As we look back on 2006, one milestone our country reached came in October, when the US population reached 300 million. This is a vast and beautiful country with ample room for all of us 300 million (and many more), but the milestone should remind us that we can ill afford to accomodate our future population increase with more suburban sprawl.
Fortunately, there is an alternative in urban planning that is growing in popularity. It preserves more open space, creates cohesive neighborhoods with distinct identities and local amenities, and reduces dependence on fossil fuels, to name just a few of its benefits. This alternative works because it combines established and time-tested principles of town planning, innovative ideas, and democratic participation in land-use decisions (i.e. people power). It is smart growth.
Note: This diary centers around a booklet entitled, "This Is Smart Growth," published by the Smart Growth Network (and assisted by an EPA grant), and the EPA's own Smart Growth Illustrated webpage. Quotes excerpted from the booklet are marked by page numbers. Photos from the Smart Growth Illustrated website are marked simply "EPA."
In plain terms, smart growth (closely associated with the planning and architectural movement known as New Urbanism) is a set of principles that guide how our neighborhoods, towns, and cities are built and-or rebuilt.
When communities choose smart growth strategies, they can create new neighborhoods and maintain existing ones that are attractive, convenient, safe, and healthy. They can foster design that encourages social, civic, and physical activity. They can protect the environment while stimulating economic growth. Most of all, they can create more choices for residents, workers, visitors, children, families, single people, and older adults—choices in where to live, how to get around, and how to interact with the people around them. When communities do this kind of planning, they preserve the best of their past while creating a bright future for generations to come. [p. 5]
Smart growth works because it is built upon principles that relate to positive aspects of community development.
Smart Growth Principles
• Mix land uses
• Take advantage of compact building design
• Create a range of housing opportunities and choices
• Create walkable neighborhoods
• Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place
• Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas
• Strengthen and direct development towards existing communities
• Provide a variety of transportation choices
• Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost effective
• Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions
Building our communities on a walkable scale is an essential component of bringing about energy security, energy independence, and sustainability. It is easy to conceptualize energy efficiency in terms of electricity use: compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) instead of incandescents, Energy Star appliances, etc. Smart growth, in a sense, is efficiency at an urban planning level. As I pointed out in a previous diary, it is not a foregone conclusion that we have to burn as much oil as we do in our everyday lives. The extent of our oil use is mainly a function of the extent of dependence of our built environment on the automobile. Smart growth incorporates the notion that common community amenities (such as grocery stores or restaurants) should be within a 5- to 10-minute walk (or, at most, a short bike ride or drive) from any given home.
Environmental Protection and Conservation
There is no better way to save the planet than planning our cities and towns sustainably from now on. It is rivaled only, in my mind, by actions such as purchasing local organic foods and bicycling/walking (both of which are influenced by city planning).
Smart growth protects the environment by allowing for greater preservation of open space, reducing dependency on cars while promoting biking and walking, improves water management by limiting the amount of paved or built-on land (and provides for water management and conservation measures on that land), mitigates threats to biodiversity, and allows for more arable land.
Examples abound of communities that have utilized smart growth to protect their natural surroundings, but two communities were highlighted in a recent article by Neil Peirce of the Seattle Times, excerpted below the photo.
(Prairie Crossing, IL, north of Chicago - Prairie Crossing website)
Prairie Crossing is proudly re-creating pockets of the wildflower-dotted prairies that once thrived across Mid-America; with its easy rail connection to the Chicago Loop and O'Hare, it aims to be a national model of transit-oriented development.
Prairie Crossing brought back prairie grass to fields occupied for decades by conventional corn and soybean crops that depended on heavy pesticide use. Before, six species of birds were seen on the site; now there are 120. The re-introduced prairie grasses, their roots running as deep as 15 feet, now hold the soil better.
To assure views for everyone, Prairie Crossing built its houses around common garden areas, and in one case a 22-acre manmade lake. All the buildings are constructed to high-energy-efficiency levels.
But Prairie Crossing's most startling feature is its farm — 50 acres, nestled in the community and producing, organically, beets, grapes, herbs and fresh eggs. With an on-site farmers market and one other outlet, the husband-wife farmer team avoids wholesale markets and grosses an amazing $14,000 to $15,000 per acre per year.
