We hear a lot about “smart growth” in the press, in blogs, and at planning commissions these days. There are folks who support smart growth projects, and folks who don’t. But of course, no one ever couches their opposition to a smart growth project in terms of favoring “dumb growth,” although that’s what they may really be saying, if they thought about it.
So before we talk about smart growth and what it is, it’s probably useful to talk about growth and development in general, where did we come from, and how did we get here.
Pardon me if I am too academic, but as well as spending fifty years in various roles as a community planner, I also taught planning and urban design for most those years. Also pardon me for my San Francisco focus. Others in San Diego and Los Angeles can better chronicle development and regulatory history in their cities.
A Little History
If we look at the very big-picture history of development, the Tigris-Euphrates valley of what is now Iraq has been generally considered the “cradle of civilization.” (Other Mesoamerican civilizations are also increasingly claiming this mantle based on recent archaeological finds). It is thought that the first cities were formed, for purposes of mutual supply and defense, around 5000 years ago, in the Middle East. The first known city plan, inscribed in a clay tablet, was Nippur, (in Iraq) dated about 1500 BC, or 3500 years ago.
Around 500 BC, the Greek philosopher Hippodamus described a system of ordered city planning based on the grid plan. Historians generally credit him as the first “city planner.”
Throughout most of history, however, urban settlements grew like topsy, without overall plans giving them order. An exception was military installations. Military forts and colonies sent out to secure footholds in alien territories, were usually the only planned, designed settlements. We see them in ancient Greece, and again in 13th century England and France. (And again, today archaeologists are studying a number of cities in Mesoamerica that clearly were designed).
Undoubtedly the Greek city planners and the medieval military engineers thought of their cities as “smart” design. Most other development, including Roman cities and the non-military medieval cities, exhibited none of this ordered site planning. After the demise of the Greek empire, “urban design” as we understand it today does not seem to have been a consideration in western cultures prior to the 17th century.
Not only were these cities not built according to ordered plans for civic expansion, but individual buildings were typically built by individuals, not by what we would call today a “developer.” While building methods and architectural styles changed from society to society and century to century, buildings were largely designed and built one by one by the owner or end user. This began to change in 17th and 18th century France, where the absolute rulers built such residential and commercial squares as Place des Vosges, Place Vendome, and Place de la Concorde that we love so much today. Louis XIV was very much a land developer. And of course Paris was completely rebuilt in the mid-19th century by Baron von Haussmann, also at the behest of the central government. These were all efforts to generate revenue for the crown as well as to control the population.
London of course had no Baron von Haussmann and today the city still exhibits the higgledy-piggledyness of its medieval past. However, beginning in 17th century London, a series of planned squares surrounded by housing were built by the hereditary landowners who became developers, as population growth necessitated additional housing and the landowner needed new sources of income. Whether it is Covent Garden or Grosvenor Square or Soho Square, these designed, coordinated individual projects are beloved developments today. However, they are merely unconnected interventions in the larger unordered city.
Early American Efforts
Hopping the Atlantic, in 1680 the Spanish promulgated The Laws of the Indies that specified every aspect of developing a community, including the desired layout of towns. The stated purposes of this layout were defense, health, sustainability, and beauty. Remnants of these cities exist in ensembles consisting of plazas surrounded by churches, public buildings and markets that remain in many Mexican cities today.
With a few exceptions, such as William Penn’s 1682 plan for Philadelphia, the 1698 plan for Williamsburg Virginia, and the 1732 plan for Savannah, there was no overall planning of the Anglo communities in North America. But even in these three “planned” cities, while a hierarchy of streets and public spaces was established, individual houses and other buildings were left to individual property owners. Nowhere was there the sense of the commons we saw in Paris or even the London squares. Only in L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for Washington D.C. do we see “urban design.” It of course is a special city that called for a special form and special governance.
Origins of American Planning
Most early eastern U.S. cities exhibited no planning whatsoever, and have all the disorderliness of English cities with their medieval roots. In 1807 the city council of New York City, experiencing the ravages of epidemics and uncontrolled growth, petitioned the state legislature to establish what became the 1811 grid plan of Manhattan, a mere 200 years ago. But like other American cities, this was just a street plan, not a land use plan. It took another hundred years for Manhattan to adopt zoning. Zoning is an exercise of the police power to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the populace. NYC’s 1916 Zoning Resolution, a mere hundred years ago, was the first comprehensive citywide zoning code in the US, and was largely in response to uncontrolled growth and slum housing conditions.
