon created urban-growth boundaries that were drawn around every city and town in the state. The urban-growth boundaries were supposed to be used as flexible planning tools for officials to use to promote and implement the principles of smart growth. Most of the land was vacant and city planners promised to expand the boundaries as the vacant land was developed. However, the boundaries did not expand as planned and real estate agents and homebuilders began to worry the city was going to run out of land.
In 1989, a watchdog group called 1000 Friends of Oregon introduced a study known as "land use, transportation and air quality" or LUTRAQ. This group advocated that higher densities would make public transit more viable and would provide another option instead of driving. It also concluded that mixed-use developments that combined housing with offices and retail shops would encourage people to walk to work and stores instead of driving their cars. The 1000 Friends of Oregon said increased densities and land-use controls would allow the region to grow and minimize traffic congestion. Portland officials embraced smart growth and now their land-use policies have distorted the region's housing market.
The urban-growth boundary and regulations have transformed Portland from one of the nation's most affordable housing markets in 1989 to one of the least affordable by the mid-1990s. According to the National Association of Homebuilders, in 1989 more than two-thirds of Portland households could afford to buy a median-priced home. Today, only 30 percent of Portland's population is able to buy those same homes. Smart growth has even contributed to more traffic congestion. Government officials have estimated that the Portland-area residents in 2020 will sit in traffic four-times longer than they do now and smog will increase 10 percent because of cars being stuck in stop-and-go traffic.
The Hawaii state House of Representatives has passed three bills (HB 2525, HB 2526, and HB 2527) that would require government planning agencies to use smart growth principles when considering development in the state. These House majority caucus bills restrict our planning agencies from the flexibility they need to build affordable housing, roads and mixed-use areas. If our goal is to create smart growth with less traffic congestion and more affordable housing, we had better learn from the mistakes of Portland. If not, our children and young people will continue to leave the islands for better opportunities on the mainland.
Colleen Meyer (R, Laie-Kahaluu) is minority floor leader in the state House.