Smart growth may be just that, but are people smart enough to want it? In a recent, widely distributed blog, Smart Growth: The Maryland Example, Ed Braddy, executive director of the American Dream Coalition, outlines a case against the planning ideal of dense, low-impact, and centralized development, which purportedly reduces greenhouse gas emissions per capita and promotes a more social and efficient lifestyle, with the argument that consumers won’t buy it. To make the point, Braddy cites the Maryland example, where state initiatives to promote higher density failed to curb sprawl.

Braddy suggests that planners are moving in the direction of mandating higher density development given that consumers and local governments have not responded to growth management strategies that rely on economic incentives. Braddy quotes Gerrit Knaap, the director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education (NCSG), who recently said, “What makes incentives so politically attractive is that governments and individuals can chose to ignore them if they wish. Unfortunately, in Maryland over the last decade, that’s exactly what many have been doing.”

The focus on Maryland is due to its position as the birthplace of Smart Growth, a movement in land-use planning that the NCSG website says contributed significantly to what is now referred to as sustainability planning, sustainable development, and sustainable communities. Maryland adopted a Smart Growth program in 1997 with the objective to use incentives to direct growth into areas already developed and having public facilities, and to reduce the conversion of farm, forest, and resource land to urban uses.

Braddy’s comments come in response to a NCSG white paper published in early 2012, “ Barriers to Development: Inside Maryland’s Priority Funding Areas ,” that suggests Maryland’s Smart Growth and Neighborhood Conservation Initiative has done little to curb sprawl by utilizing the power of the purse to encourage sustainable development, principally because developers, home buyers and local governments have voted with their pocketbooks to turn down the incentives in favor of low-density development. This seems to suggest that planners are out of touch with the public, and may adopt less democratic means to achieve their urban development goals.

During a recent interview with Witold Rybczynski, a distinguished professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania and a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the Atlantic magazine, I heard similar sentiments as he described a pattern he had observed in Holland. “In Europe, government remains much more active in the market,” he told me, “so you have a different relationship between the developer and the home buyer. You have the government as developer. For example, in Holland, where they did a lot of innovative housing, and public housing open to everyone, projects were designed by professional planners and architects, they were very compact and often innovative, but did not have to respond to market demands; responding to government bureaucrats and not homeowners. Individuals had little choice. But now that the financial crisis has forced the government to pull out of the housing business, and market forces took over, it turns out Europeans and Americans are not any different,” says Rybczynski, in effect, the Dutch are as conservative as Americans, preferring traditional-looking, low-density suburban style homes.

To those of us concerned with climate change, this outlook feels as discouraging as would the American appetite for high-fat foods to an epidemiologist concerned with curbing the epidemic of obesity. So after reading Braddy’s blog, I forwarded the piece to Christopher Leinberger at The Brookings Institution, an urban thought leader and successful developer in his own right, and the section chair for Sustainable Communities here at Vision 2020, to see if he could offer us a different perspective.

Leinberger assured me that, the Maryland example notwithstanding, given that some market segments will always prefer lower density, the broadest new real estate reality is growing market demand for walkable urban development of all forms. Citing a recent USA Today feature story, America’s romance with sprawl may be over, Leinberger reiterated predictions he made in a 2008 Atlantic article, “ The Next Slum?

“Fringe, drive-to suburbs have financially collapsed because we built too many, and now the market wants the opposite. The most recent National Association of Realtors consumer research confirms this through the price premium households are willing to pay. For example, in 2000, the most expensive ZIP code in metro Atlanta was Buckhead, with large lots and huge homes; today the most expensive ZIP code in metro Atlanta it is Virginia-Highland, which has very small lots with tiny houses and condos—and it was a slum just 30 years ago. Similarly, in metro Washington, D.C., the most expensive ZIP code in 2000 was Great Falls, Va., an area with 2-acre minimum size lots, great schools, and mansions. Houses cost 25% more per square foot than did townhomes in downtown D.C.’s Dupont Circle. But by 2010, a Dupont Circle townhouse was worth 70% more! The pendulum is swinging, the market now demands walkable urban communities after nearly 60 years of the opposite,” said Leinberger.

To learn more about emerging market trends favoring higher-density, walkable communities, view Christopher Leinberger’s keynote “Welcome to the Future,” at Connecting Communities.