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What Is Smart Growth Planning

By David Krug David Krug is the CEO & President of Bankovia. He's a lifelong expat who has lived in the Philippines, Mexico, Thailand, and Colombia. When he's not reading about cryptocurrencies, he's researching the latest personal finance software. 17 minute read

To illustrate, picture yourself in a small town that has had an unexpected increase in its population. The city needs to build additional homes and stores quickly. The town council is currently debating two competing development proposals it has received from several construction companies.

As an alternative, the city might grow outward into more land. The builder would acquire lands to build a big home complex on one side of town. The other side would have trees cut down to make way for a commercial mall. 

This proposal also includes constructing new roads and widening existing ones so that residents of the new development may drive to the proposed shopping center.

While most of the new construction in Plan B stays within the existing town’s borders, this is in contrast to the first scenario. Several abandoned structures would be renovated by the developer into new places to live and do business. 

Some current, ground-floor businesses would be joined by multifamily dwellings. The new and existing population may easily commute to the new shops by foot or bicycle.

There was a time when everyone in town automatically picked Option A. However, in the present day, more and more municipalities are opting for Plan B-style growth. To improve the quality of life for all residents, smart growth strategies like the one outlined below are implemented. 

To sum it all up, smart growth is a development that reduces environmental impact while simultaneously bolstering the economy of nearby communities and producing thriving residential areas.

Smart Growth Guidelines

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is just one of the many government departments involved in the Smart Growth Network, which is a coalition of corporations, nonprofits, and governmental agencies working to advance sustainable development across the United States (EPA). 

This committee has come up with a set of ten guidelines to follow while designing smart growth initiatives. All of these tenets are interrelated and should be considered together when a municipality is deciding where, when, and what to construct.

In a nutshell, these are the guiding principles:

  1. Multiple Purpose Land. When cities are planned traditionally, residential and commercial areas are separated. Conversely, smart growth promotes the concentration of services and amenities in close proximity to residents. As a result, non-automobile modes of transportation including walking, bicycling, and public transportation can compete effectively with the use of cars. In addition to keeping dollars in the community, this also promotes a lively downtown where neighbors can meet and mingle.
  2. Low-Coverage Growth. 500 detached houses require much more land than would an apartment complex with the same number of units, therefore if you need to house a thousand people, it makes more sense to do it in the latter. It frees up a lot of land for parks and other forms of green space. Services like water, power, and garbage collection for a population of 1,000 are less expensive when they are concentrated in a single structure rather than spread out across 500 homes. Last but not least, a dense community makes for a more effective mass transit line.
  3. Many Housing Options to Choose From. There’s a wide range of housing needs for various types of households. It is important for a community to have a range of housing options, from studio apartments for single people to huge houses for growing families and retirement complexes for the retired. There should be a range of housing options, including both rental and ownership, at a variety of price points to accommodate a wide range of incomes. Cities can foster intergenerational and economic integration by clustering single- and multi-family dwellings.
  4. Residential Areas Suitable for Walking. One of the main goals of smart growth is to create an environment where people’s homes, places of employment, and retail options are all conveniently located nearby. All the essentials—homes, shops, schools, libraries, and places of worship—are conveniently located in close proximity to one another in a walkable community, and the streets and sidewalks are well-lit and free of traffic hazards.
  5. Different Neighborhoods. Waterfront activity, a historic library, or an established ethnic enclave are just a few examples of what give each town its own character. Because of these factors, the town may be easily distinguished from any other American city. The goal of smart growth is to preserve and celebrate these unique aspects of a community by ensuring that new construction seamlessly integrates with existing structures, parks, and other landmarks, both natural and manmade.
  6. Unconfined Area. The growth that is both efficient and sustainable leaves some land uninhabited. Smart growth is a technique of planning for the future that helps protect agricultural land, waterways, and crucial ecosystems like wetlands by keeping development in compact, walkable areas. In addition to its aesthetic value, open areas maintain the quality of our air and water by filtering precipitation, soaking up storm runoff, halting the spread of erosion, and moderating temperature extremes.
  7. Growth Through Integration Into Preexisting Neighborhoods. As opposed to building new, wide suburbs outside of existing cities, smart expansion directs new construction inward, toward existing neighborhoods. Instead of paving over undeveloped greenfield land, this strategy places new structures in previously developed regions, which helps conserve open space. Keeping new construction within an existing city’s limits also makes it simpler to connect those new residences and businesses to existing infrastructure like utilities and public transportation.
  8. Options for Getting There Residents shouldn’t have to get into their cars every time they have an errand to run. Providing inhabitants with access to mass transit is essential for keeping them connected to the rest of the world once the construction of walkable neighborhoods has been completed. It is a goal of smart growth to ensure that locals have access to a variety of transportation options, from pedestrian-friendly walkways and bike lanes to dependable public transportation.
  9. Government Backing. Builders are essential to smart growth because they care about the bottom line just like they do any other type of growth. If municipalities are serious about fostering smart growth, they must remove barriers for developers to construct in sustainable ways. It is unfair for a developer who wants to turn a factory into an apartment to face the same paperwork and costs as someone who wants to demolish the building and construct a new one. To facilitate smart growth, municipalities should review their zoning rules and construction codes to remove any impediments to smart-growth initiatives.
  10. Service to One’s Neighborhood. Every city is unique, and the kind of expansion that makes sense in one may not be appropriate in another. To illustrate, whereas a city that is experiencing significant population growth should prioritize building new homes, a city that is experiencing outmigration to the suburbs should prioritize reinvigorating its downtown. Asking locals directly is the most effective way for government officials to learn about the concerns of their constituents. When residents are given a voice in shaping the future of their community, they are more likely to approve of planned construction.