Prairie Crossing quells the temptation to conclude that suburbs themselves are bad; it's just that the way most suburbs have been built over the last 60 years - pavement-heavy, car dominant, inefficient from an energy standpoint, filled with over-commercialization and hosts of big box stores, socially isolating, etc. - has negative consequences. This is the irony of the suburbs: they grew out of the noble conception (first popularly articulated by Ebenezer Howard) of combining the benefits of both city and country while avoiding the downfalls, but today they ended up retaining the downfalls and missing the benefits. Prairie Crossing, on the other hand, has established guiding principles that are nearly identical with smart growth principles. This is no coincidence, as it was designed by New Urbanist mogul Peter Calthorpe.
The second community in Peirce's article is Habersham (note: website plays soothing guitar music), in Beaufort, South Carolina, not far north from Hilton Head Island.
Habersham, like Prairie Crossing, carefully constructed a system of swales and ponds to slow down and filter rainwater before it flows into the adjoining marshes and river. Its roads follow old cattle paths; at several spots one has to steer around a grand old oak or other tree left standing dead center in the roadway. In a prior developer's plan, rear yards of new homes would have occupied the land directly to the river; now the riverside features lovely walkways and roadways allowing grand views from the homes but keeping most of the riverbank and marshes open to all residents and visitors.
Habersham's plan (PDF) was created by New Urbanist pioneers Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. The community's design incorporates a sensitivity to the marshy landscape situated close to many waterways and the Atlantic Ocean.
There is, of course, a strong opposition to community planning that takes on many forms. The 2006 election's four so-called takings initiatives (diaried by lokiloki and others, plus covered excellently in this Grist article) were just the latest manifestation to rear its ugly head. (Luckily for Washington, California, and Idaho, their initiatives failed. Sorry Arizona.) Another example is this sloppy website created by an ultra-conservative group opposing a light rail plan for Madison, WI (replete with straw person comparisons, falsehoods, and an appearance that suggests a 10-year-old could have created it, but lets leave these critiques for a future diary).
Anyway, the opposition is trying to peddle the myth that smart growth will destroy the economies of the communities it serves. In fact, the opposite is true: smart growth strategies are huge economic boons to communities, whereas suburban sprawl's unsustainability is leading it inexorably toward economic decline.
The Minneapolis–St. Paul Metropolitan Council found that by using smart growth techniques, "the region overall could save $3 billion..., 94 percent [of which] would come from local communities saving money on roads and sewers. These local savings could be even far greater by including lower spending on school construction and other services such as health care, public safety, libraries, etc." [p. 12]
In Florence, Alabama, city leaders struggled with an aging downtown that was losing stores and residents. To make the most of investments in the area, Florence made a bold decision to build a state-of-the-art library in the heart of town. This investment reassured citizens and businesses that additional private dollars invested in the area would not be wasted, and now it is paying off: nearly 95 percent of downtown buildings are occupied. By working with what it already had to revive the downtown, Florence has given new meaning to its nickname, "The Renaissance City."
The Mefford family played a role in the city’s recent turnaround. "We really wanted to stay downtown," says Olin Mefford, whose grandfather opened a jewelry store there in 1945. Encouraged by the visible public investment and the commitment of business owners like the Meffords, other businesses have moved downtown, bringing hundreds of jobs. [p. 12]
One example of economic development (in Louisville) is described below, but for this section let's highlight a neighborhood in the next Yearly Kos host city (and now my own city of residence).
(Bethel Center, West Garfield Park, Chicago, IL - EPA 2006 National Awards for Smart Growth Achievement)
Bethel Center is a model of environmentally friendly design. The center was built on a former brownfield, and its transit-accessible, walkable location gives people transportation options. The development incorporates green building technology and features a green roof, photovoltaic cells, and recycled and non-toxic building materials.
Bethel Center is a first step to revitalizing the area. Bethel New Life has also built 50 affordable homes within walking distance of Bethel Center and the train station.
