Smart growth

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Smart growth is an urban planning and transportation theory that concentrates growth in compact walkable urban centers to avoid sprawl. It also advocates compact, transit-oriented, walkable, bicycle-friendly land use, including neighborhood schools, complete streets, and mixed-use development with a range of housing choices. The term 'smart growth' is particularly used in North America. In Europe and particularly the UK, the terms 'Compact City' or 'urban intensification' have often been used to describe similar concepts, which have influenced government planning policies in the UK, the Netherlands and several other European countries.

Smart growth values long-range, regional considerations of sustainability over a short-term focus. Its sustainable development goals are to achieve a unique sense of community and place; expand the range of transportation, employment, and housing choices; equitably distribute the costs and benefits of development; preserve and enhance natural and cultural resources; and promote public health.

Basic concept[edit]

The concept of "smart growth" emerged in 1992 from the United Nation's adoption of Agenda 21 at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Driven by "new guard" urban planners, architects, developers, community activists, and historic preservationists, it accepts that growth and development will continue to occur, and so seeks to direct that growth in an intentional, comprehensive way. Smart growth principles are directed at developing sustainable communities that are good places to live, to do business, to work, and to raise families. Some of the fundamental aims for the benefits of residents and the communities are increasing family income and wealth, improving access to quality education, fostering livable, safe and healthy places, stimulating economic activity (both locally and regionally), and developing, preserving and investing in physical resources. There is a need to distinguish between smart growth "principles" and smart growth "regulations". The former are concepts and the latter their implementation, that is, how federal, state, and municipal governments choose to fulfill smart growth principles. One of the earliest efforts to establish smart growth forward as a regulatory framework were put forth by the American Planning Association. In 1997, the APA introduced a project called Growing Smart and published "Growing Smart Legislative Guidebook: Model Statutes for Planning and the Management of Change." [1] The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines smart growth as “development that serves the economy, the community, and the environment. It changes the terms of the development debate away from the traditional growth/no growth question to how and where should new development be accommodated” [2]

Smart growth is related to, or may be used in combination with the following concepts:

The smart growth approach to development is multifaceted and can encompass a variety of techniques. For example, in the state of Massachusetts smart growth is enacted by a combination of techniques including increasing housing density along transit nodes, conserving farm land, and mixing residential and commercial use areas.[3] Perhaps the most descriptive term to characterize this concept is Traditional Neighborhood Development, which recognizes that smart growth and related concepts are not necessarily new, but are a response to car culture and sprawl. Many favor the term New Urbanism, which invokes a new, but traditional way of looking at urban planning.

There are a range of best practices associated with smart growth, these include: supporting existing communities, redeveloping underutilized sites, enhancing economic competitiveness, providing more transportation choices, developing livability measures and tools, promoting equitable and affordable housing, providing a vision for sustainable growth, enhancing integrated planning and investment, aligning, coordinating, and leveraging government polices, redefining housing affordability and making the development process transparent.[4]

Related, but somewhat different, are the overarching goals of smart growth, and they include: making the community more competitive for new businesses, providing alternative places to shop, work, and play, creating a better "Sense of Place," providing jobs for residents, increasing property values, improving quality of life, expanding the tax base, preserving open space, controlling growth, and improving safety.[5]

Basic principles[edit]

There are 10 accepted principles that define smart growth:[6]

  1. Mix land uses
  2. Take advantage of compact building design
  3. Create a range of housing opportunities and choices
  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. Strengthen and direct development towards existing communities
  8. Provide a variety of transportation choices
  9. Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost effective
  10. Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions


Transportation and community planners began to promote the idea of compact cities and communities in the early 1970s. The cost and difficulty of acquiring land (particularly in historic and/or areas designated as conservancies) to build and widen highways caused some politicians to reconsider basing transportation planning on motor vehicles.

The Congress for the New Urbanism, with architect Peter Calthorpe promoted and popularized the idea of urban villages that relied on public transportation, bicycling, and walking instead of automobile use. Architect Andrés Duany promoted changing design codes to promote a sense of community, and to discourage driving. Colin Buchanan and Stephen Plowden helped to lead the debate in the United Kingdom.

