“Smart growth,” i.e. the densification of development in both new and established communities, especially along transportation corridors, is not only a worthy objective, it’s a necessity. Sprawling development has many established negative impacts. The infrastructure to support it is disproportionately expensive to build and maintain. Its environmental footprint is disproportionately large and wasteful. It has been shown to create negative impacts on the social and physical quality of people’s lives. For example, it has been shown to further segregate communities, isolate individuals, and add to health problems related to obesity and lack of exercise as a result of the utter reliance on the automobile for even the most mundane errands. These examples are merely the most obvious and oft cited negative impacts of sprawl but there are many others. Moreover, the negative impacts can be counter-intuitive in the sense that the migration to sprawling suburbia has been driven in some degree by a search for small town or rural community spirit yet commonly results in the opposite.
It is no wonder that “smart growth” has become one of the most frequently used terms in urban planning, public administration, and regional government. Numerous articles and forum posts by urban planners and design professionals urge smart growth densification. They decry as NIMBYism any community opposition to zoning modifications allowing greater density or projects resulting in it. The term “smart growth’ is often closely paired with another overused urban planning term, “sustainable development.”
While smart growth and sustainable development are worthy concepts, the overuse of these terms can result in a failure to recognize other established planning objectives. For example, one of the most important factors in creating a sustainable community is the support and participation of the community. Yet community opposition to projects or rezoning labeled as smart growth is often quickly dismissed as NIMBYism. When projects labeled smart growth run rough shod over the feelings and aspirations of the affected community, its members move, typically to newer, less dense, and more remote communities, leaving behind blight. This simply repeats the unsustainable pattern of the last 65 years. Thus, smart growth can actually contribute to sprawl, achieving the opposite of its stated objective.
Additionally, densification doesn’t necessarily achieve the other oft stated goals of smart growth, e.g., greater use of mass transit, shorter commutes, more pedestrian and bicycle usage, etc. An example of a densely developed yet auto oriented community is San Diego California’s Golden Triangle (the name derives from the three freeways which constitute its boundaries). This area is an urban planning wonder for its high density yet almost complete orientation to the automobile. Retail is largely contained in one large shopping center and residences are either in towers or behind walls. While sidewalks are abundant, they meander aimlessly and the pedestrian is confronted with mostly landscaping (to soften the blank walls and inaccessible building facades) and automobile amenities. Light rail is planned yet years from reality. However, if this development were being proposed today, it would certainly be touted as smart growth due to its density and proximity to freeway transportation corridors.
Thus, blind increases in density don’t necessarily achieve the goals of smart growth, and can even have the reverse effects, especially if such increases drive people from their communities. This circumstance is particularly true in communities established before the second half of the twentieth century, which often achieve smart growth goals at a level that modern planned smart growth has been unable to achieve. Too often smart growth proponents ignore traditional hub and spoke models of smart growth, in favor of so-called “nodal” development. Too often, this “nodal” model of development justifies any increase in density along transportation corridors without regard to the scale or nature of the surrounding community or the quality of the development.
As anyone who has traveled abroad can attest, substantial density can be achieved without high-rise or even mid-rise construction. In existing communities, subtler methods to increase density are more likely to have the desired effect. For example, relaxing setback requirements, street width requirements, and restrictions on granny flat construction, home expansion remodeling, and multi-family occupancies, can all substantially increase densities while maintaining the scale and quality of the communities, and achieving the participation of community members. In contrast, rezoning an area comprised mostly of one and two story detached homes to allow multi-story mixed-use projects is such a dramatic change, it can result in many unintended “dumb growth” consequences (e.g., blight).
Thus, “NIMBYs” should be respected in the smart growth-ification of their communities. These NIMBYs often have valuable input regarding what works in their “backyards.” Sometimes such input may start off inarticulately or undiplomatic-ally. Planners and municipal officials should strive for a constructive dialogue rather than simply dismissing opposition or skepticism as NIMBYism. Scale, character of development, historic preservation, and preserving a sense of community are all important factors in successful smart growth. It is only then that “smart growth” will live up to its name.