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Save Our Sydney Suburbs (NSW) Inc.
News Release May 2003

Portland, Oregon USA - Smart Growth?

Sydney will bear the cost of similar "quackery"

Hi SOS Members

On 30 April I attended a forum termed "Smart Growth" which was billed to be about Portland, Oregon, a city in the USA. This city is considered by post-modernist planners to be the archetypical example of urban consolidation.

Two United States speakers (Elizabeth Humphrey and Meeky Blizzard) featured in this forum. We were told they are advisers to United States government functionaries and have professional backgrounds in Portland, Oregon, internationally touted as an example of best practice "Smartgrowth".

Most of the forum was taken up in an overview of the previous landuse planning in Portland which Humphrey and Blizzard claimed had been foolish. Population is increasing there, as in many other cities. The generally approving mainly student audience was told how the lecturers engaged in extensive community consultations and suggested alternative tactics to solve Portland’s transport problem. They told us how the authorities initially "just did not get it" until eventually they were made to see the light.

The result was that all new growth in Portland is now restricted within defined boundaries. Communities are forced to accept higher population densities (euphemistically called "multi-family housing"). Large amounts of money are poured into public transport in the form of trams and much smaller amounts than before will be spent on road development. "Smartgrowth" will ensure that everyone would travel by public transport, walk or bicycle and live happily for ever after.

But all is not well in Portland. Public transport use will still be negligible in spite of higher population densities – public transport cannot be expected to meet the requirements of all the trips people have to make.

In response to questions I posed the lecturers admitted that in the planning period to the year 2040 the use of public transport in Portland will only increase from the current 3% to a mere 6% of people’s journeys. However in the same time car traffic will increase from 4 million to a massive 7 million daily trips.

I asked what such a traffic increase - on pretty much the same road system - would do to traffic congestion (which in Portland now is already the worst of any similar sized area in the United States and is rapidly deteriorating). What would it do to atmospheric pollution? (It has been proved many times that if population densities increase, traffic congestion gets worse; due to the fact that any slight increased usage of public transport is overwhelmed by the greater number of people now in the area who still have to use their cars.)

I was informed the resulting traffic congestion is just too bad. People should just not drive when there is congestion!

Such a dogmatic evangelical attitude to community problems is extraordinary. While acknowledging that public transport is simply unsuitable for the overwhelming majority of urban trips our lecturers decree that the community must not make such trips at all, irrespective of necessity. The reality, of course, will be that thousands upon thousands of people will still have to make their car journeys and will be stuck for longer and longer in ever-increasing traffic jams breathing polluted air. However we were told the public fully deserve this if they dare to travel when these new-age planners say they should not.

And what is high-density policy doing to the cost of housing in Portland? It was admitted that some people prefer to live in neighbouring Vancouver, Washington and commute to Portland. We were told that this is due to lower taxes in Vancouver. We were not told that the real reason is that housing prices in Portland have skyrocketed as a result of the high-density policy. Housing affordability for the average family is only half of what it used to be, making Portland just about the worst in the country in this regard.

The visiting lecturers were asked what is to be done about vocal United States critic of their policies, Wendall Cox. They dismissed him with scorn – "he just throws statistics at the audience". In other words, "please do not confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up."

Problems resulting from car use are of course a major cause of concern to us all. But that is no excuse to peddle quackery that capitalises on our unease, quackery that not only does not solve the difficulty but also creates additional ones.

Does all this sound familiar? Of course it does, because this is what is happening to Sydney.

Our government department the Department of Planning is forcing communities to accept higher densities under the threat of taking away their councils’ planning powers. The consequences for Sydney will be devastating in the long term - like any other overcrowded city in the world - and our Australian way of life will be a distant memory. All the while, the Department of Planning has proved incapable of justifying its policy in any logical way.

It is a disgrace that emotional ideology and developer donations govern landuse planning in Sydney instead of objective fact-based engineering. Our community and the children of our community will bear the cost.

Tony Recsei
Save Our Suburbs (SOS)

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