Advantages of Smart Growth

Taxes, traffic, the quality of the schools, and the availability of jobs are just a few examples of the many aspects of a community that are tied to development decisions. When implemented, smart growth policies can boost a community’s economy, safeguard its environment, and enhance the standard of living for its residents.

Economic Advantages

If the economy is robust, it can keep itself going. Businesses in the community that is doing well can help the economy as a whole because they employ people and pay taxes that the government can use to pay for services.

Local economies benefit from smart growth because:

  • Building the Economy. Construction employment is created through smart growth projects like new metro lines. For people who don’t have access to a car, this is especially helpful because it means there are more career opportunities in close proximity to their homes.
  • Improvements for Enterprises. Having a constant flow of potential clients passing by their doors each day is great for the success of small, local companies located in a pedestrian-friendly downtown commercial zone. While smart expansion is especially beneficial for smaller businesses, it can also benefit larger corporations. When a business is situated in a desirable area, it is easier to recruit highly skilled people. Last but not least, smart growth can improve operational efficiency for businesses by making it simpler for them to reach out to customers and distribute their goods thanks to improved access to transportation.
  • Relaxing constraints on local government spending. The cost of municipal services like roads and water systems can be kept to a minimum by compact development. Converting underutilized city spaces like empty lots and abandoned buildings into tax-generating companies and residences is another way this aids the city’s budget.

Advantages for the Environment and Health

One of the basic ideals of “smart growth” is to construct in a way that reduces negative impacts on the local ecosystem and improves the health of local populations. 

These objectives are met through smart growth by:

