Smart Growth

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Smart growth

Smart growth is a relatively new movement in the United States, at least by name, a movement promoted since the early 1990s as a new way to direct growth and development, especially in urban areas, away from sprawl and toward urban centers of various kinds. There seems to be no universally accepted definition of smart growth, and that alone indicates problems in agreement about what it is, what its goals are, the nature and extent of its benefits and impacts, and to what degree it can be implemented.

Disagreements seem to be more at the level of specific issues rather than broad goals, however, and a fairly simple if still broad and somewhat vague definition can be readily distilled from a rapidly increasing literature. A composite definition suggests that smart growth is growth management rather than "control of growth," and probably no one would disagree with that; it is inward development rather than outward development, i.e., it is intended to limit sprawl and to fill in or reclaim already developed areas rather than expand into new ones; and it is high density rather than low density. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "smart growth is development that serves the economy, community, and the environment."

Its advocates see it as a replacement for the "failed" environmental movement of the 1960's, but others describe it as an attempt to gloss over growth, to hide continued dominance by the marketplace in uncoordinated decisions on human settlement patterns, or to avoid facing the economic and political difficulties of the often better environmental alternative of no growth. Still others claim that too many smart growth advocates are just the opposite, ignorant of and naive about those same market factors. Though backed by individuals and groups that represent all spectrums of political thought, smart growth is criticized by skeptics from an equally broad range of viewpoints. Smart growth as concept, as philosophy, and as policy, smart growth when implemented, rejected or delayed, all remain controversial. The advocates of smart growth do seem to agree on ten principles, listed here essentially as they are stated in a 2002 EPA document titled Getting to Smart Growth. The benefits foreseen by its proponents are evident in the principles as stated. 1) Mix land uses rather than the separation mandated by zoning codes in many communities in the United States. Mix commercial with residential, high density with low, pedestrian and bike access with other means of transport. 2) Take advantage of compact building design to create smaller footprints, to increase density, and to reduce the amount of space required to accommodate increases in population. 3) Create a range of housing opportunities and choices to increase neighborhood diversity in multiple ways and better accommodate the housing needs of a diverse population. 4) Create walkable neighborhoods by making them pedestrian-friendly and scaled to people on foot rather than to people in cars. 5) Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place by introducing more distinctiveness and uniqueness to residential and retail areas, for example, through less reliance on large malls that are indistinguishable from one city to the next in every region of the country. Create structures that reflect local and regional differences in climate , vegetation, and landforms. 6) Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas to enhance quality of life and increase local recreational opportunities. 7) Strengthen and direct development towards existing communities through less reliance on new, low-density dispersed developments outside urban cores and close-in suburbs. 8) Provide a variety of transportation choices, especially by creating transit and non-motorized alternatives to the automobile , in the process reducing traffic congestion. 9) Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost effective. 10) Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions.

Given the visibility of arguments in recent years against sprawl, these principles seem like apple pie and motherhood; who could be against them? But smart growth has many critics. Numerous individuals and groups can and do take issue, especially with specific principles when local implementation is actually attempted on the ground. Some of the statements are viewed more critically than others, and the movement in general also has its skeptics. Critics, especially those without a NIMBY interest, are as quick as proponents to point out good elements in the smart growth movement, most of them embodied in the ten stated principles. Such elements as in-fill, high density, neighborhood development and identity, and brownfield redevelopment, are widely supported, though not universally.

A problem pointed out over and over again by critics of smart growth is that the reclamation and filling in of already developed areas increases their attractiveness, raises their value and the cost of living there, i.e., the areas are gentrified and the people who did live in the reclaimed areas are displaced. Minorities and the poor are squeezed out and their difficulties in finding acceptable accommodations is traced to declining stocks of affordable housing. Much of the debate over smart growth centers on whether or not it is the cause of increases in the price of housing. Critics say yes, land prices do increase, affordable housing is torn down and replaced by more expensive dwellings, and yes, these changes are directly attributable to reclamation efforts implemented in the name of smart growth or growth management.

Proponents argue that growth management is not the cause of declines in the availability of affordable houses, but that increases are the result of conventional marketing dynamics and growth in population, employment, and income, especially during the boom of the 1990s. They further argue that smart growth initiatives are much less expensive, for individuals and families as well as for local governments, because they decrease investments in infrastructure, especially that related to automobile use, and that such savings can then be passed on to decrease housing costs.