Government subsidies for infrastructure have disguised the true cost of sprawl. Examples include subsidies for highway building, fossil fuels, and electricity.

Electrical subsidies[edit]

With electricity, there is a cost associated with extending and maintaining the service delivery system, as with water and sewage, but there also is a loss in the commodity being delivered. The farther from the generator, the more power is lost in distribution. According to the Department of Energy's (DOE) Energy Information Administration (EIA), 9 percent of energy is lost in transmission. [7] Current average cost pricing, where customers pay the same price per unit of power regardless of the true cost of their service, subsidizes sprawl development. With electricity deregulation, some states now charge customers/developers fees for extending distribution to new locations rather than rolling such costs into utility rates.[8]

New Jersey, for example, has implemented a plan that divides the state into five planning areas, some of which are designated for growth, while others are protected. The state is developing a series of incentives to coax local governments into changing zoning laws that will be compatible with the state plan. The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities recently proposed a revised rule that presents a tiered approach to utility financing. In areas not designated for growth, utilities and their ratepayers are forbidden to cover the costs of extending utility lines to new developments—and developers will be required to pay the full cost of public utility infrastructure. In designated growth areas that have local smart plans endorsed by the State Planning Commission, developers will be refunded the cost of extending utility lines to new developments at two times the rate of the revenue received by developers in smart growth areas that do not have approved plans.[9]

Rationale for smart growth[edit]

Smart growth is an alternative to urban sprawl, traffic congestion, disconnected neighborhoods, and urban decay. Its principles challenge old assumptions in urban planning, such as the value of detached houses and automobile use.

Environmental protection[edit]

Environmentalists promote smart growth by advocating urban-growth boundaries, or Green belts, as they have been termed in England since the 1930s.

Public health[edit]

Transit-oriented development can improve the quality of life and encourage a healthier, pedestrian-based lifestyle with less pollution. The United States Environmental Protection Agency suggests Smart growth to reduce air pollution.[citation needed]


Growth is "smart growth", to the extent that it includes the elements listed below.[10][11]

Compact neighborhoods[edit]

Compact, livable urban neighborhoods attract more people and business. Creating such neighborhoods is a critical element of reducing urban sprawl and protecting the climate. Such a tactic includes adopting redevelopment strategies and zoning policies that channel housing and job growth into urban centers and neighborhood business districts, to create compact, walkable, and bike- and transit-friendly hubs. This sometimes requires local governmental bodies to implement code changes that allow increased height and density downtown and regulations that not only eliminate minimum parking requirements for new development but establish a maximum number of allowed spaces. Other topics fall under this concept:

In sustainable architecture the recent movements of New Urbanism and New Classical Architecture promote a sustainable approach towards construction, that appreciates and develops smart growth, architectural tradition and classical design.[12][13] This in contrast to modernist and globally uniform architecture, as well as leaning against solitary housing estates and suburban sprawl.[14] Both trends started in the 1980s.

Transit-oriented development[edit]

Transit-oriented development (TOD) is a residential or commercial area designed to maximize access to public transport, and mixed-use/compact neighborhoods tend to use transit at all times of the day. Many cities striving to implement better TOD strategies seek to secure funding to create new public transportation infrastructure and improve existing services. Other measures might include regional cooperation to increase efficiency and expand services, and moving buses and trains more frequently through high-use areas. Other topics fall under this concept:

Pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly design[edit]

Biking and walking instead of driving can reduce emissions, save money on fuel and maintenance, and foster a healthier population. Pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly improvements include bike lanes on main streets, an urban bike-trail system, bike parking, pedestrian crossings, and associated master plans. The most pedestrian- and bike-friendly variant of smart growth and New Urbanism is New Pedestrianism because motor vehicles are on a separate grid.


  • preserving open space and critical habitat, reusing land, and protecting water supplies and air quality
  • transparent, predictable, fair and cost-effective rules for development
  • historic preservation
  • Setting aside large areas where development is prohibited, nature is able to run its course, providing fresh air and clean water.
  • Expansion around already existing areas allows public services to be located where people are living without taking away from the core city neighborhoods in large urban areas.
  • Developing around preexisting areas decreases the socioeconomic segregation allowing society to function more equitably, generating a tax base for housing, educational and employment programs.