In 1926, there was a landmark Supreme Court decision, Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., that upheld the legality of zoning. Ambler, the landowner, claimed the value of a piece of land in suburban Cleveland was $10,000 per acre for industrial uses and only $2,500 per acre as zoned by the village of Euclid for residential uses. The court upheld the legality of the zoning ordinance, saying that a community has the right to be “beautiful” as well as healthy and safe. Again, the emphasis of the Euclid zoning was protection to protect residences from intrusion by noxious uses, emphasizing the differences not compatibilities between uses.
NYC’S 1916 zoning set up different residential and business districts and also regulated building shape but not building heights. It resulted in the familiar and much criticized ziggurat shape of many older New York skyscrapers. After 45 years, it was replaced in 1961 with a new ordinance based on Floor Area Ratio, which sets the building space allowed proportional to the site size. New York City, like many cities, has no overall height limits.
Shortly after the revolutionary war, in 1785, the Public Land Survey System was established, dividing land west of the thirteen original states into township, range, and section for ease of land distribution and sale. This system of Cartesian grids was eventually expanded across the entire western U. S. Thus the rigorous street grid plan we see in San Francisco and other western cities.
San Francisco was actually the first city in the country to set up zoning districts. An 1885 ordinance banned public laundries from most neighborhoods in the city in an effort to zone Chinese out. The following year the Supreme Court invalidated that law. It is important to note that in both NYC and San Francisco, the use of zoning emphasizes differences in land uses and incompatibilities between uses rather than land use cohesion and neighborhood-creation.
The Dawn of Urban Design and Planning
“Real urban design” didn’t enter the picture in North America until the City Beautiful movement, an outgrowth of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. Laid out by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Daniel Burnham, the Exposition’s 600 acres was a unified ensemble with an ordered overall land plan and coordinated architecture. The fair was very influential as the first time people from all over the country saw the possibilities of what civic design could do to beautify American cities. The Progressive Movement of social reformers took up the banner of urban beautification, and called for elaborate civic constructions as well as more practical public interventions such as sidewalks, street lights, parks and open spaces, pubic water and sewer systems, building standards, building codes, and so on. The San Francisco Civic Center ensemble is the largest and most complete physical remnant of the City Beautiful movement in California today. This monumental classic, formal “beautification-as-ornament” simply could not be widely superimposed on democratic American cities the way it was in 19th century Paris. A more lasting impact of the City Beautiful movement was the founding of new progressive civic associations for civic betterment. SPUR, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, was in fact founded as the SF Housing Association in 1910 to educate the public about the need for housing regulations and to lobby Sacramento for anti-tenement legislation (which it did successfully).
San Francisco was late in coming to the use of a Master Plan, or General Plan as it is now called. The SF Housing Association, SPUR’s predecessor organization, changed its name to the San Francisco Planning and Housing Association in 1941, to push for the adoption a master plan, a vision for the future of the city. Over the years, San Francisco developed a qualified and active Planning Department, and a series of General Plans and Zoning ordinances and maps. The General Plan is, correctly, general. General plans are a statement of policy of how a community desires to grow. They represent the goals and aspirations of the citizenry. In contrast, zoning is the primary tool for regulating the use of private land. Although they are supposed to nest, a zoning map is as specific as the general plan is general. Zoning divides a community into zones or districts and imposes differing land use controls thereon. In general, it regulates the types of land uses allowed (e.g., residential, commercial, industrial, public), the building bulk, and the intensity of those uses. And like New York City’s 1916 zoning resolution, it emphasizes differences between uses.
Problems With Development Via Zoning Ordinance
Despite all best intentions, zoning has proved to have a number of problems.
Single use districts
By emphasizing the incompatibilities rather than compatibilities between land uses, zoning ignores healthy mixes of uses (the corner store, residences over shops, etc.) that had grown up over thousands of years of urban experience.
To the extent zoning ordinances regulate both building envelope (height and bulk), and numbers of units, they often result in overly large units. Originally intended to protect inhabitants from substandard tenements, they have resulted in larger and larger units, consequently more and more expensive units. An extension of this trend is zoning ordinances that specify minimum unit sizes rather than letting the market decide.
Zoning is by definition a fixed system that cannot foresee differences in parcel characteristics. It may work in the tabula rasa of a new suburb, but doesn’t work nearly as well in urban infill situations. As a way to handle this, communities like San Francisco are continually adding new categories of zoning districts. (San Francisco by way of example has an unwieldy 65 zoning districts.) This is further complicated by overlays of height and bulk districts, special use districts, and preservation districts. (Whatever happened to Residential, Commercial, Industrial, and Public districts where this all started?).