Among the problems of implementing smart growth is the tight hold many Americans have on the American Dream: detached houses that "return people to nature" are not located in the central parts of cities and certainly not in brownfields . And critics are quick to see the irony in the coincidence of interest in a smart growth movement with reports in the daily papers like the following two illustrations: first, increases in "Supersize Suburbs," "big-house communities" in which smaller families live in hypertrophy homes: "in the country's long pursuit of ever more elbow room...the American house has been swelling for decades." In some suburban counties, "more than two-thirds of the houses have nine rooms or more..." The mega-mansions are literally built on green "fields" because many owners don't want trees and vegetation blocking the "full effect" the houses have on passers-by. Surveys show that many of these monster homes are occupied by an average of slightly more than three people. A typical response when this trend is questioned: "We can afford it, so why not?"

A second illustration is the realization by a big timber company in Florida that its extensive timber holding in the state are "too valuable for trees alone." The company's plans for one stretch of 40 mi (64 km) of beaches on the panhandle "are so sweeping that it hopes to reduce the "redneck riviera" image of the area by calling it "Florida's Great Northwest." Some 20 developments are in various stages of planning, with more than 10,000 large, high-end homes permitted so far, aimed at affluent buyers from Atlanta and Birmingham. The chairman of the company calls the expected transformation "regional place making." Locals shrug with "we've got to take the hand we're dealt" statements and environmentalists concede that a company so powerful will prevail, so they try to work with it to minimize the impacts, recognizing that "it's absolutely clear that the Florida Panhandle will change" fundamentally, hopefully "in a way that creates livable communities and protects the natural system, and with [this company] we have at least a shot at doing that."

These two illustrations are drawn from high-growth areas, with little indication that such principles as compact building or neighborhood diversity or people-scale neighborhoods not dependent on cars or less reliance on new lowdensity developments outside urban areas or widely based stake-hold collaboration are driving many land-use decisions in the United States, at least on private land. The question isn't one of smart growth being or not being a policy in these areas, but that the attitudes and actions in such illustrations make smart growth as a solution to settlement problems in the nation as a whole problematic at best.

One especially severe criticism is that nowhere in the 10 principles is there even a hint at any real attempt to actually limit growth, or even delay it, that smart growth just accommodates growth rather than addressing it as a problem. Critics point out that the capability of local or regional environmental systemsnotably water suppliesto support growth is not mentioned in any of the principles, or anywhere in the smart growth philosophy. Growth is still growth and calling it "smart" does not help answer the question of ultimate limits, of how to plan for no growth. Even its critics admit, however, that smart growth creates better management and planning alternatives than totally unregulated sprawl.

[Gerald L. Young Ph.D. ]



Chen, Donald D. T. "The Science of Smart Growth." Scientific American 283, no. 6 (December 2000): 8491.

Daniels, Tom. "Smart Growth: A New American Approach to Regional Planning." Planning Practice & Research 16, no. 34 (2001): 271179.

Downs, Anthony. "What Does 'Smart Growth' Really Mean?" Planning 67, no. 4 (April 2001): 2025.

Pelley, Janet. "Building Smart-Growth Communities." Environmental Science & Technology 33, no. 1 (January 1999): 2832.

Staley, Samuel R., and Leonard C. Gilroy. "Why 'Smart Growth' Isn't Smart." Consumers' Research 85, no. 1 (January 2002): 1013.


Environmental Protection Agency. Getting to Smart Growth: 100 Policies for Implementation. [cited July 2002]. <>.

Smart Growth

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Smart Growth

The "smart growth" movement arose in the 1990s to combat the perceived negative aspects of the dominant growth patterns of the time: rapidly spreading development that tended to draw people and resources away from existing neighborhoods and created new, look-alike communities where vehicle use was mandatory and walking was discouraged. Proponents of smart growtha group that includes city planners, environmentalists, urban designers, neighborhood activists, and othersdo not try to stop development, but instead work to make development improve life in existing cities and towns, rather than degrade it. They generally agree on several core principles:

  1. Revitalizing communities by directing public investment toward areas where the infrastructure to support development is already in place or planned.
  2. Creating walkable neighborhoods by locating housing, shopping, schools, and offices in closer proximity to each other and providing sidewalks and attractive streetscapes.
  3. Offering a choice in transportation modes, whether by foot, car, bike, bus, or train.
  4. Involving citizens in deciding how and where their community should grow.
  5. Fostering distinctive, attractive communities with a unique sense of place.
  6. Providing housing for people of all income levels in close proximity to jobs and activities.
  7. Preserving open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas.
  8. Saving taxpayers the unnecessary cost of building the infrastructure required to support spread-out development.

see also Sprawl.

internet resource

Smart Growth Online. Available from

David Goldberg

smart growth

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smart growth • n. planned economic and community development that attempts to curb urban sprawl and worsening environmental conditions.