Smart Growth

Smart Growth Advances Nationally

A special report by Jessica Tirado

“We are witnessing in essence the genesis of a set of rich, diverse and varied coalitions -- each member bringing to the whole their own unique interests and views.” -Bruce Katz, Director of the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institution, who foresaw the rapid increase of the forces of Smart Growth.

Sprawling land development has been consuming our nation’s countryside at an alarming rate. Sprawl is defined as development that is dispersed, auto-dependent, single use, and impossible to walk to your daily needs.  It is usually located along highways and in rural areas outside urban and village centers. There is a growing general awareness that low-density residential development threatens farmland and open space, raises public service costs, encourages people and wealth to leave central cities, creates serious traffic congestion, and degrades the environment and our quality of life. In the words of James Howard Kunstler, author of  The Geography of Nowhere  and  Home from Nowhere,  "The living arrangements Americans now think of as normal are bankrupting us economically, socially, ecologically and spiritually." In response to these trends, public interest groups, citizens and even government at all levels have begun to develop solutions for curbing sprawl, preserving open space, and rebuilding our cities and older suburbs.  Smart growth initiatives identify the relationship between development patterns and quality of life by implementing new policies and practices promoting better housing, transportation, economic development and preservation of environmental quality.

Smart Growth on the Rise

Smart Growth promotes a shift in the conventional development patterns, and reaches out across disciplines. It is surprising the extent to which a wide variety of professionals, elected officials and individuals recognize that the ability to address development challenges and serious contemporary problems is dependent on a new vision of metropolitan and regional cooperation and an interdisciplinary process.

As a response to the increasing popularity of smart growth, several organizations have emerged across the nation. In the mid-1990’s The American Planning Association joined 60 public interest groups across the
United States to form Smart Growth America, a nationwide coalition that coordinates efforts to promote smart growth. After its debut in October 2000, it rapidly became the focal point for advocacy on a series of issues confronting communities nationwide. Today, it advocates better growth policies and practices at local, state, and federal levels to promote farmland and open space protection, neighborhood revitalization, affordable housing, and the creation of livable communities. The University of Maryland, in cooperation with Former Governor Paris Glendening and the State of Maryland, created the National Center for Smart Growth. It endeavors to lead the nation in research-based knowledge and education by tackling a wide range of growth, preservation, and development issues.

In November last year the US Environmental Protection Agency gave out the first annual National Smart Growth Awards to encourage anti-sprawl planning. This event is significant in that it signals recognition by the US Government that land use and transportation policies directly influence smart growth, energy conservation, and environmental protection. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "Smart growth development practices support national environmental goals by preserving open spaces and parkland and protecting critical habitat; improving transportation choices, including walking, bicycling, and transit, which reduces emissions from automobiles; promoting brown field redevelopment; and reducing impervious cover, which improves water quality.” The award recognizes outstanding achievement in smart growth by state, local or regional governments in four categories: Built Projects, Policies and Regulation, Community Outreach and Education, and Overall Excellence in Smart Growth.

EPA’s 10 guidelines for smart growth are:
1. Mix land uses
2. Take advantage of compact building design
3. Create housing opportunities and choices for a range of household types, family size and incomes
4. Create walkable neighborhoods
5. Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place
6. Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas
7. Reinvest in and strengthen existing communities & achieve more balanced regional development
8. Provide a variety of transportation choices
9. Make development decisions predictable, fair and cost-effective
10. Encourage citizen and stakeholder participation in development decisions

In what signals a major victory for the Smart Growth and New Urbanism movement, a new funders’ network has been formed. With the backing of some of the country's most influential foundations, this new network pools resources to help fund smart growth activities and projects around the country. "It now operates in every region of the country -- indeed it's performed a dozen regional assessments of smart growth goals, strengths and strategies, involving 31 states, some 500 leaders and 40 foundations" according to Neal Peirce in his recent article Committed Foundations: Smart Growth’s Ace In The Hole. "The network has sought to give smart growth a firm intellectual base through 10 papers on topics ranging from smart growth's role in transportation reform to its implications for biodiversity and environments for America's aging.”

This is just a glimpse at the broad number of organizations attempting to educate by advocating smart growth principles as an alternative framework to build communities and help create and preserve a sense of place.  The Smart Growth America’s website states in their mission “We’re not the only ones calling for smart growth. Increasingly, citizens across the nation are demanding it -- in polls, in the market, and at the ballot box. Americans want fewer hours in traffic and more opportunities to enjoy green space; housing that is both affordable and close to jobs and activities; healthy cities, towns and suburbs; air and water of the highest quality; and a landscape our children can be proud to inherit.” For all these reasons Smart Growth continues to move forward across
America with the increasing participation of the general public. In a recent case last April, for example, more than 1,000 citizens from across Michigan attended a series of public hearings. Michigan’s hearings revealed overwhelming support for controlling sprawl and reflected an influential public consensus for state action.

