Editor’s note: This article first appeared on PLANetizen.

Participants in an Internet e-mail discussion list recently engaged in a heated debate on the impact of libertarian principles on urban planning in the United States. Here we present an edited version of the original e-mail debate, which centered on the “The Lone Mountain Compact,” which appears at the end of this perspective.

Kenneth Orski, editor and publisher of Innovation Briefs: The Lone Mountain Compact, of which I am proud to be a signatory, is a collection of principles, the key of which is that people ought to be allowed to live and work where and how they choose. However, to characterize the Lone Mountain Coalition as “Libertarian” is a misnomer. The Lone Mountain coalition has no political agenda. It is a group of like-minded individuals who believe in limited government, maximum individual freedom and market-driven land use decisions.

G.B. Arrington, senior professional associate for transit-oriented development at the Parsons Brinckerhoff Land Use Resource Center in Portland, Ore.: You submitted the Lone Mountain Compact as an illustration of the principles you would apply to a site. New Urbanism is all about creating wonderful, vibrant places for people. For the New Urbanist place, design and the interaction of uses matter. For the Lone Mountain gang it appears what matters most is the absence of government, and the ability to make decisions unfettered by others. I’m sure you will politely disagree. So in the defense of your compact I’d love to have you forward the site plans and renderings of a community that you feel embraces and follows the Lone Mountain Compact, along with a short explanation of how the compact has been applied to create a great and wonderful place that we would want to include at CNU.

Orski: I have no quarrel with New Urbanism and its desire to create livable places through rational planning and more attractive design. I have always been a great admirer of Andres Duany and his followers, and I subscribe to the principles they stand for. My quarrel (if I may call it that) is with the “smart growth” movement, which is not a set of planning/design principles but rather a political ideology with an authoritarian bent–an ideology that is at odds with the principles of free choice and decentralized decisionmaking that I believe both New Urbanism and the Lone Mountain Compact stand for. Let us once and for all distinguish between New Urbanism and “Smart Growth.” By so doing, I think we shall avoid a lot of future misunderstandings.

Patrick Condon, James Taylor chair in landscape and livable environments at the University of British Columbia: Yes, let us distinguish between New Urbanist principles deployed at the site scale, where they might lead to an attractive, livable, but atypical community (an activity Orski seems to support) and any attempt to encourage the broader community of citizens to also enjoy these advantages (an activity Orski opposes). There is a huge difference between democracy and “authoritarianism.” It is shameful to confuse them.

John Hooker, mayor of The Village of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, N.M.: [Some thoughts in response to the Lone Mountain Compact itself]: Is zoning “prescriptive and centralized”? Most public planning today consists of amendments to zoning maps and the ongoing redefinition of public rights of way. Are ad hoc private government and zoning superior to established public processes?

Is the market always free of perverse consequences as it maximizes individual (and corporate) benefits regardless of public costs? How will public infrastructure be planned and funded if changes in existing densities are dynamic and decentralized? What do we do with overcapacity and long-term public debt when the density does not occur or the uses leave? Are impact fees an undue burden on the market and the poor?

Do private landowners really want to fight every battle with their neighbors new and old over alleged nuisances in an unregulated land-use market? Is there a limit to dynamism?

How do the signers define “efficient” land use? What are “growth controls”? How far into the future should we plan? Who will do that planning for the future especially if all decisions are made at the neighborhood level?

Are the parties even ready to agree on the “facts” at all? For example, Smart Growth America produced a survey of 50-some-odd metropolitan areas and ranked them regarding “sprawl” by a large set of criteria. Supporters of the status quo will selectively choose the specific criteria that support the argument that their town is not “sprawling.” Another example is the arguments over global warming and the generation of greenhouse gases. Then there is the challenge of the enormous “ecological footprints” that our dynamic, decentralized metropolises demand. There is some debate about how sustainable this lifestyle is. How will the market of today respond to the potential disasters of tomorrow?

Orski: We could go on forever arguing the finer points of the free market versus government intervention. But that misses my original point, and that is, that New Urbanism should not be confused with the “smart growth” movement. The former is a laudable effort to make our urban and suburban communities more livable, a goal that I and my colleagues in the Lone Mountain Compact fraternity share.

