Yes, Growth Can Be Good

Passionate defender of nature Edward Abbey once said that "growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell."

Skepticism about growth isn't unusual among those of us interested in conserving natural resources. I have thought a lot about this issue during my career, most notably in my three years at Zero Population Growth about a decade ago.

Over time I have come to understand the wisdom in Abbey's words, which do not condemn growth per se. Growth can be good. In the case of land development, for example, it can be "smart growth." In the case of economic development, it can be "sustainable."

Unfortunately, a couple of recent polls show highlight a rising tension in the way Americans think about growth.

On the one hand, a national Public Opinion Strategies survey commissioned by Smart Growth America and the National Association of Realtors found that 88% of Americans approve of improved public transportation and 83% approve of building communities where people can walk more as approaches to reduce energy use. 81% of voters want to develop older areas to accommodate population growth between now and 2050, rather than building new.

On the other hand, the same survey found that the number of voters who disapprove of new development has doubled in the past eight years, to a large minority at 20%. Another poll, however, found that 78% of Americans oppose any new development in their communities, up five points from last year.

Spot the glaring inconsistency? Here it is: Redevelopment of older areas, walkability, and viable public transportation systems, which the vast majority of us want, all require something that too many of us are against: Growth, or development.

I am reminded of an issue that has oddly become a bit of a controversy in my neighborhood in  College Park: A pedestrian bridge connecting our town with the town of Greenbelt across the tracks. You read right: Not a highway, not a big mall, but a pedestrian bridge. And yet a small but committed band is fighting this modest amenity. As a community leader recently wrote, Groucho Marx would probably be pretty popular in our neighborhood if he stuck to the sentiment he expressed in a song in the 1930s movie Horsefeathers: "I'm against it, I'm against it, No matter how you've changed it or condensed it, I'm against it!"

The silver lining on this issue in the Public Opinion Strategies poll is that the largest plurality -- 43% -- of people answer "Depends" when asked about new growth. I agree, and I like to think that Edward Abbey would too.