I recently received a Facebook link to a document produced by the United Nations. This document is titled “The Local Agenda 21 Planning Guide“. Sounds innocuous don’t it? It is not, in fact it is a dangerous document that a number of counties and cities in Florida have embraced as their guide to produce a more” just” society.

So who are these counties and what have they elected to do to you and me?

These counties are all members of ICLEI – Global. Ever heard of it? Neither did I and I was shocked to learn that the county I live in Sarasota, FL was a member.

Other Florida counties and cities who are members of ICLEI – Global are: Delray Beach, Gainesville, Key West, Leon County, Marathon, Miami, Miami-Dade County, Monroe County, Naples, North Miami, Orange County, Orlando, Pinellas County, Sarasota County, City of Sarasota, South Daytona, Tampa, and Venice.

Note that two of the major cities in Sarasota County, Sarasota and Venice, are members along with the County.

So what are ICLEI – Global members committed to? According to their website:

“Our campaigns, programs, and projects promote Local Agenda 21 as a participatory, long-term, strategic planning process that addresses local sustainability while protecting global common goods. Linking local action to internationally agreed upon goals and targets such as Agenda 21, the Rio Conventions, the Habitat Agenda, the Millennium Development Goals and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation is an essential component.”

So what is Local Agenda 21? According to Maurice Strong’s opening speech at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development:

“…current lifestyles and consumption patterns of the affluent middle class – involving high meat intake use of fossil fuels, appliances, home and work-place air-conditioning, and suburban housing – are not sustainable. A shift is necessary. Which will require a vast strengthening of the multilateral system, including the United Nations…”

Chapter 3, Section 1 states, “The eradication of poverty and hunger, greater equity in income distribution and human resource development remain major challenges everywhere. The struggle against poverty is the shared responsibility of all countries.”

Note: This global contract binds all nations and spreading regions to the collective vision of “sustainable development.” They must commit to pursue the three E’s of “sustainability”: Environment, Economy and Equity referring to the UN blueprint for environmental regulations, economic regulations, and social equity.

This past week I attended a briefing by Rob Lewis, Executive Director of Planning & Development Services for Sarasota County, concerning a Sarasota County initiative called “Smart Growth”. Some local groups and individuals are linking the Smart Growth movement with Agenda 21. The Thoreau Institute has looked at this claim and here is what they found:

“Smart growth is not a UN conspiracy to reduce national sovereignty. Instead, it is an entirely home-grown product whose major effect will be to reduce individual freedom. While smart-growth advocates occasionally lean on the Kyoto treaty and other international products to justify their plans, they are not directed by or even inspired by the United Nations in any way.

To start with, no part of Agenda 21 mentions smart growth or any of smart growth’s buzzwords, such as compact cities, traffic calming, transit-oriented development, pedestrian-friendly design, auto dependency, or sprawl. All Agenda 21 says about transportation is that governments should:

Develop and promote, as appropriate, cost-effective, more efficient, less polluting and safer transport systems, particularly integrated rural and urban mass transit, as well as environmentally sound road networks.

Despite the mention of transit, this recommendation can be satisfied merely by encouraging auto manufacturers to build more hybrid-electric cars such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight. Both Ford and GMC say they have such cars in the works. Many manufacturers are also working on fuel-cell technologies.

All of the main goals of smart growth, including compact cities, transit-oriented development, traffic calming, and pedestrian-friendly design, preceded Agenda 21 by many years. So did public worries, whether well-founded or not, over sprawl, auto dependency, and highway construction. Yet Agenda 21 does not even mention these goals or worries.

Though the term smart growth was not coined until later, the fact is that Agenda 21 was influenced by smart growth advocates, not the other way around. Without Agenda 21 and the United Nations, we would still suffer from smart growth exactly as we see it today. But without the promoters of the ideas that make up smart growth, we might not have Agenda 21, which is based on same concerns about the environment that motivate some parts of smart growth.

What planners call smart growth today came from many different sources.

  • Planners promoted the idea of compact cities in the early 1970s.
  • Architect Peter Calthorpe promoted the idea of urban villages that relied on transit and walking instead of driving.
  • Architect Andres Duany promoted the idea of design codes to promote a sense of community and somehow discourage driving.
  • The rail construction lobby promoted light rail and other rail transit.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency promoted the idea of reducing air pollution by discouraging driving through any means possible.
  • Environmentalists seeking the protection of rural open space promoted urban-growth boundaries.
  • Big-city mayors and downtown business interests promoted federal subsidies and anything else that would favor the central cities over the suburbs.

This is an oversimplification, of course; many people and interests promoted many of these ideas. The point is that smart growth is hardly the cohesive product of one United Nations conference; if it had been, it might make a bit more sense. Instead, it is a hodge-podge of policies, some of which are in outright conflict with one another.

Some parts of smart growth (rail transit, subsidies to downtown) are almost pure pork. Other parts (minimum-density zoning, traffic calming) are serious infringements on freedom and commerce to favor a few interest groups. Almost nothing about smart growth will reduce energy consumption or air pollution, which is the goal of Agenda 21.

Visioning processes are invariably heavily biased against low-density suburbs and automobiles. Even if they were not, they are inherently biased in favor of central planning instead of individual freedom. If we can envision the right future for our cities, why run the risk that freedom and markets might fail to achieve that vision? Instead, once we have the vision we must use central planning to impose that vision on the future.

The proliferation of visioning to the many cities mentioned in eco-logic only shows that we have given planners way too much power and credibility. All the things that planners have done in the past, including urban renewal, public housing, and the idea of building freeways through poor neighborhoods to remove “urban blight,” have done far more harm than good. The lesson we need to learn is that planning itself is a fundamentally flawed concept.

(At this point, I have to say that Peter Gordon, Harry Richardson, and other market-oriented planners at the University of Southern California have it right: Planning should be aimed at letting individual freedom and the market work, not at supplanting them. But Gordon & Richardson are in the distinct minority of planners.)

Smart growth is not a UN conspiracy. It comes from our own urban planning schools and city planning departments.”

The question is do we want this centralized control, which bumps up against our individual freedoms, the free market system, and our inalienable right to property? I will continue to report on this “Smart Growth” initiative as it develops.


Richard is a 23-year Army veteran who retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1990. He was awarded the Legion of Merit for his years of service. Additionally, he was awarded the Bronze Star with “V” for Heroism in ground combat, the Presidential Unit Citation, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry while serving with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. He is a graduate of the Field Artillery Officers Basic and Advanced Courses, and U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.