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Urban Outfitter

Mitt Romney versus cars.

The past decade has seen the spread of a faith concentrated in the country’s more progressive-minded cities: the religion of smart growth. Its adherents are planners, environmentalists, and builders who believe development should be focused in existing communities rather than sprawling into the countryside. For them, good development is “infill,” “new urbanist,” and “transit-oriented,” and bad development is “greenfield,” “car-dependent,” and “half-acre lots.” They loathe cul-de-sacs and love light rail. And, for several years, they were proud to count as one of their own Mitt Romney. 

Romney’s liberal heresies on health care, gay rights, and abortion are well established. Less well known is that, as governor of Massachusetts, he was a smart-growth acolyte. He hinted at this predilection during the campaign in 2002. “Smart growth, or purposeful planning, is a concept that will be in the governor’s office if I’m elected,” he said. After winning, he created a new “Office for Commonwealth Development” to oversee the transportation, environment, and housing departments—and named as its chief Douglas Foy. It was a brash decision for a business-oriented politician: Foy was the head of the state’s Conservation Law Foundation and an ardent environmentalist who often commuted 20 miles by bike. “He was the bane of the business and development community,” Benjamin Fierro, the lobbyist for the state homebuilders’ association, told me. “My clients were very concerned about that.”

Romney and Foy wasted little time in putting smart-growth policies to work. The state, they declared, would take a “fix-it-first” approach to highway spending—repairing existing roads instead of building new ones. They also pledged to cut the number of SUVs in the state fleet. In addition, the state put out a new highway-design manual intended to make towns more pedestrian-friendly, with narrower streets designed for slower driving speeds. “It was all really woolly, totally green, new-urbanist stuff—and it was state policy,” says Anthony Flint, who covered land-use issues for The Boston Globe and went on to join Foy’s office in 2005. The biggest move came in 2004, when Romney signed legislation, dubbed Chapter 40R, providing funds to towns and cities that agreed to allow more high-density, multi-family housing. “It was fundamentally anti-sprawl. It was saying that the days of having a developer buy a Christmas tree farm and throw up a bunch of single-family homes on half-acre lots were over,” Flint recalls. “It was a real awakening.”

Foy told me he suspects Romney’s interest in smart growth traces to his father George (who served as Richard Nixon’s secretary of housing and urban development) as well as to his own background in management consulting. (Smart-growth development is more efficient, since it spares the need to build roads and other infrastructure in new areas.) But he also thinks Romney took real pride in the design of historic New England towns. One of Romney’s peeves, Foy recalls, was that zoning in many towns barred building apartments over street-level shops: “He loved talking about the fact that Concord was illegal in Concord—that you couldn’t build the paradigmatic New England town with the town center, which struck him as ludicrous.” Then there was the day Romney and Foy were together at a ribbon-cutting for a traffic-calming project and Romney started lamenting that Salt Lake City’s streets were too wide because they were designed in the days of wagon trains that needed to be able to turn around. “He thought that that was a problem and that New England had thankfully not had wagon trains, so its streets were more tightly knit … and more pedestrian-friendly,” Foy remembers. “He just came up with that. He really did grasp the core elements of why this stuff mattered.” Flint observed blunter New England chauvinism at a photo-op for an infill development along Boston’s Fort Point Channel, when Romney declared that smart growth was preferable because “we don’t want to become like Houston”—before quickly adding, “Not that there’s anything wrong with Texas.”

Romney’s record in this area wasn’t, in the end, as liberal as some would have liked. Environmentalists criticized him for slashing the budget for land conservation, which they argued undermined attempts to direct growth into built-up areas. They also noted that towns were slow to respond to the 40R incentives. “The weaponry was not big enough to achieve the results,” says James Gomes, a Clark University professor who at the time was president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. “It was four years where very little was accomplished other than the initial adroit positioning.” Meanwhile, Anne Tate, who’d taken leave from her professorship at the Rhode Island School of Design to join Foy’s team, detected less than full enthusiasm from Romney. She recalls a photo-op to announce a new development on a transit line in Revere when she had to insist that Romney take the train rather than his SUV. “He seemed a little confused,” she remembers. “It was clear it wasn’t part of his normal routine.”

As buzz grew around Romney’s White House aspirations, his interest waned further. “There was a sense while we were working on these things that Romney had his eye on the presidency and various decisions were being made with an eye on how they would play with the national party,” Tate says. “We’d get out there and feel like he didn’t really have our back.” David Dixon, whose architecture firm drafted the state’s guidelines for transit-oriented development, says Foy’s office “just drifted off into a quiet demise. The policies [Romney] had advocated, it was almost day and night. He stopped talking about them.” In December 2005, Romney announced he wouldn’t run for reelection—the same month he pulled the state out of the regional greenhouse-gas initiative that Foy’s office had helped craft. Two months later, Foy announced he was quitting. He left after one final achievement: pulling 22 grant and loan programs into one $500 million pot that was disbursed based on towns’ willingness to revise their zoning in line with smart-growth principles.

Not that you’re going to hear Romney talk about this today. His economic platform is all about reducing government involvement, he is raising doubts about man-made climate change, and his new deficit-reduction plan calls for big cuts to Amtrak. Foy, for one, is trying not to let this discourage him too much. He is sure he saw the real Romney back in Boston. “I’m proud of what we did,” Foy says, “and I think he’s proud of what we did.”

Alec MacGillis is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 1, 2011, issue of the magazine.