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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Smart growth debate in Langley

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un-smart growth

Thursday last week I went to see Todd Litman debate Randal O’Toole on smart growth.

The debate was held in the Township of Langley city hall – an unexpected venue, but a good one, considering what is at stake with all the growth in the Fraser Valley.  Art Buchwald, of the Langley Times, moderated the debate and later wrote about it here.  The debate was organized by OnTrax; details in the excellent South Fraser Blog.

The whole concept of smart growth can be quite technical, but it may be summarized by saying that it focuses on planning walkable urban development and public transit.  There’s a lot of information that can be downloaded from a variety of sites, including SmartGrowthBC and Todd Litman’s own Victoria Transport Planning Institute.

Todd opened his presentation with a slide show of a walk through his very walkable neighbourhood – a personalized approach that featured the question “why is it better that I walk to the neighbourhood pub, rather than drive there?”  Followed a number of statistics explaining why smart growth is good –  lots of stuff, thankfully centralized on Todd’s blog here.

Randal O’Toole, from the US right-wing Cato Institute, billed himself as the “anti-planner” – a defender of private freedoms.  His slide show was very clever, featuring many idealized wild sceneries, a paean of Americana to be accessed by car.  And a monument of misleading statistics.

Maybe not surprisingly, Randal was the better debater of the two. It is easy to debate from ideology instead of facts.  He had an easy going demeanor, could rattle off studies, and appealed to a line common in that sort of debate: “you don’t want the government to dictate how and where you live.”  When answering questions he showed no hesitation, knew his lines.  Todd, on the other hand, often hesitated before answering a question, referred to specific studies that he clearly didn’t want to misquote, and seemed to be cautious in stating his numbers.  He was a bit plodding.

Did it matter?  Not one bit.  This was billed as a debate, but people were really looking for information (and city councillors from the Langleys were looking for crowd reactions).  Of course O’Toole is a better debater – he speaks from ideology, from which all doubt is banished.  Litman, by contrast, gave the impression of a researcher very respectful of his craft; someone who cares more about uncovering truth, not spouting rehearsed platitudes.  Kudos to Todd for not yielding to the temptation of debating for the sake of entertainment; too much is at stake for this.  I was reminded of Bertrand Russell’s quip that “the purpose of education is to resist the seduction of eloquence.”

For all his practiced eloquence, though, O’Toole came up with some remarkable whoppers.  He said that protecting farm land was silly; farm lands are just former forests, he said, and we could just as easily create terraces in farm on our local mountains – with slides from hillside farming from Bali and Italy.  Ah yes, how can our BC farmers be so unimaginative as to farm flat land!  He also said that a higher urban density causes a higher energy use per capita, a misleading confusion of (questionable) correlation with causation.  He also repeated the chestnut that buses consume much more fuel per passenger than average cars (I won’t even bother explaining why this plain wrong).  He also stated that real estate costs are directly proportional to regulations; the more rules, the higher the cost.  (Here Todd lost a bit of his reserve and pointed out that regulations that produce sprawl –height and density restrictions, parking requirements – are in fact what cause the high costs.)

Overall, O’Toole tried to paint a picture of himself as a defender of individual freedom.  But this did not resonate with the audience.  It seemed instead that O’Toole was advocating a one-size-fits-all lifestyle; if you’d rather take the train, if you like to walk to work, tough.  Planning is taboo, even if it has demonstrated advantages (including a convincing argument from Litman about transportation costs that arise from laissez-faire sprawl).

Instead, I was reminded of an essay by British journalist George Monbiot, deploring the impact of the automobile:

When you drive, society becomes an obstacle.  Pedestrians, bicycles, traffic calming, speed limits, the law: all become a nuisance to be wished away.  The more you drive, the more bloody-minded and individualistic you become.  The car is slowly turning us, like the Americans and the Australians, into a nation that recognizes only the freedom to act, and not the freedom from the consequences of other people’s actions.

A wiser concept of freedom, if you ask me.

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