In response this popularity, more and more local governments are turning to the policies of smart growth to solve their problems. Over the past few years a number of reforms have been enacted across America according to the American Planning Association: 17 governors issued 19 executive orders on planning, smart growth, and related topics during the past two years compared to 12 orders during the previous eight years combined; Eight states issued legislative task force reports on smart growth between 1999 and 2001, compared to 10 reports between 1990 and 1998; 27 governors - 15 republicans, 10 democrats, and 2 independents - made specific planning and smart growth proposals in 2001. During the same time periods, voters passed numerous measures nationwide to limit sprawl, halt road-building projects, and to get new train systems built.

Governors Take Charge

“New Governors are taking the Smart Growth Mantle” headlines a Smart Growth America press release in February this year as it introduced former Maryland Governor, Parris Glendening as head of SGA’s Smart Growth Leadership Institute. “We are trying to work with elected officials by sharing our experience” says Glendening in a live interview, whose interest in Smart Growth began at least 35 years ago. Today, he is recognized for creating the nation’s premier Smart Growth program as governor of
Maryland. “We understand there is no exact model to follow since every state is different and needs a different approach, but we provide examples of things that have worked”.  Since Glendening left office he has continued to make a significant contribution in the fight against sprawl. At the same time, several new governors in other states are on a course to continue his legacy.

Governor McGreevey of New Jersey recently signed a sweeping new anti-sprawl executive order. Environmental and other groups battling sprawl were quick to praise the order and deem it the most comprehensive attack on over development ever initiated by a governor.
Pennsylvania’s new governor, Ed Rendell, made smart growth policies a priority and hired Roy Kienitz, who helped implement Maryland’s Smart Growth Initiative as that state’s planning director. In Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, promised to implement smart growth principles in addressing the state’s critical issues of housing affordability, environmental protection and transportation investment. South Carolina’s governor, Mark Sanford, made the issue of “school sprawl” a central theme of his state of the state address. Utah’s governor Mike Leavitt helped found the Utah Quality Growth commission and has negotiated an agreement to finance the development of commuter and light rail systems. Smart growth America serves as a major resource to any of these administrations by providing them with a range of tools to follow in an effort to halt sprawl. “There is such a range of tools,” says Glendening, “but the feeling is that what seems to work best across the country is a series of incentives.”

There are a number of specific tools governments can use to help stop sprawl. In most cases it is easier and cheaper to build on virgin land than to reuse urban areas. “Any builder would tell you it is easier to buy a farm, change the zoning and build out there somewhere than to take an old and beautiful building, restore it and convert it into condominiums”, says Glendening. “Generally the laws are stacked against that type of reuse,” he adds. He goes on to say that there is a need for a change in the regulations. According to Glendening the government should not use its resources to subsidize sprawl, instead, it should stop building schools, roads, and sewer lines in order to stop encouraging sprawling developments. “On the other hand if a developer or investor wants to use the road to improve smart growth, the government should participate as a partner and help with the construction,” states Glendening. He feels everyone benefits economically, from the government to the homebuyer. “The net effect there is to create a dramatic impact on the bottom line,” he adds.


Current government policies favor an increase rather than a decrease in the use of cars. There is a need for a shift in government investment towards transit oriented development, which currently has a number of barriers to overcome. “The government policies are generally anti-transit and pro sprawl,” says Glendening. “In terms of governmental policy, roads are generally free but transit is increasingly expensive. So in federal and local policy we [have to be] really committed to transit and a transit-oriented budget for transportation.” According to Glendening, about 80% of the budget is spent building roads and 20% for mass transit. “There needs to be a redirection towards 50% investment in highway and 50% mass transit“ he adds.  “What we need are two things: one is a change in land use so we won’t continue to go forward [in the same direction] and be in need of more transportation, and the second is a much better balance between transit and road building,” suggests Glendening.  The fact is that we need to greatly reduce road building in
America, and transfer the majority of the money into building state–of-the-art train systems like in Europe. “A rational well-used mass transit system is key to our strategy,” says Glendening. “It is going to involve several decades, but step by step we can get there. I am encouraged by things that are going on,” he adds. 

A walkable, car-free city
Smart Growth advocates provide a valuable source of information and a significant contribution to the future of our communities. “More than anything else we want to raise the general public’s awareness of the issue of sprawl,” says Glendening. “An educational campaign would help the average voter understand the issues,” he adds.

We now acknowledge that sprawl and high car dependence is bad for us and the planet, and that together we have the tools and energy to face the tremendous challenge ahead in changing the way we build our communities. In the words of Bruce Katz, “Perhaps the most important glue holding these coalitions together is the simple notion that our current growth and development patterns are reversible.”

Smart Growth Resources:

Principles of New Urbanism

Smart Transportation

Smart Growth America

National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education

US EPA Smart Growth

ULI Smart Growth

Coalition for Smarter Growth

Smart Growth Online

Funders Network

Envision Utah for Quality Growth

Georgia Quality Growth Partnership

Creating Great Neighborhoods:  Density in Your Community

Read about sustainability

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