  • Efforts to Reduce Waste. One of the key principles of “smart expansion” is to expand into already established neighborhoods rather than create brand new ones. Reusing existing structures saves materials compared to construction from scratch, and when done within a city’s bounds, it’s possible to make use of the city’s preexisting water and sewage systems. And rather than letting environmentally damaged brownfields go to waste, smart growth planners may often repurpose these areas for safe, productive use.
  • Cleaning up the Air. The goal of smart growth projects is to make it easier for people to travel around without owning a car. It was determined in a 2005 study of land use and transportation in King County, Washington, that residents of the county’s most walkable neighborhoods drove around 25% fewer miles per day than those in the most sprawling districts. Less gas consumption equals less pollution from vehicle emissions and less greenhouse gas production. Green spaces are preserved through smart growth, which helps mitigate climate change by soaking up carbon dioxide.
  • Efforts to Preserve Water Quality. There is a significant increase in pollution in water sources and harm to wildlife when water flows through paved surfaces. Erosion and perhaps floods at water treatment plants are two additional effects of swiftly moving runoff. There is less of an impact on the environment from stormwater runoff and more open space is left after construction is complete in a smart growth community since less land is paved over per dwelling. Water is safeguarded by smart growth because less air pollution means less acid rain, which can corrode water pipes. Finally, smart growth initiatives frequently include water conservation and reuse strategies in their construction practices.
  • To protect existing ecosystems. When unused land is paved over in the name of development, it destroys the homes of native plants and animals. In contrast, the goal of smart growth is to maintain natural habitats and open areas.
  • Motivating Physical Activity. Smart expansion prioritizes the needs of cyclists and pedestrians. Residents may more easily travel around on foot or by bicycle because of the compact nature of the development, the availability of safe sidewalks, and the provision of bike lanes. According to research conducted in 2005 in King County, residents of denser communities were 23% more likely to walk for non-work-related travel than those living in less dense communities.
  • Improvements to Public Safety. The same innovations that make walking and cycling more convenient also make transportation more secure, and this is true not only for walkers and cyclists but also for motorists and passengers on public transit vehicles like buses. New York City’s Department of Transportation conducted research on road safety and discovered that relatively inexpensive adjustments, such as enlarging sidewalks, constructing medians, and introducing bike lanes, can significantly lower the number of people hurt or killed in traffic accidents. By widening the medians and installing a bike lane between East 165th and East 170th Street, the city was able to reduce pedestrian accidents by 69 percent.

Community Advantages

Through the implementation of smart expansion strategies, once rundown areas can be revitalized into desirable, user-friendly communities. It’s a great way for people to get to know their neighbors, share resources, and save money.

Smart growth benefits local communities by:

  • Infrastructure Repair. The infrastructure of a city consists of all the essential structures and systems that allow for its smooth operation, such as sewage treatment plants, electrical power plants, roadways, and public transportation systems. The deterioration of this infrastructure over time leads to issues like power outages, transit delays, and even safety dangers like weakened bridges. Putting up new buildings on the periphery of cities, as is done in conventional development, generates little revenue to put toward maintaining and improving services in the urban core. However, smart growth, which prioritizes developing in already established communities, directs much-needed funds toward these already-in-place infrastructures, such as rebuilding buildings, repairing roads and bridges, and upgrading water and sewer networks.
  • A better variety of housing options. The types of dwellings available in a smart-growth neighborhood range from single-family detached houses to multi-unit buildings with a mix of small and big flats, lofts, and studios built above stores or garages. A wide range of ages and incomes are served by this diversity of housing options. Because of this, people can stay in their homes even if their requirements alter over time. A couple without children can downsize to a smaller home without having to relocate further from their jobs and friends, and a family with young children can upsize to a larger home without having to transfer their children to a new school.
  • Reducing Burden on Family Expenditures. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that for the typical American family, housing and transportation costs account for roughly half of all discretionary income. To quantify regional variations in these two expenses, the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) created the Housing and Transportation Affordability Index in 2010. The CNT found that even when housing costs are greater, walkable areas with effective public transit are often more inexpensive than expansive suburbs. This is because having a car, most people’s largest transportation expense is less necessary in these places.
  • Lessening the Need for Drivers to Spend Time Behind the Wheel. Numerous studies have found that those who had shorter commutes to and from work report higher levels of life satisfaction. Those who must drive to work during rush hour are more likely to report that their commute is stressful than those who can opt for a more leisurely mode of transportation, such as walking or bicycling. The quality of life of residents is enhanced by compact development, which brings employment opportunities and dwellings closer together. To further alleviate traffic, smart expansion tends to lower the number of cars on the road.
  • Participation of Locals in Policymaking. Involving local residents in shaping the future of their communities is central to the smart growth philosophy. When citizens have the opportunity to voice their opinions to city planners, they are more likely to feel their voices are being heard and action is taken to address issues such as inadequate public transportation, high crime rates, and a lack of retail options. Residents can get involved in a more tangible way through smart growth initiatives, such as forming a neighborhood watch group or repurposing an empty property into a communal garden. This contributes to a deeper sense of belonging and pride in their hometown.

