The controversy over “Growing Cities Sustainably”

Writing the last post addressing sprawl research issues got me thinking back to a controversy that occurred a number of years ago over the publication of a piece of research relating to urban sprawl. In 2012, the Journal of the American Planning Association published the article “Growing Cities Sustainably: Does Urban Form Really Matter?” by Echenique, Hargreaves, Mitchell, and Namdeo. They used simulation models for 3 urban regions in Great Britain to forecast future development under several policy scenarios including compact development and dispersal. The results were then evaluated with respect to multiple indicators of sustainability, including travel, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions. Their conclusion was that the form of development has very limited effect on sustainability.

The publication of the article spurred an outcry among planning academics, many of whom are opponents of urban sprawl and supporters of compact development. Some dismissed the research because it involved cities in Great Britain. Others found simulation to be a flawed tool.

One writer took the reviewers for the Journal to task for supporting the publication of the article. This was something of a cheap shot, since reviewers are anonymous and cannot defend their work. But it avoids the personal conflict that would come from critizing the editor, who selects the reviewers and is always ultimately responsible for the decision to publish.

It was suggested that the article should not have been published without a simultaneous rebuttal. This echoed the famous pair of articles debating compact development with Gordan and Richardson versus Ewing in the Journal in 1997. I would argue that the two cases are different. The Gordon and Richardson article was fundamentally an opinion piece. It was not unreasonable to solicit and publish an opposing opinion at the same time. But I do not feel that it is appropriate to expect concurrent critiques of any research article which reaches conclusions that many do not like.

But most troubling to me was the statement that planning journals should not publish anything that does not support compact development. I consider this an astounding proposition. This is a call for nothing less than censorship. Consider the effect of a polcy not to publish anything at variance with broadly accepted ideas about the correct way to plan. There would have been a time when an article questioning the strict segregation of land uses would have been unpublishable.

The free and open exchange of ideas is the key to greater understanding, in planning as in other domains. I trust (hope?) that journal editors will not be cowed into refusing to publish articles that do not support mainstream opinion. But I fear that some of the notions expressed in this controversy cannot help but having a continuing negative effect going forward. An editor may not refuse to publish pieces reaching certain conclusions, but after this, will he or she think twice? Will researchers wonder whether they should publish results reaching unpopular conclusions? (This might be especially true for younger, untenured faculty, who might reasonably be concerned about the effect on their career prospects.)

The worst impact of this controversy, however, is the effect, especially on those outside the planning profession, considering research in planning journals that addresses the costs of sprawl and the benefits of compact development. If there is prevailing sentiment that any research that comes to different conclusions should not be published, then how much credence can and should be given to that which does see publication?

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