Employment opportunities are important for residents in the West Garfield Park neighborhood. Bethel Center provides employment counseling, job training, and placement services. Approximately 600 visitors seek help each month, and retail tenants at Bethel Center hire from the employment training program. (Same link as photo)
Bethel Center also has a bank, shops, and a daycare, all provided near public transportation (which will be easy to get to from McCormick Place, for Kossacks interested in green sightseeing). Because of these and other aspects of the innovative project, it won the EPA's 2006 National Award for Smart Growth Development in the "Equitable Development" category. (Note: Bethel Center is also near the Chicago Center for Green Technology, a must-visit LEED Platinum building for Kossacks interested in green sightseeing at the convention.)
A wide variety of government, non-profit, and business organizations collaborated to revive the East Russell neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky, by listening to the community's demands and responding to its needs. Like many traditionally African-American urban communities, East Russell declined as middle-class residents moved to other areas of the metropolitan region. With little investment, low homeownership, and scarce opportunity, the community was plagued by high poverty, unemployment, crime, homelessness, and school drop-outs.
In 1992, a progressive collaboration involving the University of Louisville; local businesses; federal, state, and city governments; foundations; philanthropic groups; local unions; and non-profit organizations began to revitalize the neighborhood. With the help of $3.5 million in federal grants and a matching donation of $1 million from local organizations, the partnership has supported the construction or refurbishing of more than 600 homes, with hundreds more in the pipeline. They have also supplied a wide range of critical services, including child care and health care. These efforts have improved the commercial areas of the community as pawnshops, liquor stores, and taverns have been replaced by a new bookstore, a movie theater, and an African-American museum. The partnership has been successful thanks to community empowerment. For example, when the initiative began, community leaders intended to provide a range of services along with a minimal number of rental units. However, when local residents expressed the desire to own their own homes, the partnership helped establish low-interest loans and other creative financing to provide former rental tenants with affordable 30-year mortgages. (EPA)
Two examples from Colorado, where two popular resort towns created distinct housing issues for lower-income residents, and how smart growth principles were put into effect to address these issues.
(Wellington, Breckenridge, CO - Poplar Wellington LLC)
Rising home prices were pushing workers farther and farther out, forcing some to brave a 45-minute commute over often-snowy mountain passes. To give Breckenridge residents more choices, the town government, citizens, and property owners worked together with state and federal officials to support the construction of Wellington, a neighborhood of more than 100 homes. Eighty percent of the homes are reserved for purchase by people who work in the county, who get them for about one-third
(or less) of the median home price in Breckenridge.
"You’ve got to find ways to keep the police officers, the teachers, the managers in the community," says Sam Mamula, who was mayor of Breckenridge when the Wellington neighborhood was built. "These people are both the economic engine and the soul of the town." [p. 9]
Benedict Commons creates an affordable housing option in high-cost Aspen, Colorado. The community is designed for residents earning approximately $17,000 to $38,000 per year. In Aspen, a resort community, the average home price is over $1.75 million. Most workers cannot afford to live in the city, so many commute long distances to work. Economist Robert Frank has labeled the traffic jams and associated air pollution caused by this imbalance between jobs and affordable housing "the Aspen Effect."
Benedict Commons is the product of efforts by the city of Aspen and developers Jim Curtis and Jonathan Rose of Curtis/Affordable Housing Development Corporation to provide housing within Aspen for local workers. The studio and one-bedroom units originally sold for $57,000 to $130,000. The units are deed restricted and must be sold to people making less than a specified income. In addition, the resale price of the units can only rise at the rate of the Consumer Price Index. This keeps the housing affordable over time while allowing owners a return on their investment.