Smart Growth Examples

In order to recognize and honor communities that have implemented smart growth policies for environmental protection, the EPA presents them with the National Award for Smart Growth Achievement annually. 

The EPA rewards municipalities that have made strides toward better water quality by, for example, protecting open space, increasing transit options, redeveloping brownfields, or decreasing the number of impermeable surfaces. The three 2015 awardees showcase the many ways in which smart expansion can improve a community.

1. Jackson, Tennessee

Before the 2003 tornadoes, Downtown Jackson was a struggling, rundown district with a high crime rate. The city saw the disaster as a chance to transform its downtown into a more fashionable and desirable area. To devise a strategy for revitalizing the region, city officials consulted locals, neighborhood groups, and business owners.

Jackson Walk, a redevelopment district of 20 acres around Central Creek and a brownfield site, is the end outcome of this proposal. The city used a mix of private investment and grants and loans from the federal and state governments to pay for the extensive makeover.

At present, Jackson Walk is home to 149 apartments and 10 single-family homes, with an additional 20 residences on the way. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provided funding to help with the sale of several of these properties to buyers with lower incomes. New walkways, streetlights, and landscaping make the area a pleasant spot to take strolls at night.

In addition to a wide selection of restaurants and stores, the neighborhood also features a farmers market, an outdoor amphitheater, a fitness track that spans 1.5 miles, a dog park, and a supermarket that specializes in natural and organic foods. 

The Living in a Fit Tennessee (LIFT) wellness center serves as the project’s focus because of the convenience it provides by housing a gym, an urgent care clinic, and an outpatient rehabilitation facility all in one convenient location. 

The LIFT is an eco-friendly fitness center that features a climbing wall, an indoor track, and a range of training and nutrition classes. Financially, the city has benefited greatly from the Jackson Walk renovation. More than eighty new employees have been created thanks to the LIFT center, and property values have risen thanks to the new development, increasing tax revenue. 

More than 30 new enterprises moved to the neighborhood between 2012 and 2014, increasing the number of employees and the amount of money brought in through taxes. More people than ever are coming to downtown Jackson to live, work, and play because of the new, booming neighborhood.

2. Hamilton, Ohio

The Artspace Lofts of Hamilton, Ohio Once upon a time, Hamilton, Ohio was a major hub for industry and commerce. By the turn of the millennium, however, the majority of the town’s significant employers had either closed their doors or relocated elsewhere, leaving half of the city’s structures empty. 

City officials solicited feedback from citizens and outside groups before settling on three mixed-use projects to revitalize the area’s aging core. A historic but seriously damaged downtown building, the Mercantile Lofts, was purchased by the city in 2003 and saved from the wrecking ball. 

Instead, the city engaged a developer, secured funds, and renovated the building over the period of nine years to house 29 flats and four retail spaces. All of the flats were rented out in less than a year after the building opened in 2012, and the ground floor featured a coffee shop, a gift shop specializing in recycled objects, and other businesses.

The Mercantile Lofts served as a catalyst, drawing attention to the surrounding buildings and encouraging their development. There was a 14% rise in downtown occupancy by the middle of 2015 thanks to the $15 million in new construction. 

The Mercantile Lofts have a bus stop directly beside them, so it’s easy for residents of Hamilton to get about the county. In the meantime, the city has continued its restoration of additional landmarks. 

The Dixon-Globe Opera House-Robinson-Schwenn Structure, a former symphony hall from 1866, is now a mixed-use building with retail and office space. The previous Journal-News building is now a cultural center. It also serves as a venue for a variety of other events, such as concerts, musicals, art exhibits, and educational seminars.

3. Newark, New Jersey

The Passaic River is the lifeblood of Newark, New Jersey. It was formerly the backbone of the city’s economy, supporting a booming jewelry industry at the turn of the 20th century. However, after a century, these factories had been demolished, creating a barrier that severed city dwellers’ access to the river that had been their lifeline.

