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Smart Growth: From Sprawl to Sustainability by Jon Reeds

Smart Growth is about using less, or as some proponents argue, using stuff ‘more wisely’

Traffic: the enemy

Traffic: the enemy

Traffic: the enemy

The Jevons paradox is described in Julie Hill’s book The Secret Life of Stuff as ‘the tendency of efficiencies to lower the price of resources, thus leading to greater demand, and thus, paradoxically, to greater consumption’. For instance, American environmental guru Amory Lovins recognised that designing a super, fuel-efficient Hypercar would mean that more people would want one, leading to greater congestion. It seems that the more we do, the worse it gets.

That is why Smart Growth is about using less, or as some proponents argue, using stuff ‘more wisely’. In other words, it isn’t about growth at all. The Sustainable Development Commission’s ‘Prosperity without growth’ logo sums it up, advocating that we eke out every last drop from the system. So even though ‘growth remains as a formal goal of society’, says economist Daniel Ben-Ami, ‘it is viewed with intense anxiety.’

Jon Reeds’ twin anxieties revolve around the motoring lobby and something called the ‘sprawl lobby’, both of which started, he argues, with the Garden City movement. Thus Ebeneezer Howard is the villain of the piece, whereas William Morris, the hero.

Another villain is America, which has been a code word for the evils of consumerism for so long that Reeds’ is shocked to find that Americans are, in fact, early adopters of Smart Growth. But this blind spot, like many in the book, simply exposes environmentalists’ prejudices, without shedding any light on the merits of the topic under consideration.

In urbanism, Smart Growth often applies to ‘Compact Cities’. As such, Reeds is a zealous advocate for limiting car use, sprawl and Tesco; promoting localism, land re-use and dense city developments; and encouraging walking, cycling and something called ‘functional communities’.

At the start of the book, Reeds says: ‘The United Kingdom is a most overcrowded country’ and he apologises if this makes him sound intemperate. By the end, emboldened by his logic of limits to growth, he complains that we are ‘trying to cram even more people into our hopelessly overcrowded island… food is running out, where water is running out, where patience is running out’. Unfortunately, such is the casual anti-humanism of limits. To have yet another book on this subject is tiresomely old hat, but it seems that publishing opportunities are the only thing without environmental limits.

Smart Growth: From Sprawl to Sustainability

Author: Jon Reeds

Publisher: Green Books, 2011

Price: £14.95

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