Policy tools[edit]

Zoning ordinances[edit]

The most widely used tool for achieving smart growth is the local zoning law. Through zoning, new development can be restricted to specific areas, and additional density incentives can be offered for brownfield and greyfield land. Zoning can also reduce the minimum amount of parking required to be built with new development, and can be used to require set-asides for parks and other community amenities.

Related to zoning ordinances, an Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) is a tool that several U.S. cities now use to contain high density development to certain areas. Some believe that UGBs contributed to the escalation of housing prices from 2000 to 2006, as they limited the supply of developable land.[15] However, this is not completely substantiated because prices continued to rise even after municipalities expanded their growth boundaries.

Environmental impact assessments[edit]

One popular approach to assist in smart growth in democratic countries is for law-makers to require prospective developers to prepare environmental impact assessments of their plans as a condition for state and/or local governments to give them permission to build their buildings. These reports often indicate how significant impacts generated by the development will be mitigated, the cost of which is usually paid by the developer. These assessments are frequently controversial. Conservationists, neighborhood advocacy groups and NIMBYs are often skeptical about such impact reports, even when they are prepared by independent agencies and subsequently approved by the decision makers rather than the promoters. Conversely, developers will sometimes strongly resist being required to implement the mitigation measures required by the local government as they may be quite costly.

In communities practicing these smart growth policies, developers comply with local codes and requirements. Consequently, developer compliance builds communal trust because it demonstrates a genuine interest in the environmental quality of the community.

Communities implementing smart growth[edit]

The United States Environmental Protection Agency[16] has recognized these cities for implementing smart growth principles:

The smart growth Network has recognized these U.S. cities for implementing smart growth principles:[17]

In July 2011, The Atlantic magazine called the BeltLine, a series of housing, trail, and transit projects along a 22-mile (35-km) long disused rail corridor surrounding the core of Atlanta, the United States' "most ambitious smart growth project".[18]

In Savannah, Georgia (US) the historic Oglethorpe Plan has been shown to contain most of the elements of smart growth in its network of wards, each of which has a central civic square. The plan has demonstrated its resilience to changing conditions, and the city is using the plan as a model for growth in newer areas.[19]

Smart growth, urban sprawl and automobile dependency[edit]

Whether smart growth (or the 'Compact City') does or can reduce problems of automobile dependency associated with urban sprawl have been fiercely contested issues over several decades. An influential study in 1989 by Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy compared 32 cities across North America, Australia, Europe and Asia.[20] The study has been criticised for its methodology [21] but the main finding that denser cities, particularly in Asia, have lower car use than sprawling cities, particularly in North America, has been largely accepted — although the relationship is clearer at the extremes across continents than it is within countries where conditions are more similar.

Within cities studies from across many countries (mainly in the developed world) have shown that denser urban areas with greater mixture of land use and better public transport tend to have lower car use than less dense suburban and ex-urban residential areas. This usually holds true even after controlling for socio-economic factors such as differences in household composition and income.[22] This does not necessarily imply that suburban sprawl causes high car use, however. One confounding factor, which has been the subject of many studies, is residential self-selection:[23] people who prefer to drive tend to move towards low density suburbs, whereas people who prefer to walk, cycle or use transit tend to move towards higher density urban areas, better served by public transport. Some studies have found that, when self-selection is controlled for, the built environment has no significant effect on travel behaviour.[24] More recent studies using more sophisticated methodologies have generally refuted these findings: density, land use and public transport accessibility can influence travel behaviour, although social and economic factors, particularly household income, usually exert a stronger influence.[25]

The Paradox of Intensification[edit]

Reviewing the evidence on urban intensification, smart growth and their effects on travel behaviour Melia et al. (2011)[26] found support for the arguments of both supporters and opponents of smart growth. Planning policies which increase population densities in urban areas do tend to reduce car use, but the effect is a weak one, so doubling the population density of a particular area will not halve the frequency or distance of car use.

