SmartCode is an effort to combine the many facets of development regulation (subdivision and platting regulations, building regulations, traffic and parking regulations, etc) into a single, streamlined, compact document. Its entire goal is to stay away from land-use controls (which unreasonably inhibit the market and create constant conflict at City Hall), and focus on simple, predictable, results-oriented standards.
In essence, SmartCode divides different scales of buildings into different “transect-zones”, defines how the street should be designed to accommodate the needs of different scales of development, and leaves the rest to the market. Contrary to popular belief, SmartCode is not about “style;” the standard code does not contain any.
Andrew argues that Houston has been well-served by avoiding destructive zoning regulations. And while his proposal differs from zoning in kind, it does not differ in principle.
The right to property is the right of use and disposal--property rights permit owners to use their property as they choose, free from interference from others (so long as they respect the mutual rights of others). Zoning violates property rights by dictating the use of each parcel of land, regardless of the decisions of the property owner. Any use contrary to the dictates of zoning officials is a criminal act.
While "SmartCode" does not dictate land-use, it does establish standards that are enforced by the coercive power of government. The property owner cannot use his property as he chooses, but must instead meet the mandates of the city's standard. Dressing a wolf in lamb's wool does not change its nature; attaching clever euphemisms to land-use regulations does not do so either.
There seems to be no shortage of proposals to use the force of government to achieve some ends, while simultaneously claiming that the results will be driven by the market. "SmartCode" is one example.
The advocates of these plans believe that a mixture of controls and freedom is compatible with a free market. They do not oppose controls and regulations, only those that "go too far". They do not oppose government mandates, only those that are "too heavy-handed". However, once the principle of government controls and regulations is accepted, the only issue to be decided is the extent of those controls.
Inevitably, those controls and regulations will expand. Government intervention in the market always leads to distortions and unintended consequences. In an effort to correct those distortions, government responds by tweaking the controls, leading to further distortions. Further, those harmed by the controls will lobby for exceptions and variances to shift the harm to others, while other groups lobby for tighter controls. The political process becomes a battleground as competing groups seek to influence city officials.
The solution does not lie in tweaking the controls or developing cute variations of land-use regulations. The solution lies in recognizing and protecting property rights--completely and consistently. The solution lies in a truly market-driven economy, not one partially shackled by government.
Whether it is "SmartCode", or planning, or "Houston-style zoning", the advocates of land-use controls want to have their cake and eat it too. They seem to recognize, at least in some crude unprincipled way, that Houston's relative freedom in land-use has provided enormous benefits to the city and its residents. But they remain unhappy with some of the results. They do not like the fact that some individuals use their property differently than they would choose. And so they demand that government force the recalcitrant to act "properly".
The advocates of land-use controls, no matter the name they attach to their proposals, begin with a Utopian vision for the city. When the voluntary decisions of the city's developers and consumers do not match that vision, they rush to wield the coercive power of government. They seek to compel others to act and live according to their ideal. That isn't smart, and it certainly isn't compatible with freedom.