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The myth of smart growth (report extract)

“Smart growth” is an urban growth management strategy that applies planning and design principles which are intended to mitigate the impacts of continued growth. If properly applied, these principles represent a positive contribution to new urban development. However, smart growth is part of the “culture of growth” that perpetuates the “endless growth model.” The rhetoric of smart growth is that population levels and growth rates are not the problem; it’s merely a matter of how we grow. According to the “smart growth” program, if we are less wasteful and more efficient in our urban growth, everything will work out fine. “Smart growth” does not see an end to growth or a need to end growth.

The term “smart growth,” and the movement associated with it, have tended to undermine earnest public concern about the environmental, social, and economic impacts of continued growth. Using smart growth rhetoric, public concern about the amount and pace of growth has been transformed into a discussion about how we should best continue growing. “Smart growth” is cast as a comprehensive solution, when it is actually just a means of postponing the inevitable consequences of too much growth.

What is Smart Growth?
The “smart growth” (SG) movement began to emerge in the late 1990s as a response to the problems resulting from a decade of intensive urban growth. To a large extent, SG is the current incarnation of urban growth management, which was bred in the 1960s and 70s. The strategies advocated under SG are not new. They simply incorporated planning and design practices developed 40 or more years ago. These practices have been packaged into a prescription for today’s growth ailments.

SG is largely a response to widespread public dislike of urban sprawl, and hence, SG advocates identify sprawl as the primary culprit. This relatively low-density, market-driven development pattern uses land in an inefficient manner. Sprawl results in the accelerated loss of undeveloped rural land and open space. Sprawling development is associated with environmental impacts, costly and inefficient demand for new public infrastructure and services, overreliance on automobile transportation, and loss of community character.

SG strives for denser development patterns that require less land. Accompanying this compact development are mixed-use and neighborhood design strategies that help make the denser development more appealing. SG has the potential to make development more profitable by reducing developer costs for land, roadways, parking, and utilities. These savings may be offset by the extra amenities required to make such compact development attractive to homebuyers and businesses.

The five main elements of SG have been effectively summarized by Gabor Zovanyi as:
 Growth containment in compact settlements
 Protection of the environment, resource lands, and open space
 Multi-modal transportation systems
 Mixed-use development
 Collaborative planning and decision making

In essence, SG represents an effort to promote greater efficiency in new urban development. Under the SG regimen, new development will use less land and have lower impacts on a per-capita or per-unit basis.

The SG goal of reigning in sprawl is ostensibly based on an underlying desire to protectundeveloped rural lands, farms, forests, natural areas, and open spaces from development. However, the clear impression one gets from smart growth literature is that, as long as new growth is compact and efficiently-planned, it is acceptable for development to continue consuming rural land and for the urban footprint to keep expanding. In other words, from the SG perspective, it’s okay to develop rural lands as long as it’s done properly in an orderly and efficient manner.

It is highly notable that SG proponents do not identify growth itself as part of the problem. Instead, all problems associated with growth are attributed to the manner in which growth occurs, not the amount or pace of growth. Thus, SG proponents maintain that growth itself is benign and that growth-related problems can be adequately addressed by influencing where and how growth occurs.

Members of the SG movement are frequently quoted in the media prefacing their remarks about local land use, growth, and development issues by saying “We are not opposed to growth.” They may clarify that they are merely concerned that growth occurs in a “responsible way.” Thus, they have preemptively swept critical aspects of the growth debate off the table and out of the public dialogue, shifting the focus to the details of how growth should occur.

Is SG the solution we are looking for? The answer depends on our understanding of the problem. SG proponents have identified the problem as poorly-planned, sprawling development. However, it seems clear that sprawl is one symptom of the real problem, which is growth: growth in population and the associated urban development.

SG advocates claim we don’t need to worry about the rate of growth or the number of people we will have in the future if we keep growing. They argue that we can continue to accommodate growth indefinitely through better planning and mitigation of negative impacts. Growth is not the problem, they tell us, it’s just how we grow that needs to be addressed. SG has a recipe for growth and, if followed closely, SG advocates promise it will keep us on the path of growth without sacrificing our environment, eroding our quality of life, or losing the amenities and attributes that we care about in our communities. Small towns need not worry about becoming overrun by growth, they say, with SG, the “small-town feeling” will be maintained even as the town becomes a city.

The gospel of SG is certainly seductive: we can keep on doing what we’ve been doing, and with a few fairly easy changes, protect all that we care about. But are these claims realistic? Can we really just keep on growing while protecting the environment, our natural resources, and the quality of the community for current and future generations? Many people want to believe so.

However, such belief in SG fails to recognize that even the smartest growth places a heavy burden on our environment and our communities, and creates significant impacts, most of which cannot be fully mitigated. An expanding local population requires more land, more expensive infrastructure, more services, more energy, more natural resources, more waste production, more greenhouse gas emissions, more water, more food production, and more transportation.

SG proponents are making an implied tradeoff: they are concluding that the benefits from continued growth are greater than the costs, as long as their SG formula is applied. But what precisely are these benefits from growth? Where are they documented? And how do they compare with the costs? None of this sort of objective accounting is ever performed by the SG proponents. Since continued urban growth will have major impacts on our cities, towns, and rural areas across the country, an objective analysis of the costs and benefits seems obligatory.

The “technological fix” theory argues that we can address the needs of an expanding population and its environmental impacts through technological solutions. SG is a form of the technological fix that tries to solve growth problems through better planning and design. But how far can this type of solution go?

Editorial Notes: References and graphics in the original. You can access the pdf here. Reposted with permission. -KS

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