Mitt Romney, new urbanist?

As Massachusetts governor, Romney shocked his supporters by ardently embracing smart growth policies. He doesn't talk that way now, but who knows who's the real Mitt?

Crosscut archive image.

Mitt Romney campaigning with his wife.

As Massachusetts governor, Romney shocked his supporters by ardently embracing smart growth policies. He doesn't talk that way now, but who knows who's the real Mitt?

It turns out, as reported in this New Republic article ($), that Gov. Mitt Romney was a committed new urbanist while leading Massachusetts. What are we to make of this? There's more to the story than another illustration of his shape-changing politics — and, yes, he backed away from this seeming Republican heresy when he got Potomac Fever in 2006.

It's obvious that Romney was a moderately liberal governor, by Massachusetts standards, in 2002-06: pro-gay rights, pro-choice, convinced of climate change, and successful in implementing a health care program that is a very clear blueprint for Obamacare. He also ran on a platform of implementing smart growth policies for the state.

In the early years, Romney made good on the pledge, notably by appointing Douglas Foy, an ardent environmentalist and head of the Conservation Law Foundation, to head a new Office for Commonwealth Development, overseeing transportation, environment, and housing. Foy is described as "the bane of the business and development community," so his appointment as head of a powerful super-agency was a shock.

Among the policies Foy and Romney instituted: repairing roads rather than building new ones; cutting SUVs in the state fleet; encouraging narrower streets with slower driving speeds. Another measure provided funds to towns and cities that allowed more high-density, multi-family housing.

Some of this was just "adroit positioning," in the words of an environmental critic. The towns were slow to adopt the encouraged measures; Romney cut the land conservation budget; and toward the end of his term he seemed to lose interest and Foy quit shortly after Romney announced he wouldn't seek a second term.

However, some of the positions are consistent with Romney's analytical, business-consulting bent. His father, George Romney, after all was a secretary of housing and urban development under Nixon. Smart-growth is another name for efficiency, by avoiding the high infrastructure costs of far-flung development. And Romney is a modernizer who thought it foolish that historic Concord could no longer build apartments above shops — the very kind of mixed-use density that built the charming village centuries ago.

So possibly a President Romney would also be a smart-growth president?

Who knows what Romney we would get, of course, since he is the ultimate in political pragmatism. But consider that smart growth is now a very mainstream concept, and one that many business interests would support. Density is, in one classic real-estate sense, the latest illustration of the old practice of buying cheap land (especially in inner cities and older suburbs) and then getting it upzoned and getting government services to build more private value. Here in Seattle, the smart-growth coalition is largely driven by developers, their law firms, the Sound Transit coalition (contractors, property owners in line for new service, and greens). No president or governor would shy away from that kind of generous, potent political support.

Moreover, the next surge in housing and commercial development is almost certain to be in cities and inner suburbs, not the auto-dependent fringes. The money is being made in newly expensive neighborhoods such as Bellevue and Seattle's Capitol Hill, where strip malls are being demolished to make way for mixed-use projects served by good transit.

In noting this massive shift, Christopher B. Leinberger of the Brookings Institution and the University of Michigan, cites two demographic shifts, that go along with the collapse of the McMansion Belt. One is the boomers, empty nesters now in search of walkable, moderately urban places to live. The other group is the millenials (born between 1979 and 1996), a coming-of age group that favors urbanized neighborhoods for lifestyle reasons and to save money by not having a car. These two groups are the two largest generational cohorts in American history.

The same pattern might also come into play for office complexes, as the choice of Amazon to be in South Lake Union, or of Microsoft to expand massively in downtown Bellevue, demonstrates. The bucolic office park, an example of what's called "pastoral capitalism," is a highly inefficient way to develop land in a time of government retrenchment. It too looks like a profligate habit of the past. As these corporate headquarters get the new urbanist religion, their CEOs will also turn to political leaders who understand these new economic facts of life.

Whether there really is a move toward density is much disputed, however. Here's a recent article by Joel Kotkin, citing figures that the move to dense cities is actually declining. Kotkin observes:

Indeed, any analysis of the 2010 U.S. Census would make perfectly clear that rather than heading for density, Americans are voting with their feet in the opposite direction: toward the outer sections of the metropolis and to smaller, less dense cities. During the 2000s, the Census shows, just 8.6% of the population growth in metropolitan areas with more than 1 million people took place in the core cities; the rest took place in the suburbs. That 8.6% represents a decline from the 1990s, when the figure was 15.4%.

Clearly, a lot depends on what is happening in the metropolitan area, as it densifies; looking at dense "core cities" does not yield a lot of population growth. A measured, comprehensive survey of these trends, in a new report by the Urban Land Institute, is summarized in this post by Chuck Wolfe, a frequent Crosscut contributor.

Finally, getting back to Romney, is is too far-fetched to think that a politician with such round heels would shift again from all those foolish Republican primary promises, into a kind of moderate modernizer, at least on these issues and where the development community and corporate America might be ready to follow?

Republican politics these days is so in thrall to the angry and extreme rightwingers, who have veto powers over the nomination, that an ambitious and shrewd politician such as Romney is forced into saying things he can't really believe, hedging them with escape clauses. (The alternative of talking sense in the primary is to be a Jon Huntsman, doomed to the margins.) If Romney turns out to be something like the early Richard Nixon, a kind of Disraeli in the "radical Tory" tradition, at least he can say we were warned!

I wouldn't expect him to do that in very high profile areas such as abortion, but low-profile issues such as land use would be more plausible. As for the big issue of the nation's deficit, if Romney does turn out (only after elected) to propose a grand compromise, complete with tax reform, he might get away with it. The Republican Party, outraged at the rhetorical level, would also realize that it has a sitting president to back and make successful. The question would then be whether the Democrats in Congress, even if given much of what they want, would go along.


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