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Intellectual terrorism from sprawl shills

Summary: Wendell Cox has done it again. In a new Heritage Foundation report he fabricates three Current Urban Planning Assumptions and then shows that they “are of virtually no value.” The real message of this latest publication is how scared the pro-sprawl community is. Clearly, the smart growth argument that sprawl is costing government and taxpayers too much money has been effective. Cox is once again practicing intellectual terrorism to frighten Americans about smart growth.

Sometimes it is necessary to bring attention to terrible work because many people can be conned and believe its lies, distortions and misinformation. Wendell Cox is a sprawl shill-meister with a long history of presenting pro-sprawl propaganda in the guise of scholarly work. But as others have also concluded, his work does not stand up to scrutiny. Renowned transit expert G. B. Arrington examined many of Cox’s analyses and concluded: “In every instance, Cox’s statements are either inaccurate, distortions or claims not supported by the facts. Cox’s technique seems to be to start with a snippet of the truth and stretch it like taffy until it turns into something else that supports his position.” University of Cincinnati Professor Haynes Goddard also studied Cox’s work and said that he and his crowd produce “superficial, poorly thought out and misleading arguments;” the work represents “either intellectual laziness, or more seriously, intellectual dishonesty” which results because “all ideologues are blind to reality and to the vacuousness of their arguments.” As to Cox’s pro-automobile fanaticism, former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, now the head of the Congress for New Urbanism, said “I think Wendell Cox is one of the biggest advocates of big [government] spending I’ve ever encountered in my 28-year political career.”

Cox’s latest publication from the Heritage Foundation, with junior co-author Joshua Utt, is “The Costs of Sprawl Reconsidered: What the Data Really Show.” It exemplifies the zealot’s un-scholarship. Central to the report is “Current Urban Planning Assumptions.” These three assumptions are put forward so that considerable analysis can knock them down, all to show that low-density sprawl development is not more costly than the “more dense development of central cities.” In truth, these assumptions are those of Cox; he gives no information to actually support his assertion that these are, indeed, broadly held beliefs by the “anti-sprawl movement. Cox reveals his perverted, paranoid view of the world when he says that the “smart growth, growth management, or New Urbanism…movement would force people to live at higher densities, in multi-family units, townhouses, or clustered single-family developments – while placing significant restriction on the expansion of suburban commercial development.” “Force people” is proof positive that Cox is once again practicing intellectual terrorism. The goal of sprawl shills is to make Americans fearful of smart growth because they will lose their freedom. Of course, the correct interpretation of the smart growth movement is that it attempts to give Americans more housing and transportation choices.

Here are the three assumptions together with my commentary:

1. “Lower spending per capita will be associated with higher population densities.”
This comes closest to being correct, but not quite. The problem is what densities are being compared. There is an enormous amount of data that compares suburban sprawl development to higher density suburban or greenfield development based on smart growth principles. But Cox chooses to compare higher density suburban smart growth development to city situations. At best, what he should have done is compare higher density urban infill projects using New Urbanism design to overall city data representing a lower density. Moreover, careful reading of the paper reveals that considerable types of government spending are not included in the analysis, including education and transportation. The best approach to this question is to look at data for sprawl and smart growth projects within a county so that the true impact of density can be examined.

2. “Lower spending per capita will be associated with lower rates of population growth.”
I have never seen this “assumption” used anyplace. It seems that Cox sees higher rates of population growth as a surrogate with sprawling development. But data on population growth are for political jurisdictions that mix all kinds of development. What Cox is doing here is sending a false message that smart growth has a goal of reducing population growth by controlling sprawl. In truth, smart growth and its focus on mix-income housing explicitly promotes more affordable housing to meet the needs of a growing population, while the clear dominance of sprawl has produced too little affordable housing.

3. “Lower spending per capita will be associated with older municipalities.”
I have never seen this assumption anywhere, and cannot see its relevance to the sprawl-smart growth debate. As soon as I read this for the first time my first reaction was that I would expect the opposite, mainly because older municipalities will have older workers making higher wages (the same problem plaguing the large, older airlines) and also face old physical infrastructure that can require considerable spending to maintain. So much sprawl development is outside municipalities that the data Cox uses is useless. To lower per capita municipal spending urban revitalization needs to emphasize higher density mixed-use infill projects. And if governments were really smart they would start using a split-tax that would motivate owners of under-used urban land to replace parking lots with mixed-use development.

Of course, Cox concludes that his three planning assumptions “are of virtually no value.”

The real message of this latest publication is how scared the sprawl shill community is. They have seen the increasing attention to the high costs of sprawl development by citizens and policymakers. Apparently, data for 738 municipalities in only “metropolitan areas of more than 1,000,000 residents” were used. But it is not just large metro areas that need to stop sprawl’s financial burden; it is counties and the 565 “micropolitan” areas around small towns with populations less than 50,000.

So scared are the sprawl shills that Cox has concocted this “junk science” analysis as a counterpunch. The problem with intellectual terrorism is how its messages and data become widely disseminated by “word of mouse” and misinform many people. This new data together with campaign contributions will be used by the sprawl lobby to maintain its corruption of local politicians. The right-wing pro-sprawl crowd will be pumping out this latest diatribe through myriad Internet sites so that people can say “I told you so” and condemn smart growth. Of course, Cox, who never seems to have enough data in his public talks, now has even more worthless data to terrorize his audiences.

[Joel S. Hirschhorn was formerly with the National Governors Association; his book “Sprawl Kills – How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money” will be published in November. He can be reached through www.sprawlkills.com.]


Wendell Cox's site: http://www.demographia.com/
is a perfect example of why you should always be skeptical as to the accuracy of online sites that spew "data" in support of various opinions. There is no other way to explain the crass distortions, biases and inaccuracies of his site, other than to say that he is flat out lying about most of what he says, and he knows it. Joel is right, only a "sprawl shill" would have the motivation to be this blatantly untruthful. Anyone who really believes what Cox says, would probably also be willing to support a war in Iraq, fought for constantly shifting pretenses to obscure the real underlying motivation - a lust for oil, irregardless of the cost in human lives. And why shouldn't Americans believe it when they are constantly being told by the mainstream media, to ignore and sweep under the rug, the value of the lives of foreigners and the poor?