April 1, 2004

Smart Growth can be profitable in many ways

Lynn Richards, Senior Policy Analyst at the EPA, gave a general presentation on Smart Growth last night, explaining how planning is changing to encourage the creation of landscapes which accomodate people - and not just cars - once again.

Smart Growth approaches focus on ten core principles, which are worth listing to give a broad idea of where this goes:

  1. Mix land uses.
  2. Take advantage of compact building design.
  3. Create a range of housing opportunities and choices.
  4. Create walkable communities.
  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 toward 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.

It's not, of course, just principles, and they were handing out copies of Getting to Smart Growth II: 100 More Policies for Implementation, which had more detailed suggestions for how to implement each of the ten principles in ten different ways. (Volume I is also available, and there are a lot more resources available online as well.)

Richards started by noting that development trends look fairly ominous, as people are using more and more land per person while population forecasts show continuous growth - 50 million more people in the U.S. by 2020. She showed a map of developed areas between Baltimore and Washington at twenty-year intervals from 1900 to 2000, and the growth of development skyrockets after 1960.

The environmental consequences of this are well-documented: more emissions from cars driving more miles, watershed impacts and stormwater run-off issues, and ever-increasing pressure on natural habitats. This outward style of growth has also left behind brownfields, areas contaminated (or perceived to be contaminated) with chemicals, and grayfields - areas that are no longer used but which remain paved over. Richards mentioned a "dead mall study" at one point, and noted that 20% of malls are closed or just half-full. These areas are prime candidates for creative reuse.

EPA analyst Lynn Richards presents on Smart Growth
EPA analyst Lynn Richards presents on Smart Growth

Richards also brought up busing, noting that "hazard busing", busing students to school because the school isn't safely accessible by foot, is increasing dramatically. The lack of pedestrian activity for children is also showing up in rising obesity rates, as the environments in which we live take a toll on us.

She spent some time examining what Smart Growth is and is not. She emphasized choice throughout her presentation, that consumer actually want a variety of different living environments, especially over their lifespan. Smart Growth focuses on "well-planned growth that improves the quality of life", and isn't about shutting down growth entirely.

Politically, Smart Growth is in an interesting place. Richards noted that because federal Smart Growth initiatives had begun under the Clinton administration, they were concerned that the Republicans would see it as a Democratic initiative and trim it. Instead, their budget has actually doubled under the Bush administration. She also noted that Republican California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, along with many other Republican governors, supports Smart Growth approaches.

Economically, Smart Growth seems to work well - development projects built with Smart Growth principles sell out early and don't lose money for the developer. In a lot of ways, Smart Growth reduces risk for both the developer and the municipality while making consumers happier.

She also pointed out ways in which current zoning - separation of residential from commercial activities, setback requirements, and barring the classic apartments-above-a-store approach - actually keeps the free market from operating, and restricts the choices developers can offer consumers. Infrastructure policy and stormwater management law were other potential barriers where good intentions have produces some perverse results, especially when applied to reusing already developed areas.

Rehabilitating old buildings, something that has a lot of potential for areas with older housing stock (including Dryden) is also a key part of Smart Growth. Richards mentioned New Jersey's revision of its building codes to avoid the crippling requirement that an entire building be brought up to code when only a small part of it was being renovated.

Most of her examples were urban or suburban, notably Arlington, VA, Rochester, NY, Westchester County, NY, and Somerville, MA, though she noted that Cattaraugus County, NY was working on a plan that would maintain balance between urban and rural zones.

She discussed the EPA's role briefly, which seems primarily to be assisting communities and developers by providing information and analysis. In a lot of ways, Smart Growth depends on grass-roots support to make it go, so it wouldn't make sense for the EPA to dictate what communities should do.

Questions focused largely on how to get things started, and how to arrange partnerships that would bring more resources to projects. One questioner asked about how to encourage Smart Growth when property ownership is fragmented into smaller parcels and it's difficult to create a single plan, and Richards responded that incremental development, building with an eye to future related growth in an area, could work well.

David Weinstein, a member of the Dryden Planning Board, asked about resources for Smart Growth, particularly redevelopment money. Richards pointed him to Smart Growth America as a source of information, especially the Smart Growth Leadership Institute.

Weinstein also asked about the coordination issues around Smart Growth, noting that in New York planning is largely a town, city, and village project, not a regional one. He asked about the possible conflict between, say, developing a hamlet and projects in more downtown areas. Richards said that communication was key for making regional coordiation work, but acknowledged that it wasn't easy. She turned to "providing choice" as the answer to possible conflicts between municipalities, suggesting that "letting the free market do its work" was a possible answer, as different market segments would want different kinds of environments. She also pointed to Community Rules, a book on Smart Growth in New England, as a possible resource.

I asked a fairly disjointed question about how Smart Growth projects seem to expect that increased options and improved pedestrian access can keep traffic from being a problem, but that it doesn't seem to offer many answers to communities where a major road itself is causing the community problems, and can't readily be moved. She suggested bypasses and redistributing traffic, though I don't know if that is actually plausible given Tompkins County's landscapes.

Smart Growth makes a lot of sense to me, and promises to bring back the pedestrian-friendly environments that people typically find more comfortable. At the same time, it doesn't seem like a magic panacea for development issues. The basic principles feel sound, and I think to some extent they've informed the Dryden Draft Comprehensive Plan, but they clearly provide a foundation for communities to use in figuring out what they want, not a set of instant answers.

Posted by simon at April 1, 2004 8:32 AM in
Note on photos