Smart Growth with Balance: The American Planning Association

In its advocacy of Smart Growth, the American Planning Association supports the principles of citizen participation, preservation of neighborhood character, respect for urban greenspace, and fairness. The APA’s Policy Guide on Smart Growth, adopted in 2002, defines Smart Growth as follows:

Smart growth means using comprehensive planning to guide, design, develop, revitalize and build communities for all that:

  • have a unique sense of community and place;

  • preserve and enhance valuable natural and cultural resources;

  • equitably distribute the costs and benefits of development;

  • expand the range of transportation, employment and housing choices in a fiscally responsible manner;

  • value long-range, regional considerations of sustainability over short term incremental geographically isolated actions; and

  • promotes public health and healthy communities.

    Compact, transit accessible, pedestrian-oriented, mixed use development patterns and land reuse epitomize the application of the principles of smart growth…
Core principles of Smart Growth include:

…INCREASED CITIZEN PARTICIPATION IN ALL ASPECTS OF THE PLANNING PROCESS AND AT EVERY LEVEL OF GOVERNMENT. Appropriate citizen participation ensures that planning outcomes are equitable and based on collective decision-making. Planning processes must involve comprehensive strategies that engage meaningful citizen participation and find common ground for decision-making…

CREATION OR PRESERVATION OF A “SENSE OF PLACE”. A “sense of place” results when design and development protect and incorporate the distinctive character of a community and the particular place in which it is located. Geography, natural features, climate, culture, historical resources, and ecology each contribute to the distinctive character of a region.
Smart Growth, implies the APA, should not be used an excuse to indiscriminately pave over existing urban greenspace in the name of infill… [emphasis added]

The American Planning Association and its Chapters support protection and enhancement of biodiversity through the planning process. Planning for biodiversity should use the best available science to assess natural resources and determine areas of environmental vitality as the first step in incorporating “green infrastructure” into human settlements.

Reasons to Support the Specific Policy: Natural systems and biodiversity are critical to the support of human populations. Biodiversity planning should be included in the early stages of land use planning. Planning should include an inventory of natural processes and ecosystems. To the extent such information is available, plans should include identification of natural vegetation, wetlands, arid lands, endangered and threatened plant and animal species, umbrella and indicator species, species that are commercially important in the state, and species habitat (including food sources, denning and nursery areas, and migratory routes). Based upon this inventory, all land use and development plans should incorporate “green infrastructure” based on good science and best available management practices to limit deleterious impacts on fragile ecosystems. Green infrastructure is an interconnected network of greenways and natural lands that includes wild life habitat, waterways, native species and preservation or protection of ecological processes. All development — including redevelopment, infill development, and new construction in urbanizing areas — should plan for biodiversity and incorporate green infrastructure. Green infrastructure helps to maintain natural ecosystems, including clean air and water; reduces wildlife habitat fragmentation, pollution, and other threats to biodiversity. It also improves the quality of life for people. Tools for preservation of natural open spaces include acquisition of conservation easements by governments or non-profits, transfer of development rights, and conservation design, in addition to land acquisition by public agencies.
Doing Smart Growth right is a complex balancing act. We hope this balance will be reflected not only in the top-level goals of the Sustainable Northampton Plan but also in the actual laws that might stem from it.

See also:

The New Draft Sustainable Northampton Plan: Balancing Compact Growth Against Taxes, Urban Greenspace, Homeowner Preferences
Mishandled campaigns for density can trigger an intense political backlash. In suburban Portland, voters recalled a mayor and two council members over dense development and a neighborhood light-rail alignment (Farris, p.23). Farris, an Associate Professor in the Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture at Clemson University, recommends a smarter Smart Growth approach that takes into account the facts on the ground and citizen preferences:

…smart growth advocates should be realistic about the amount of development that will occur in built-up areas versus outlying open land as various stakeholders consider future policies. The U.S. population is expected to double in this century. It is hard to imagine that a large percentage of that growth will occur in existing built-up areas.

Smart growth advocates should focus especially on encouraging higher-density quality development on open peripheral land. The discussion in this article suggests that this is where most development will occur. Perhaps up to 20 percent can be infill in cities and the older suburbs (this would be a big increase from present patterns).
Our Column in Today’s Gazette: The Hidden Risks of ‘Smart Growth’
…we can learn a lot from the experience of others. In some cities, smart growth has led to unaffordable home prices, the departure of families with children, increased traffic congestion, and even a kind of “leapfrog” sprawl…

Many homebuyers, especially those with children, began to avoid Portland in their quest for affordable, conventional homes with yards. This ironically fostered sprawl (PDF) and traffic as people migrated to cities outside the region’s authority, such as Vancouver, Wash.