Newark citizens not only lacked easy access to the river but also to any significant amount of green space. More specifically, less than half an acre of parkland was available for every 1,000 residents in the Ironbound neighborhood, despite the fact that it was a working-class, ethnically mixed region encircled on all sides by railroad lines.

The city has been exploring potential riverside green space as a means of combating both issues. Eventually, it made the decision to revitalize a brownfield that had been used as a metal-smelting facility. 

The city began rehabilitating the brownfield into Riverfront Park after obtaining feedback from locals and funding from more than two dozen organizations. There were multiple steps taken, and it’s not quite finished yet. 

The first phase of the park opened in June 2012, the second in August 2013, and the third is expected to debut in 2016. The finished park will span 19 acres, connecting to the 10-acre Riverbank Park that, despite its name, is separated from the river by a major highway. 

The park will connect to other riverfront parks and trails along the Passaic River, creating a network that will span five miles in total. 

The environmentally friendly features of the new park’s layout include the use of native vegetation, repurposed materials, stormwater drainage, and interpretive markers detailing the area’s social and environmental background. 

Its presence along the river not only helps prevent residences from being flooded but also redirects growth away from the river and into the city’s older neighborhoods, where it will have less of an impact. 

Various cultural groups in the area are honored with annual events in Riverfront Park, ranging from hip-hop to Ecuadorian dance. Nearby attractions include a park, as well as the park’s proximity to a major railway station that connects to New York City.

Smart Growth Support

Here are some things you can do if you think smart development is a good idea for your community but aren’t sure how to convince your elected officials of its merits:

  • Get some schooling. Understanding how smart growth is supposed to be implemented is the first step. The EPA’s Smart Growth page is an excellent entry point. Green construction, low-cost housing, and global warming are only some of the smart growth-related issues covered in these publications and linked to more reading. As an added bonus, you may view films of completed smart growth initiatives. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Smart Growth Network (SGN) occasionally host webinars that go deeply into various smart growth issues.
  • Explore the current situation in the area. After getting a general understanding of smart growth, you can move on to investigating the local scenario. New Jersey Future is a state smart-growth group with a website that features multiple resources for assessing the level of smart growth in a certain area. Find out how your neighborhood rates in terms of infrastructure such as sidewalks and bike lanes and municipal progress. To learn more about smart growth initiatives in your area, you can also consult an EPA map showing smart growth projects around the country.
  • Become involved in a group in your area. You can find a local smart growth group to assist you in meeting the needs of your community once you have a firm grasp on those needs. Start by checking out Smart Growth America, an umbrella group for state and local groups that advocate for smart growth policies nationwide. Look through the list of affiliates to find a group that operates in your region. Try searching the terms smart growth plus the name of your city or state online if you can’t think of any.
  • Make your own team. If you are unable to locate a smart-growth group in your area, you may wish to consider establishing one yourself. The British Columbia, Canada-based smart-growth group SmartGrowthBC has put together a how-to manual that will help you identify like-minded individuals, define your mission, select appropriate activities, formalize your group, and secure financial support for your endeavors.

Bottom Line

Communities and their residents both benefit from smart growth. The cheaper cost of infrastructure is good for town budgets, but the increased tax revenues from rising property values are even better. 

Increased foot traffic is beneficial to business owners since it brings in more potential buyers. Roads are cleaner, public transit is cheaper, there are more housing options, there is more park space, and the downtown area is bustling and healthy.

The true mystery is why smart development isn’t more widespread if it’s such a boon for everyone. The simple force of inertia is a contributing factor. The residents of towns that have traditionally pushed new construction out to the suburbs may not see a need for change or even be aware that an alternative exists.

In addition to its other problems, illiteracy is a major obstacle to wise growth. Some people who aren’t familiar with smart growth may view these rules as an attempt to prevent urban development altogether. Many people think smart growth is prohibitively expensive compared to the status quo.

One of the most effective ways to spread the word about smart growth is through discussion. For instance, if you overhear somebody grousing about a massive new subdivision, suggest wise expansion as a solution. 

If someone expresses concern over the price, you should inform them that smart growth can actually reduce costs by making better use of existing infrastructure. In particular, emphasize the various ways in which smart expansion can improve the quality of life for locals.

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