For example, Portland, Oregon a U.S. city which has pursued smart growth policies, substantially increased its population density between 1990 and 2000 when other US cities of a similar size were reducing in density. As predicted by the paradox, traffic volumes and congestion both increased more rapidly than in the other cities, despite a substantial increase in transit use.

These findings led them to propose the paradox of intensification, which states "Ceteris paribus, urban intensification which increases population density will reduce per capita car use, with benefits to the global environment, but will also increase concentrations of motor traffic, worsening the local environment in those locations where it occurs".

At the city-wide level it may be possible, through a range of positive measures to counteract the increases in traffic and congestion which would otherwise result from increasing population densities: Freiburg im Breisgau in Germany is one example of a city which has been more successful in this respect.

This study also reviewed evidence on the local effects of building at higher densities. At the level of the neighbourhood or individual development positive measures (e.g. improvements to public transport) will usually be insufficient to counteract the traffic effect of increasing population density. This leaves policy-makers with four choices: intensify and accept the local consequences, sprawl and accept the wider consequences, a compromise with some element of both, or intensify accompanied by more radical measures such as parking restrictions, closing roads to traffic and carfree zones. Where possible, this is the authors' preferred option.

In contrast the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts reported that its Kendall Square Neighborhood saw a 40% increase in commercial space attended by a traffic decrease of 14%.[27]

A report by CEOs for Cities report, "Driven Apart," showed that while denser cities in the United States may have more congested commutes they are also shorter on average in both time and distance. This is in contrast to cities where commuters face less congestion but drive longer distances resulting in commutes that take as long or longer.[28]



Robert Bruegmann, professor of art history, architecture, and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Sprawl: A Compact History, stated that historical attempts to combat urban sprawl have failed, and that the high population density of Los Angeles, currently the most dense urban area in the United States, "lies at the root of many of the woes experienced by L.A. today."[32]

Wendell Cox is a vocal opponent of smart growth policies. He argued before the United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works that, "smart growth strategies tend to intensify the very problems they are purported to solve."[33] Cox and Joshua Utt analyzed smart growth and sprawl, and argued that:[34]

Our analysis indicates that the Current Urban Planning Assumptions are of virtually no value in predicting local government expenditures per capita. The lowest local government expenditures per capita are not in the higher density, slower growing, and older municipalities.

On the contrary, the actual data indicate that the lowest expenditures per capita tend to be in medium- and lower-density municipalities (though not the lowest density); medium- and faster-growing municipalities; and newer municipalities. This is after 50 years of unprecedented urban decentralization, which seems to be more than enough time to have developed the purported urban sprawl-related higher local government expenditures. It seems unlikely that the higher expenditures that did not develop due to sprawl in the last 50 years will evolve in the next 20 year, despite predictions to the contrary in The Costs of Sprawl 2000 research.

It seems much more likely that the differences in municipal expenditures per capita are the result of political, rather than economic factors, especially the influence of special interests.

The phrase "smart growth" implies that other growth and development theories are not "smart". There is debate about whether transit-proximate development constitutes smart growth when it is not transit-oriented. The National Motorists Association does not object to smart growth as a whole, but strongly objects to traffic calming, which is intended to reduce automobile accidents and fatalities,[35] but may also reduce automobile usage and increase alternate forms of public transportation.[36]

In 2002 the National Center for Public Policy Research, a self-described conservative think tank, published an economic study entitled "Smart Growth and Its Effects on Housing Markets: The New Segregation" which termed smart growth "restricted growth" and suggested that smart growth policies disfavor minorities and the poor by driving up housing prices.[37]

Some libertarian groups, such as the Cato Institute, criticize smart growth on the grounds that it leads to greatly increased land values, and people with average incomes can no longer afford to buy detached houses.[38]

A number of ecological economists claim that industrial civilization has already "overshot" the carrying capacity of the Earth, and "smart growth" is mostly an illusion. Instead, a steady state economy would be needed to bring human societies back into a necessary balance with the ability of the ecosystem to sustain humans (and other species).[39]

