What is smart growth?

What do we want?

An underlying assumption of this paper is that "smart growth" is good, important, and worth supporting. If that's so, we should be clear about what the term meansand also what it means to advance smart growth (i.e., how do we define success?).

In the past decade, a national movement has developed to promote smart growth. The movement involves a broad range of actorsfrom environmental groups to the Urban Land Institute. And it is encouraging to see that these actors share similar views about the definition and goals of smart growth. Here are examples of definitions from some of these different perspectives. It's worth spending a few minutes to skim through them and develop an appreciation of what this movement advocates and the language it uses.

The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has been a leader of the national Smart Growth Network,1 describes smart growth as a development process that:

  • Mixes land uses.
  • Takes advantage of compact building design.
  • Creates housing opportunities and choices for a range of household types, family sizes and incomes.
  • Creates walkable neighborhoods.
  • Fosters distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place.
  • Preserves open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas.
  • Reinvests in and strengthen existing communities and achieves more balanced regional development.
  • Provides a variety of transportation choices.
  • Makes development decisions predictable, fair and cost-effective.
  • Encourages citizen and stakeholder participation in development decisions.

Smart Growth America
Smart Growth America,2 a national coalition of groups, defines smart growth according to its outcomesoutcomes that it says mirror the basic values of most Americans. Thus, smart growth is growth that helps to achieve these six goals:

  • Neighborhood livability: The central goal of any smart growth plan is the quality of the neighborhoods where we live. They should be safe, convenient, attractive, and affordable. Sprawl development too often forces trade-offs between these goals. Some neighborhoods are safe but not convenient. Others are convenient but not affordable. Too many affordable neighborhoods are not safe. Careful planning can help bring all these elements together.
  • Better access, less traffic: One of the major downfalls of sprawl is traffic. By putting jobs, homes and other destinations far apart and requiring a car for every trip, sprawl makes everyday tasks a chore. Smart growth's emphasis on mixing land uses, clustering development, and providing multiple transportation choices helps us manage congestion, pollute less and save energy. Those who want to drive can, but people who would rather not drive everywhere or don't own a car have other choices.
  • Thriving cities, suburbs, and towns: Smart growth puts the needs of existing communities first. By guiding development to already built-up areas, money for investments in transportation, schools, libraries and other public services can go to the communities where people live today. This is especially important for neighborhoods that have inadequate public services and low levels of private investment. It is also critical for preserving what makes so many places special-attractive buildings, historic districts and cultural landmarks.
  • Shared benefits: Sprawl leaves too many people behind. Divisions by income and race have allowed some areas to prosper while others languish. As basic needs such as jobs, education and health care become less plentiful in some communities, residents have diminishing opportunities to participate in their regional economy. Smart growth enables all residents to be beneficiaries of prosperity.
  • Lower cost, lower taxes: Sprawl costs money. Opening up green space to new development means that the cost of new schools, roads, sewer lines, and water supplies will be borne by residents throughout metro areas. Sprawl also means families have to own more cars and drive them farther. This has made transportation the second highest category of household spending, just behind shelter. Smart growth helps on both fronts. Taking advantage of existing infrastructure keeps taxes down. And where convenient transportation choices enable families to rely less on driving, there's more money left over for other things, like buying a home or saving for college.
  • Keep open space open: By focusing development in already built-up areas, smart growth preserves rapidly vanishing natural treasures. From forests and farms to wetlands and wildlife, smart growth lets us pass on to our children the landscapes we love. Communities are demanding more parks that are conveniently located and bring recreation within reach of more people. Also, protecting natural resources will provide healthier air and cleaner drinking water.

American Planning Association
In recent years, the American Planning Association3 has made smart growth a focal point of its work with projects such as Growing Smart,4 a major initiative aimed at helping states modernize statutes affecting planning and the management of growth. Recently, the APA issued a "Policy Guide on Smart Growth," which offers the following definition:

Smart growth means using comprehensive planning to guide, design, develop, revitalize and build communities for all that:

  • have a unique sense of community and place;
  • preserve and enhance valuable natural and cultural resources;
  • equitably distribute the costs and benefits of development;
  • expand the range of transportation, employment and housing choices in a fiscally responsible manner;
  • value long-range, regional considerations of sustainability over short term incremental geographically isolated actions; and
  • promotes public health and healthy communities.

Compact, transit-accessible, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use development patterns and land reuse epitomize the application of the principles of smart growth. In contrast to prevalent development practices, smart growth refocuses a larger share of regional growth within central cities, urbanized areas, inner suburbs, and areas that are already served by infrastructure. Smart growth reduces the share of growth that occurs on newly urbanizing land, existing farmlands, and in environmentally sensitive areas.

Ohio Lake Erie Commission
Here in Ohio, there also have been interesting statements related to smart growth. In 2000, the Ohio Lake Erie Commission, an agency that coordinates Lake Erie policy among state departments, released the Lake Erie Protection and Restoration Plan.5 The plan emphasizes that the way land is developed in the Lake Erie watershed is the key problem affecting the health of the lake. It calls for "balanced growth" practices to be followed throughout the watershed, and it recommends ten guiding principles for a sustainable Lake Erie watershed:

Activities in the Ohio Lake Erie watershed should:
1. Maximize reinvestment in existing core urban areas, transportation, and infrastructure networks to enhance the economic viability of existing communities.
2. Minimize the conversion of green space and the loss of critical habitat areas, farmland, forest and open spaces.
3. Limit any net increase in the loading of pollutants or transfer of pollution loading from one medium to another.
4. To the extent feasible, protect and restore the natural hydrology of the watershed and flow characteristics of its streams and tributaries.
5. Restore the physical and chemical habitat of the watershed to protect and restore diverse and thriving plant and animal communities and preserve our rare and endangered species.
6. Encourage the inclusion of all economic and environmental factors into cost/benefit accounting in land use and development decisions.
7. Avoid development decisions that shift economic benefits or environmental burdens from one location to another.
8. Establish and maintain a safe, efficient, and accessible transportation system that integrates highway, rail, air, transit, water and pedestrian networks to foster economic growth and personal travel.
9. Encourage that all new development and redevelopment initiatives address the need to protect and preserve access to historic, cultural and scenic resources.
10. Promote public access to and enjoyment of our natural resources for all Ohioans.

Home Builders
Finally, the Home Builders Association of Northeast Ohio has organized a Smart Growth Education Foundation6 to promote better planning for land development in the region. According to the home builders:

Smart Growth means meeting the housing demand in "smarter ways" by planning for and building to higher densities, preserving meaningful open spaces and protecting environmentally sensitive areas. It addresses questions of how best to plan for and manage growth; when and where new residential areas, commercial development, schools and major highways should be built and located; and how to pay for the infrastructure required to serve a growing region.

Success measured by changes on the ground
In summary, among many mainstream organizations there is broad agreement on the basic definition and features of smart growth. Smart growth is not anti-growth. Rather, it is about developing (and redeveloping) communities and metropolitan regions in a different waya way that will be more sustainable than the highway-oriented suburban sprawl that has characterized development in America in recent decades.

Ultimately, smart growth will require changing the location and form of development. Success will be measured by real changes on the ground.

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