On "smart growth"...

“Smart growth” today has become synonymous with a certain kind of development:  dense, mixed-use, urban (whether located in the suburbs or downtown), and decidedly associated with public transit, walking, and bicycling rather than with driving. Those elements have been part of the agenda since the discipline was created in the mid-1990s and, applied the right way in the right places, are very beneficial to our environment, economy and society.


The movement has enjoyed considerable success. Indeed, cities are back, and back with a momentum to make them more walkable, less sprawling, and less oriented (some would say less hospitable) to driving. Transit usage is up from recent decades. Meanwhile, suburban sprawl is all but dead, severely wounded by changing demographics and lifestyle preferences that are only going to become stronger over time.


But, when originally conceived, smart growth was about much more than development and transportation reform. It was also about conservation of land; bringing reinvestment to forgotten neighborhoods in a just, equitable way; preservation and adaptation of historic and cultural resources; and enhancement of environmental quality, to name just a few key goals.


Many smart growth advocates remain supportive of these original values. But few of them, particularly at the national level that I know best, actually spend much time on them. To the extent that land conservation, equity, historic preservation, and environmental quality are advocated, it is mostly through organizations and coalitions other than those identified with “smart growth.”


Should we care? I believe strongly that we should. If this book stands for anything, I hope it stands for an argument that we do the most good for cities, suburbs and neighborhoods when we follow a holistic path, pursuing packages of solutions that address multiple goals simultaneously while neglecting none. When we focus only on the form of development, we can get into trouble: placing a walkable development on farmland that should be conserved is a bad result for sustainability, not a good one; so is placing urbanist development downtown that fails to do all it should for equity, historic resources, or environmental quality.


In addition, we are now well into the twenty-first century, and many new issues and applications relating to land use – such as green infrastructure, clean energy technology, and urban agriculture – have become part of the urban dialogue. What qualified as bold leadership fifteen or twenty years ago has become mainstream in many places and is, in my opinion, flirting with becoming passé. And it is not sufficient, by itself, to attain true sustainability of place.


It is time to focus more on the quality of what we are building. What, exactly, is the world we want? We are going to live in it, and so are our aging parents, our growing children, and an increasingly diverse population.


Shouldn’t that mean that we need a diverse set of strategies? Is it really good enough to produce urban density that reduces carbon emissions but also overwhelms people with its scale, looks mediocre and, by the way, creates hotspots of environmental impacts? Should we still be applauding? To my eye, that is exactly what has happened in some places, in the name of smart growth.


We need to be more aspirational. In my opinion, in today’s world smart growth shouldn’t be considered smart if it doesn’t include green buildings and green infrastructure, if it doesn’t show respect to our historic buildings and local culture, if it doesn’t foster public health, if it isn’t equitable, if it doesn’t pay more attention to stewardship of the earth . . .


From Chapter 25: Sprawl Is Dying. Will Smart Growth Be Next?