We live in a society characterized by social change…in family size, lifestyles, technology, transportation choices, and so on. Yesterday’s zoning map is unlikely to satisfy tomorrow’s needs. In addition, any large development will be a multi-year undertaking. Fixing the zoning in year one is almost guaranteed to be wrong in year ten.
On the assumption that one of the purposes of zoning was to provide both existing property owners and developers with a degree of certainty, the inflexibility of zoning and the fact that more often than not it has to be changed to allow the intent of the general plan to be carried out, the bulk of the cases at planning commissions today are rezonings.
Planned Unit Development (PUD) as a Tool
In order to address inflexibility of traditional zoning, urbanists, architects, planners and developers began experimenting with different regulatory tools. First codified in Prince George’s County, Maryland, in 1949, by the 1960s the Planned Unit Development became a popular tool to counteract the inflexibility of zoning as applied to larger tracts of land. PUD strengthens the municipality’s site plan review and control over development. It provides the developer potentially increased profits due to land efficiency, multiple land uses, and increased residential densities. Depending on the particulars, PUDs may have a mixture of land uses and housing types, allow clustering of land uses intermixed with open space, give increased administrative discretion to planning staff, supersede prior land use regulations and rigid plat approval processes, and generally enhance the bargaining process between the developer and government.
In response to suburban sprawl, the decline of American cities, and the ineffectiveness of planning tools to address these trends, a new movement spurred by architects, planners and developers emerged. Originally called “neo-traditional planning,” it burst onto the scene in 1991 as The New Urbanism. New Urbanists recognized that a new approach to growth was necessary if we are two address two interrelated problems: the decline of our central cities and the loss of agricultural lands. The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) became a clarion call for a wholesale rethinking of development. In 1993, in the Charter of the New Urbanism, they promulgated 27 principles to guide development. They included strictures on regional development, neighborhood development, and block-by-block land use and design. San Francisco became the titular center for the CNU, although most new urbanist developments were in fact in suburban locations elsewhere in the country.
An early poster-child for new urbanism was Seaside Florida, intended to look and feel like a traditional beach town, not a new subdivision. Design principles included streets in a grid pattern, not culs-de-sac; buildings built to the street property line; residential and commercial mixed use; corner stores; building heights and street landscaping and street furniture proportioned to street width; sidewalks and bike lanes; and design guidelines. A corollary in Seaside and some other new urbanist communities was the use of historic architectural partis. Despite their ideals, most new urbanist developments were suburban developments. Seaside was the model community in the 1998 satirical science fiction movie The Truman Show where the main character eventually escapes this utopian community. And interestingly, the developer of Seaside lives in San Francisco.
Which gets us to smart growth. In 1991 the California-based non-profit Local Government Commission (LGC) authored the Ahwahnee Principles for Resource-Efficient Communities. Its authors included urbanists who went on to form the Congress for the New Urbanism. However, it is more focused both on local regulators and regulations, and also more applicable to urban areas than the more all-encompassing New Urbanism turned out to be. The LCG provided the framework for local officials to reject the sprawl encouraged by current planning regulations and to instead encourage compact, mixed-use, transit-oriented development. Smart Growth is sometimes called Transit Oriented Development, or TOD.
The Preamble to the Ahwahnee Principles states:
“Existing patterns of urban and suburban development seriously impair our quality of life. The symptoms are: more congestion and air pollution resulting from our increased dependence on automobiles, the loss of precious open space, the need for costly improvements to roads and public services, the inequitable distribution of economic resources, and the loss of sense of community. By drawing upon the best from the past and the present, we can plan communities that will more successfully serve the needs of those who live and work within them. Such Planning should adhere to certain fundamental principles.”
The Ahwahnee Community Principles can be summarized as follows:
- Plan for a complete and integrated community containing housing, shops, work places, schools, parks and civic facilities
- Build housing, jobs, services etc. within easy walking distance of each other
- Build in easy walking distance to transit stops
- Build diverse housing types for a diversity of income levels
- Provide a range of jobs for local residents
- Be a part of a regional transit network
- Have a town center with commercial, civic, cultural and recreational uses
- Provide ample open space
- Design open space to encourage use at all hours of the day and night
- Utilize agricultural greenbelts or wildlife corridors to define community edges
- Design a system of connected and interesting streets, pedestrian paths and bike paths
- Preserve the natural terrain, drainage, and vegetation where possible
- Design to conserve resources and minimize waste
- Use natural drainage, drought tolerant landscaping, and recycling
- Design street orientation, building placement, and shading for energy efficiency.