To make Benedict Commons fit within the context of the existing neighborhood, the multi-family building was designed to look like a collection of individual dwellings that reflect Aspen's history and style. Each unit has a private, outside entrance and a roof deck, garden space, or small entry deck. The apartments are built above an underground parking garage and around a central, sunlit courtyard with mountain views. The project's downtown location, near work places, encourages walking, and bicycle racks on the site encourage residents to bike rather than drive. The well-executed, compact design allowed a density of 78.4 units per acre on a small infill site. (EPA)
Safety, Health, and Community
One of the most important principles of smart growth is creating walkable communities, which has, at the very least, a triple benefit: reducing carbon emissions due to less car trips needed, creating a sense of community where people come into personal contact with each other and can stop and talk (instead of honking, yelling, and giving the finger to each other in a traffic jam on a six-lane highway), and enhancing safety. This last benefit itself has at the very least two sub-benefits: walkable communities reduce crime (because you are never walking completely alone) and have streets with less dangerous traffic (Would you rather cross a two-lane main street with cars going 20 mph or a six-lane suburban collector road with cars going 55 mph?).
Children can get daily exercise by walking or biking to school, but many parents are concerned about safety. Many communities have come up with innovative solutions, like the "walking school bus," in which adult volunteers walk groups of children to school. The Broadway-Slavic Village neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, instituted such a program to encourage children to walk to school. In another effort, local teenagers got training on bicycle safety and repairs and received free refurbished bicycles; the kids then toured every street in Slavic Village to map safe bicycling and walking routes. [p. 18]
Furthermore, when children walk to school, they get exercise on a daily basis. This is important when
one-third of U.S. children are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight. In total, about 25 million U.S. children and adolescents are overweight or nearly overweight. (Mayo Clinic)
In turn, this puts more American children at risk of developing type II diabetes and other health problems. Suburbs provide less opportunities for children to get everyday exercise. A recent study was only the latest to find a correlation between suburban living and obesity in youth.
Using data from a national health survey, researchers found that teenagers living in sprawling suburbs were more than twice as likely to be overweight as teens in more compact urban areas.
The findings echo those of a 2003 study by the same researchers that focused on U.S. adults. The researchers believe the same factors may be driving the link between suburban living and teenagers' weight -- the major one being reliance on cars.
Finally, smart growth aims to foster a sense of community, where residents can take civic pride in distinct places, places where people can meet and hang out, places that attract tourists, places where people can feel a sense of belonging, places you'd want to stroll down when you don't have to be anywhere. This is the intangible side that is nevertheless essential to quality of life.
What We Can Do
I hope this diary provided a good overview of smart growth and its potential to positively affect our built environment in many ways. It's important to remember that smart growth is primarily a set of principles that can be adapted to fit particular locations' culture, climate, and history. There is no one way to build a smart growth neighborhood, but there is at least one way in every community. I hope that those familiar with some of the areas I highlighted above will provide additional insights into those communities, as I am only personally familiar with a few of them.
If you're interested in incorporating smart growth principles into your community's future, there are a number of ways to get involved. Every community has comprehensive plan reviews at some point. These reviews take citizen input. The next time your community reviews its plan, attend the meetings and advocate for smart growth principles. Urge newly elected mayors to appoint a planner who practices New Urbanism or is overtly dedicated to smart growth principles. The planning commission is also extremely influential in how communities grow. Know how members obtain seats on the commission, and provide input when a new seat on the commission is about to be filled. Attend public meetings for permitting of new developments, and scrutinize how the development will affect the community. And these are just a few examples.
So as we begin 2007, when the challenges of Energizing America will become more pressing, we can find in smart growth a more sustainable, valuable, safe, uniting, and democratic strategy for building the futures of our cities and towns.
Smart Growth America
Congress for the New Urbanism
American Planning Association (a smart growth advocate)
NRDC Smart Growth Page
Sierra Club Smart Growth Page
Center for Program Development (Pennsylvania DOT) (recommended by terrypinder)
Update: A comment from Joe Bob that I think bears repeating in the diary.
All of the points raised in this diary are ones worth repeating. Especially from the perspective of energy, planning often gets overlooked in favor of sexy technology like hybrid cars and renewable fuels. The most renewable fuel is the one that never gets used in the first place, and that's much of what smart growth is all about.
The beauty in smart growth strategies is that we already know what to do and it wouldn't really cost us anything to implement them. Relative to building a renewable energy infrastructure from the ground up, conservation via better planning is cheap and the payoff will come a lot sooner. More than anything it's a question of political will.