Portland discovered that people tend to hang on to their cars, even as density increases. The city’s population density is about 45 percent higher than the average of the largest 200 metro areas. Its “vehicle miles traveled” per square mile is 42 percent higher.

Besides hoping that people will stop driving, another critical assumption of smart growth advocates is that it’s cheaper to add density to existing urban infrastructure than to add infrastructure to new areas. Harvard researchers Alan Altshuler and Jose Gómez-Ibáñez find that the reverse is true.

New York Times: “Vibrant Cities Find One Thing Missing: Children” (3/24/05)
After interviewing 300 parents who had left the city, researchers at Portland State found that high housing costs and a desire for space were the top reasons…

Randal O’Toole: “The Folly of ‘Smart Growth'”
Open space in valuable locations such as people’s backyards, urban parks, and golf courses will be transferred to less valuable locations such as private rural farms that are unavailable for recreation…

Bozeman Daily Chronicle: “Bozeman’s Growing Pains” (9/7/05)
Open space for recreation [in Portland] is at risk after 10,000 acres of parks, fields, and golf courses were rezoned for infill development.

Suburban ‘Raise the Drawbridge’ Sentiment Motivates Some Smart Growth Policies

Seeing Like a State: Planning Gone Awry in the 20th Century
Cities tend to be complex organisms, Scott observes, so planners are constantly tempted to try to simplify their task:

Once the desire for comprehensive urban planning is established, the logic of uniformity and regimentation is well-nigh inexorable. Cost effectiveness contributes to this tendency… [E]very concession to diversity is likely to entail a corresponding increase in administrative time and budgetary cost… (p.141-142)
In Northampton, the simplification du jour appears to be a drive to segregate our open space to the periphery, while weakening greenspace preservation in the more urban districts where it is already scarce.

Scott proposes guidelines to reduce the potential harm from plans. These include:

Take small steps. In an experimental approach to social change, presume that we cannot know the consequences of our interventions in advance. Given this postulate of ignorance, prefer wherever possible to take a small step, stand back, observe, and then plan the next small move…

Favor reversibility. Prefer interventions that can easily be undone if they turn out to be mistakes. Irreversible interventions have irreversible consequences. Interventions into ecosystems require particular care in this respect, given our great ignorance about how they interact…

Plan on surprises. Choose plans that allow the largest accommodation to the unforeseen… In planning housing, it would mean “designing in” flexibility for accommodating changes in family structures or living styles…
Scott concludes by calling for a healthy respect for diverse lifestyles and the wisdom of ordinary people. In the case of Northampton, we urge planners to respect the preferences of families with children, as this has been a major issue in other Smart Growth cities like Portland.

New York Times City Room Blog: “Time for Some Jane Jacobs Revisionism?” (11/1/07)
Jacobs was not opposed to change and growth, but believed change was most destructive when it occurred in cataclysmic bursts.

UMass Press: “Natural Land: Preserving and Funding Open Space”
Open space plays an important role in moderating the climate in urban areas. Street trees and other vegetation cool urban areas, which because of the high percentage of buildings and paving are much warmer than surrounding rural areas (Botkin and Keller 1995). Urban trees also remove dust and pollutants from the air. For example, research in Tucson, Arizona, estimates that “planting 500,000 desert-adapted trees over five years could be worth more than $236 million to the city” in the form of savings on air-conditioning and other costs (McPherson quoted in Lawson 1992, p. 42). In the city of Stuttgart, Germany, corridors of forest land have been preserved to provide a natural airflow through the dense urban environment, bringing clean air from the surrounding rural areas and diluting urban air pollution, as well as moderating the climate (Spirn 1984)…

Berkeley, California: Cautions on Infill
Citizen input into long-range planning is excellent—which is why citizens are so astonished when their plans are entirely ignored by the current Planning Division. Developers sometimes work successfully with neighbors to create good and popular developments, but a long list of appeals, lawsuits, and despised large developments indicates a major problem. Staff routinely stonewalls, obfuscates, refuses to respond, and ignores neighborhood concerns. In contradiction to our own ordinances, staff makes no genuine attempt to facilitate cooperation between applicants and neighbors. Instead, propelled by their simplistic “smart growth” philosophy, staff encourages developers to build the largest possible projects over neighborhood objections…

Gazette Guest Column: “Give residents a role in city issues”
For there to be sustainable citizen invovlement in the future of Northampton, input on issues of consequence to the lives of our residents needs to be both actively solicited and facilitated so that critically important opinions are not coming in a delayed, after-the-fact manner, where the opportunity for true discussion has then been missed.