A study released in November 2009 characterized the smart-growth policies in the U.S. state of Maryland as a failure, concluding that "[t]here is no evidence after ten years that [smart-growth laws] have had any effect on development patterns."[40][41] Factors include a lack of incentives for builders to redevelop older neighborhoods and limits on the ability of state planners to force local jurisdictions to approve high-density developments in "smart-growth" areas.[40] Buyers demand low-density development and because voters tend to oppose high density developments near them.[40]

See also[edit]

Related topics



  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
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  9. ^
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  12. ^ Charter of the New Urbanism
  13. ^ "Beauty, Humanism, Continuity between Past and Future". Traditional Architecture Group. Retrieved 23 March 2014. 
  14. ^ Issue Brief: Smart-Growth: Building Livable Communities. American Institute of Architects. Retrieved on 2014-03-23.
  15. ^ Cox, Wendell. "Constraints on Housing Supply: Natural and Regulatory," Econ Journal Watch 8(1), 13-27.
  16. ^ a b c d e
  17. ^
  18. ^ Kaid Benfield, "The Country's Most Ambitious Smart Growth Project", The Atlantic, July 26, 2011
  19. ^ Wilson, Thomas D. The Oglethorpe Plan: Enlightenment Design in Savannah and Beyond. University of Virginia Press, 2012. chapters 4 and 5.
  20. ^ Cities and Automobile Dependence: An International Sourcebook, Newman P and Kenworthy J, Gower, Aldershot, 1989.
  21. ^ MINDALI, O., RAVEH, A. and SALOMON, I., 2004. Urban density and energy consumption: a new look at old statistics. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 38(2), pp. 143-162.
  22. ^ e.g. FRANK, L. and PIVOT, G., 1994. Impact of Mixed Use and Density on Three Modes of Travel. Transportation Research Record, 1446, pp. 44-52.
  23. ^ Transport Reviews Volume 29 Issue 3 (2009) was entirely devoted to this issue
  24. ^ e.g. Bagley, M.N. and Mokhtarian, P.L. (2002) The impact of residential neighborhood type on travel behavior: A structural equations modeling approach. Annals of Regional Science36 (2), 279.
  25. ^ e.g.Handy, S., Cao, X. and Mokhtarian, P.L. (2005) Correlation or causality between the built environment and travel behavior? Evidence from Northern California. Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment10 (6), 427-444.
  26. ^ Melia, S., Barton, H. and Parkhurst, G. (In Press) The Paradox of Intensification. Transport Policy 18 (1)
  27. ^ "Car-free commuting push pays off in Kendall Square" Boston Globe, July 25, 2012.
  28. ^ Driven Apart, CEOs for Cities, 2010
  29. ^ [1]
  30. ^ [2]
  31. ^ [3]
  32. ^ Bruegmann, Robert (June 18, 2007). "Brawl Over Sprawl". LA Times. Retrieved April 9, 2012. 
  33. ^ Wendell Cox, Dangers of Smart Growth Planning, Testimony before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, The Heritage Foundation, May 15, 2002
  34. ^ Wendell Cox and Joshua Utt, The Costs of Sprawl Reconsidered: What the Data Really Show, Heritage Foundation Backgrounder #1770, The Heritage Foundation, June 25, 2004
  35. ^ United States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration,
  36. ^ San Mateo County Transport Authority: Alternative Congestion Relief Programs in San Mateo County,
  37. ^ Randall J. Pozdena, Smart Growth and its Effects on Housing Markets: The New Segregation, QuantEcon, Inc., published by the National Center for Public Policy Research, November 2002
  38. ^ Randal O'Toole, "The Folly of "Smart Growth"", Regulation, Fall 2001
  39. ^
  40. ^ a b c Lisa Rein, Study calls Md. smart growth a flop, The Washington Post, November 2, 2009
  41. ^ Rebecca Lewis, Gerrit-Jan Knaap, and Jungyul Sohn, "Managing Growth With Priority Funding Areas: A Good Idea Whose Time Has Yet to Come," Journal of the American Planning Association, 75:4,457 — 478, Online Publication Date: September 1, 2009, doi:10.1080/01944360903192560, URL:

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