Subsequently, the Ahwahnee Community Principles have been expanded with Regional Principles, Implementation Strategy, Economic Development Principles, Water Principles, and the Principles for Climate Change.
Basically, smart growth seeks to provide livable, safe and healthy places that create a sense of community, expand housing, transportation and employment choices, promote economic balance and sustainability, promote public health, and enhance natural and cultural resources. This manifests itself in compact mixed-use developments in transit-served locations, that are walkable and bike-friendly (“complete streets”).
A key component of smart growth is the idea of compact neighborhoods, which is the opposite of the sprawling single use neighborhoods that have resulted from the application of traditional zoning. For California cities such as San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco that are largely “built out,” we are talking about urban infill. It inevitably means code changes such as increasing allowable building heights, encouraging smaller units, and substitution of maximum parking ratios for minimum parking ratios.
Compact neighborhood design also includes concepts such as:
- Disallowing suburban forms such as detached single-family houses; elimination of building setbacks from the street front; forbidding auto-oriented uses such as surface parking lots, gas stations, car washes etc.
- Mixed-use development, particularly retail on the street level of existing commercial corridors (and especially corner retail); small, locally-serving retail; and housing above retail
- Compact design. (Levitt-town houses, in which hundreds of thousands of American families grew up in after World War II, started at under-900 square feet of living space for a family of four)
- Variety of housing styles, sizes and types
- Variety of income levels, including subsidized inclusionary units
- Focused, useable, and manageable open space.
Smart Growth and Transit-Oriented Development are largely synonymous. In contrast to the suburban model encouraged by traditional zoning, smart growth seeks to maximize access to public transportation. The United States is notoriously deficient in public transportation, which is both a cause and effect of suburbanization. A goal of smart growth is to maximize access to transit by locating development along existing or future transit lines and hubs. A corollary is to build development that is servable by transit: i.e., compact and centralized.
The better the public transportation, the less parking required or desired, and the more families that can be housed in the same building envelope. And the more people housed, the more use of transit. Today the transportation world is changing fast and none of us can accurately predict where and when it will go. On-demand services such as Uber and Lyft have decimated the taxi industry, and appear to be cutting into the market for mass transit. They are certainly cutting down the use of private automobiles, which already sat 95% of the time parked. At the same time, customizable bus services such as Chariot in San Francisco are filling a niche that public bus service did not and cannot fill. Autonomous vehicles are predicted to further cut the cost of these services and further decrease the need for private auto ownership and hence parking and other auto-oriented uses. At another scale, pick-up and drop-anywhere bicycles and mopeds are “everywhere” to both the delight and dismay of many.
Biking and walking are healthier than driving, and can reduce emissions, save fossil fuels, save money, and obviate the need for the vast amounts of asphalt devoted to the automobile. On-demand transportation services reduce the need for dedicated parking spaces and auto-serving businesses. And while the jury is out on whether today they are increasing or decreasing traffic, and may well be doing both, this will shake itself out over time. And it is predicted by many that autonomous vehicles will lead to more changes in our cities than the popularization of the private auto a century ago.
In California we are blessed and cursed by CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act. Originally intended to protect our precious natural areas and open spaces, it applies equally to urban infill sites. Unlike planning, which is intended to apply to all land, CEQA by-design applies to individual parcels, buildings and projects on a project-by-project basis. It is, in fact, anti-planning. And while it has done much good in protecting precious open space resources, it is also a principal tool of NIMBYs, not-in-my-backyards. Environmental Impact Reports typically add years of time and millions of dollars to urban infill developments, if they don’t outright kill them. While you can love CEQA or hate it or something in between, as it is currently practiced, it would be hard to call it “smart.”
Changes in planning and zoning regulations are the key drivers for smart growth. Increased building envelopes. Decreased unit sizes. Mixed income developments. Decreased or eliminated parking requirements. Transit proximity. Affordable housing units. Rationalized environmental scrutiny. Easy concepts to grasp, hard to get to in our fractious society. What is key is to move the conversational needle from “growth” vs. “no growth” to smart growth. The alternative is continuing the dumb growth that has led us to our current economically, socially, and environmentally unsustainable urban form that flies in the face of thousands of years of community development around the world. It is time to change.