Smart Growth vs. “Smart Growth”

“We would like to concentrate development closer in, we like the idea of
walkability, bikeability, neighborhood center… The thing that happens
to us, however, is that we buy that and then somebody builds some
horrible thing…and then they say to you, “This is infill, you know.
It’s good, it’s infill.” …You know if you walk in European cities,
you very often find little tiny pocket parks, and little bits of green
spaces, mixed in with beautiful buildings… How do we…learn
to…value…respect for people at the same time that we try to fill in
our park spaces?”

Fran Volkmann, Vice Chair, Community Preservation Committee, speaking at the first public “in-process” presentation and feedback session for Design Northampton Week, 9/9/08

“Reviewing the diagram of the planned single-use sprawl [on Hospital
Hill] a mile and a half from downtown, the mayor remarked on how well
the architect used urban design principles by packing a lot of homes
into the design. Density of construction is, of course, only one
principle of urban design, but without regard for mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods, packed housing can also be a ghetto.”

Valley Advocate, Sustainability: Vision or Buzzword in Northampton?, 10/2/08

Smart Growth, in its full flower, contains numerous protections, safeguards, checks and balances. The Urban Land Institute includes the following among its Ten Principles for Smart Growth on the Suburban Fringe (PDF):

Identify and Sustain Green Infrastructure
…Green infrastructure networks encompass a wide range of landscape elements, including natural areas such as wetlands, woodlands, waterways, and habitat; public and private conservation lands such as nature preserves, wildlife corridors, greenways, and parks; and public and private working lands of conservation value such as forests, farms, and ranches. It also incorporates outdoor recreation and trail networks as well as cultural and historic resources that provide the community its character.

When we use the word infrastructure, we usually think of built infrastructure such as roads, electric power lines, and water systems and social infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, and libraries. The concept of green infrastructure, however, elevates air, land, and water to an equal footing with built infrastructure and transforms open space from “nice to have” to “must have.” At the same time, green infrastructure helps provide a framework for growth by identifying the places that should not be built on, putting a stop to the project-by-project battles that developers face over open space and the environment…

Some argue that land in America is still plentiful, but the fact that vast tracts of land might be available thousands of miles away matters little to the dwellers of today’s growing metropolises. With the concentration in coastal areas—53 percent of the population on 17 percent of our nation’s land area—the real challenge is finding open space reasonably close to jobs and housing…

When planned as part of a system of green infrastructure, open space can meet a community’s need for parkland and outdoor recreation space while also helping to shape urban form and buffer incompatible uses. Green infrastructure can even reduce public costs for stormwater management, flood control, and other forms of built infrastructure…

Protect Environmental Systems and Conserve Resources
Communities on the fringe are typically in a better position to protect and conserve natural systems that perform important functions like water filtration and storage, flood control, and maintenance of clean air than more urbanized areas… Unfortunately, fringe communities undergoing rapid development are often understaffed or ill equipped to deal with the consequences of rapid growth. Consequently, they frequently make numerous, poorly informed decisions on a site-by-site basis that end up degrading natural systems in the process of land development…

Minimal disturbance makes it easier to use natural drainage for stormwater management and native vegetation for landscaping, and to incorporate existing habitat into the community. Less disturbance means less grading and possibly lower infrastructure costs…

Provide Diverse Housing Types and Opportunities
If growth on the fringe is going to be “smart,” it will be necessary to provide more housing choices to appeal to various market segments and demographic groups in the population. Of critical importance to the success of smart growth on the fringe is a mix of housing types, price points, and uses offering a more vital and diverse community.

The need to direct growth to walkable mixed-use neighborhoods rather than to conventional subdivisions offers the opportunity for more diverse housing types. Rental and ownership single-family houses with yards, townhouses, and multifamily apartment buildings are all needed to meet the varied lifestyles of people living in the suburbs…

…a mix of housing opportunities helps to create a sustainable community, not just a one-generation subdivision.

Preserve the Community’s Character
…as Mark Twain once said, “We take stock of a city like we take stock of a man. The clothes or appearance are the externals by which we judge.” Although the community’s character is also important, its appearance creates the first impression, and much development on the fringe is unattractive and bears little relationship to a community’s history, culture, or geography. Just look around: billboards, cluttered commercial strips, and look-alike subdivisions are all too common across America.