“Smart Growth” is a movement with a political agenda that has nothing to do with improving people’s daily lives. Rather, it is an effort by a certain group of urban elitists to impose their lifestyle choices on the vast majority of Americans who prefer a suburban lifestyle, and in the guise of “sprawl containment” and “open space preservation,” deprive low-income households of an opportunity to share in the American dream of home ownership.

G.B. Arrington: I would add that nowhere in the “debate” does Orski ever provide an example of a built project reflecting libertarian principles. To be useful we need to move beyond theory and look at what is happening in the built world. The real difference between libertarians and New Urbanists is that the New Urbanists are engaged in the practical work of building and planning projects. If the libertarians want to be taken seriously in the debate on planning they need to move out of ivory towers and into the real world where the action is.

The Lone Mountain Compact: Principles for Preserving Freedom and Livability in America’s Cities and Suburbs

The phenomenon of urban sprawl has become a pre-eminent controversy throughout the United States. Recently a number of scholars and writers, gathered at a conference about the issue at Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky, Montana by the Political Economy Research Center, decided to distill their conclusions into the following brief statement of principles:


The unprecedented increase in prosperity over the last 25 years has created a large and growing upper middle class in America. New modes of work and leisure combined with population growth have fueled successive waves of suburban expansion in the 20th century. Technological progress is likely to increase housing choice and community diversity even further in the 21st century, enabling more people to live and work outside the conventional urban forms of our time. These choices will likely include low-density, medium-density, and high-density urban forms. This growth brings rapid change to our communities, often with negative side effects, such as traffic congestion, crowded public schools, and the loss of familiar open space. All of these factors are bound up in the controversy that goes by the term “sprawl.” The heightened public concern over the character of our cities and suburbs is a healthy expression of citizen demand for solutions that are responsive to our changing needs and wants. Yet tradeoffs between different policy options for addressing these concerns are poorly understood. Productive solutions to public concerns will adhere to the following fundamental principles.

Principles for Livable Cities:

  • The most fundamental principle is that, absent a material threat to other individuals or the community, people should be allowed to live and work where and how they like.

  • Prescriptive, centralized plans that attempt to determine the detailed outcome of community form and function should be avoided. Such “comprehensive” plans interfere with the dynamic, adaptive, and evolutionary nature of neighborhoods and cities.

  • Densities and land uses should be market driven, not plan driven. Proposals to supersede market-driven land use decisions by centrally directed decisions are vulnerable to the same kind of perverse consequences as any other kind of centrally planned resource allocation decisions, and show little awareness of what such a system would have to accomplish even to equal the market in effectiveness.

  • Communities should allow a diversity in neighborhood design, as desired by the market. Planning and zoning codes and building regulations should allow for neotraditional neighborhood design, historic neighborhood renovation and conversion, and other mixed-use development and the more decentralized development forms of recent years.

  • Decisions about neighborhood development should be decentralized as far as possible. Local neighborhood associations and private covenants are superior to centralized or regional government planning agencies.

  • Local planning procedures and tools should incorporate private property rights as a fundamental element of development control. Problems of incompatible or conflicting land uses will be better resolved through the revival of common law principles of nuisance than through zoning regulations which tend to be rigid and inefficient.

  • All growth management policies should be evaluated according to their cost of living and “burden-shifting” effects. Urban growth boundaries, minimum lot sizes, restrictions on housing development, restrictions on commercial development, and other limits on freely functioning land markets that increase the burdens on lower income groups must be rejected.

  • Market-oriented transportation strategies should be employed, such as peak period road pricing, HOT lanes, toll roads, and de-monopolized mass transit. Monopoly public transit schemes, especially fixed rail transit that lacks the flexibility to adapt to the changing destinations of a dynamic, decentralized metropolis, should be viewed skeptically.

  • The rights of present residents should not supersede those of future residents. Planners, citizens, and local officials should recognize that “efficient” land use must include consideration for household and consumer wants, preferences, and desires. Thus, growth controls and land-use planning must consider the desires of future residents and generations, not solely current residents.

  • Planning decisions should be based upon facts, not perceptions. A number of the concerns raised in the “sprawl” debate are based upon false perceptions. The use of good data in public policy is crucial to the continued progress of American cities and the social advance of all its citizens.


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