The Problem with Urban Growth Boundaries
By Michael Slabinski
Just because it is called smart, doesn’t make it so. Smart growth planning is an urban planning theory that relies on government actors to make predictions about what a city needs; instead of empowering individuals to make the decisions that they think are best. Where do people want to live? What size house, apartment, or duplex do they want to live in? How do people want to get to work? These are questions smart growth planners try to answer and turn into policy decisions. Decisions that end up looking like proscriptive regulations that limit choice and hamper economic development: urban growth boundaries, restrictive zoning, density requirements, and expensive transportation systems.
Urban Growth Boundaries (UGB) are a tool of smart growth planning used to guide development into particular growth areas. A central authority, like a metropolitan planning organization (MPO), draws development lines around a growth district allowing development within the lines and limiting development outside of them. The intention behind UGBs is to limit urban sprawl extending away from city centers and to encourage density and infill development. Urban sprawl can be thought of as highways connecting neighborhoods of single family houses far away from city centers that require expansive and expensive new infrastructure to be built. Infill development, on the other hand, utilizes land already surrounded by development and infrastructure increasing an areas overall density. Although less urban sprawl with higher densities and urban infill might generally be desirable, UGBs try to arrive at these conclusions by artificially dictating “in” and “out” zones of development. The MPO decides what land should be developed, instead of allowing individuals to guide the location and type of development.
Artificial limits from UGB’s decrease people’s choices on where and how they want to live at the most affordable prices. Growth boundaries leave valuable assets in “out” zones of development that cannot be utilized to their highest valued uses. This hurts property owners who cannot use their land how they best see fit, the surrounding community who cannot utilize what might have been a more valuable resource in additional housing or businesses, and residents from outside areas who are shut out from growing communities due to low levels of supply and expensive prices.
In Portland, Oregon, growth boundaries (pictured here) divide farm land from more dense housing. Families are not able to move outside the city to purchase undeveloped land to build houses unless they meet certain farm zoning obligations that turn otherwise affordable land and homes into expensive ones, “the state allows people to build new homes only if they own at least 160 acres that they actually farm, and the land generated $40,000 to $80,000 per year in agriculture revenues in two of the last three years.” The growth boundary has the effect of stopping affordable housing in high demand areas reserving land through zoning for government decreed uses, like farming.
Zoning rules that accompany growth boundaries not only limit development outside the boundaries, but also structure what development can occur within the boundaries. Planning organizations use population and employment growth metrics to gauge housing needs within a boundary over a given time frame. The MPO forecasts population and employment growth over 20 year time periods and reports on land supply every 6 years. Land outside the growth boundaries is “downzoned,” like in the farming example above, and land inside the growth boundary is “upzoned” to account for future population growth. Areas with forced upzoning disallow property owners from building low density uses, “The new minimum density zoning codes specified, for example, that the owner of a vacant quarter-acre lot in an area zoned for 24-unit-per-acre apartments could not build a single home—or even a duplex—on the lot.” A land owner may prefer to build a single family house on their piece of land, but is required to build a higher density use, like apartments, to meet density requirements imposed by the city to match the MPO’s population growth statistics.
UGBs therefor have the effect of limiting the supply of land uses both inside and outside the boundaries disrupting the ebbs and flows of what land would otherwise demand in a more open system. The MPO can over-regulate “out” and “in” zones with “downzoning” and “upzoning,” making a central planner’s already impossible task even more difficult having to gauge the correct density and use on both sides of the line. Development should follow the demand of where and how people want to live, shop, and work, and not conform to burdensome outside guidelines set by planning organizations every 6 years. Development should occur where it is economically viable in terms of what developers can build, home buyers can afford and where the associated infrastructure can be supported.
Despite UGB’s drawbacks, it is not even clear that the purported benefit of decreasing sprawl even necessarily works. As some cases report, instead of consolidating development UGB’s can push development farther outside the boundaries to meet the demand for affordable housing. Instead of city growth naturally increasing densities and spreading away from a city center, the growth boundary displaces the demand farther away to the next closest city. This can create commuter towns with longer travel distances than if there were no UGBs in the first place. Drawing a growth boundary does not necessarily decrease the demand or opportunity in a given area; it just pushes and shapes it to where planners think it is best, instead of individuals operating in a more open market.