The relationship between a community’s character and its economic well-being is immense but too often ignored. Attractive, well-planned communities always attract more visitors and high-quality investment than ugly ones. Unfortunately, current zoning standards and regulations do little to address visual quality, community character, or urban design. As a result, many communities are slowly losing their sense of place…

According to Jim Constantine, a market specialist who does “curb appeal” surveys for developers, “Consumers are turned off by cookie-cutter subdivisions and the homogenous look of houses.” Increasingly, buyers are attracted to vernacular and historical house styles that characterize their immediate area or region.

Staunch New Urbanist Laurence Aurbach offers additional principles on his website. Here he quotes with approval Oscar Newman, proponent of the “defensible space” concept:

“[Newman] criticized residential buildings that were turned away from the street, with parking lots in front. He recommended sidewalks and on-street parking…”

Alas, developers often seize on convenient aspects of Smart Growth that align with their profit goals and disregard others. A common result appears to be overlarge developments, inapt developments, and/or excessive density. These are major bones of contention in Los Angeles and Berkeley, to give two examples.

A Northampton example of this phenomenon is Kohl Construction’s proposal for 26 condo units in the woods behind North Street. First, a quick review of Kohl’s plans and a sample of the condo designs:

[Five units have been trimmed since the above diagram was released. See details.]

The problems with Kohl’s condo proposal include:

  • It threatens green infrastructure by putting roads and structures as close as 35 feet or less to a wetland. Scientific evidence indicates that substantial disturbance within 50 feet puts wetland ecology at risk and threatens water quality. In addition, the condos themselves appear to be at risk of flooding.
  • It goes against the existing character and diversity of housing stock in the neighborhood by offering a monotonous, cookie-cutter design scheme with little sense of place.
  • As Daryl LaFleur observes, “the Kohl North Street area development proposal includes row house condominiums set to the rear of parking lots, not free standing detached single family homes that front the ‘street’, which would better match the existing neighborhood and is also a tenet of Smart Growth.”

Smart Growth is most palatable when it’s implemented as a whole. When public and private actors are allowed to cherry pick aspects that suit their convenience, the “Smart” can be lost.

See also:

Northampton Redoubt: Urban Planning, Public Policies, and Urban Ecology
…the Kohl development on North Street will probably not closely mimic
dense older urban neighborhoods in any country, and it will cost us
part of an urban forest as well. Look at the schematic below and tell
me that this proposed development is the best that can be done with
regards to Smart Growth. It appears to me as a tightly clustered
residential sprawl-development moved into town with basically a token
nod toward Smart Growth principles, that is it’s close to town and it’s

…I have not been able to find definitions of
infill that include removing viable greenfields, though they may exist.
Generally infill seems to concern redeveloping previously developed
areas, vacant lots, or brownfields and rehabilitating historic
buildings. Thus obscured from the recent debate has been the importance
of maintaining Northampton’s Urban Ecology, which enhances the quality
of life of intown dwellers, human or otherwise…

Condo Monotony: The Future of Ward 3?
To maximize profits, the developers have shoehorned units into their
lots with little regard to the preexisting appearance of their
neighborhoods. The developments feel inward-facing or ‘withdrawn’, not
part of the regular street fabric. These aspects are probably what
prompted the “carbuncle” comment from the planning board member.

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…

LA Weekly: “City Hall’s ‘Density Hawks’ Are Changing L.A.’s DNA
…the Villaraigosa administration has grown accustomed to only tepid
public interference and awareness. Through aide Gil Duran, the mayor
has for five months ducked L.A. Weekly‘s routine questions
about his agenda’s potential consequences citywide — much taller and
fatter residential buildings than zoning law allows, significantly less
green space, obliteration of residential parking in some complexes and
removal of older, less expensive housing…

shift is pushing L.A. from its suburban model of single-family homes
with gardens or pools — the reason many come here — toward an urban
template of shrinking green patches and multistory buildings of mostly

“…The deal [says Yaroslavsky] is that there are a number of developers who see an opportunity here to make a killing.”

LA Weekly: “What’s Smart About Smart Growth?” (5/30/07)
Real estate
developers have caught on, using the phrase shamelessly to gain public
support for enormous developments, from a hillside subdivision near
Santa Clarita to the Westside’s Playa Vista, the massive, 5,800-home
development near Marina del Rey. In a city where growth was once a
dirty word, smart growth is the spoonful of sugar that suddenly makes
bigness palatable…