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THE CHALLENGE OF SMART GROWTH

In the mid-1990s the term smart growth appeared on the planning scene and rapidly became the buzzword of the day. The term was first used in connection with the Maryland state plan under then governor Parris Glendenning. Whether smart growth is inherently different from growth management as just described or whether it is basically growth management under a more attrac- five name—who could be in favor of "stupid growth"?—is arguable. In either case, smart growth refers to a set of issues that will be with us for years to come.

From 1990 to 2000, the U.S. population grew by about 32 million people. That rate of growth, about 3 million per year, continued well into the first decade of this century. (It may have slowed somewhat at the end of the decade as a weakening U.S. labor market reduced immigration, but that is probably only temporary.) Most of that growth has occurred in those parts of metropolitan areas outside the central city, what we refer to as the suburbs, even though not all of these areas are suburban in character.

Much of the concern with smart growth has been driven by a concern with suburban sprawl, a condition that derives directly from that population growth. There is no standard, unambiguous definition of sprawl, but many of us may take an I-can't-define-it-but-I-know-it-when-I-see-it position. Reid Ewing suggests that indicators of sprawl are the following:

  • 1. Leapfrog or scattered development
  • 2. Commercial strip development
  • 3. Large expanses of low-density or single-use development (as in sprawling

bedroom communities).15

He then goes on to argue that these readily observable signs do not tell the entire story and that there are some functional indicators as well. The most important of these is "poor accessibility." In an area of sprawl, getting around is inconvenient. One must drive past undeveloped areas to reach one's destination. On roads characterized by strip development, one must pass many commercial uses before reaching one's destination. Because potential destinations are scattered about, it is difficult to combine errands or trips—each destination may be in a different direction.

Ewing also suggests that lack of "functional open space" is also an indicator of sprawl. Although the area will have large amounts of undeveloped land, most of it is in private hands, perhaps with access blocked by other development, and thus unavailable for recreational or other public use.

If we use a definition like Ewing's, then sprawl is not a matter of low density alone, though there may be a correlation between sprawl and low density of development. A 10-square-mile area with a population of, say, 10,000 might be an example of sprawl if it met some or all of the preceding criteria. On the other hand, if the same number of people were grouped in several centers with jobs, shopping, and other destinations generally within short distances of residences and if there were substantial blocks of undeveloped land accessible and open to the public, then, by a definition like Ewing's, we would not call it sprawl. We might, in fact, consider it to be an exemplar of desirable low-density development.

The biggest force behind smart growth has been citizen concern over one aspect of sprawl, namely traffic congestion. The suburban resident who finds that his or her commuting time is increasing because of growing congestion on major roadways and who finds that trips to shopping, to visit friends, and to entertainment and recreation are making him or her feel as if the car is becoming a second home is likely to feel that something needs to be done. Often that something is planning for smart growth. Other forces behind the push for smart growth have been concern over preservation of the natural environment and concern with what some suburban residents may regard as excessive urbanization of their environs. Because smart growth does not have a precise definition, the term means different things to different people, and it is thus a large political tent that can contain many people with different tastes and agendas.

One element in a smart growth agenda may be using land-use controls, tax policy, and perhaps some public subsidies to encourage compact development. In the same vein, the smart growth program may place an emphasis on infill development and reuse, whether of old buildings or of previously used industrial and commercial sites. A smart growth program may also involve buying up or acquiring development rights for some undeveloped land to ensure a supply of future open space and to channel development into selected areas. Urban growth boundaries, such as those used around Portland, Oregon, may be part of a smart growth agenda. Those who favor smart growth are likely to be fans of the New Urbanism (see Chapter 10). New urbanist design emphasizes relatively close spacing between structures and a fine-grained mixture of land uses. Both of these should facilitate trips on foot or by bicycle and also reduce the average length of automobile trips.

Because smart growth is an attractive but not a precisely defined term, there will inevitably be disagreement about just which policies really are smart. For example, a county in the fast-growing fringe of a metropolitan area decides to buy up big blocks of farmland (or the development rights for that farmland) in order to channel growth and preserve open space. Proponents of the move argue that the move is good for the county's present and future residents and also good environmentally because it preserves the habitats of many species. But opponents argue that it simply diverts growth to further out-locations—in effect, it simply promotes leapfrog development at a larger scale. It is not always easy to say who is right. Smart growth, because it is such a nice term, may sometimes be used as a flag of convenience by those whose real game is simply NIMBY (not in my backyard).

Smart growth policies may be pursued at many geographic scales— municipal, county, or state. Because the term originated in Maryland, we will take a quick look at Maryland's Smart Growth Program begun in 1997. The background conditions that propelled the state into the program were twofold. First, Maryland is a small state with a higher than average population density—over 500 people per square mile compared with somewhat under 100 people per square mile for the average of the coterminous ("lower") 48 states. In fact, only four states—Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey—have higher densities. Second, a large percentage of the state's population lives within the greater Washington-Baltimore area and thus is sensitive to all of the sprawl-related considerations previously mentioned.

Maryland defines the goals of smart growth as follows:

  • 1. Save our most valuable remaining natural resources.
  • 2. Support existing communities and neighborhoods.
  • 3. Save taxpayers millions of dollars in the unnecessary building of the infrastructure required to support sprawl.16

The core of the state's effort is the creation of Priority Funding Areas. The state directs its expenditures on physical infrastructure and also on some other categories such as subsidies for industrial development into priority areas in order to channel growth there. Priority areas are defined by the state as follows:

  • 1. Every municipality in the state.
  • 2. All the area of Maryland that lies inside either the Washington, DC or the Baltimore beltway. Baltimore is entirely within the State of Maryland; and the District of Columbia, not legally a part of any state, is bordered by both Maryland and Virginia.
  • 3. Enterprise zones, neighborhood revitalization areas, "heritage" areas (see later), and industrial areas.

Although the preceding sounds like a lot, it is only a small share of the state's total land area.

The use of the state's capital budget to concentrate development in these areas is backstopped by a number of other programs. The Rural Heritage program uses state funds to buy conservation easements on rural properties with an emphasis on preserving large contiguous blocks. A brownfields program (see Chapter 15) seeks to reduce the investment risks on disused urban industrial properties and thus to promote infill development. A "Live Near Your Work" program assists workers in buying homes near their jobs. Its goals are neighborhood stabilization and infill development.

Looking back almost two decades, the program has produced modest results. The program works primarily through a variety of tax and other incentives, and working against that are very powerful economic and political forces predisposing toward sprawl. Then, too, not all local governments synchronize their planning and land-use control decisions with the smart growth program. According to Freece and Knapp, it has had more success in preserving open space than in encouraging further development within existing communities.17 But beyond limited accomplishments in Maryland, the program has served as a model for work in other states and helped place the concept of smart growth on the nation's planning agenda.

 
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