Making Smart Growth Better: Critiques, Guidelines, Cautions

As the Zoning Revisions Committee discusses what infill and Smart Growth should mean for Northampton’s urban residential neighborhoods (preview the ZRC’s proposals for these neighborhoods and come to their March 30 meeting), let’s review some insights from other cities:

Washington: “Infill Development: Strategies for Shaping Livable Neighborhoods” (June 1997)
Cities seeking investment in older urban neighborhoods must deal with real or perceived conditions that push potential residents away from in-city neighborhoods such as crime, jobs lost to outlying areas, and declining quality of schools. A three-year ULI advisory services study of six low-income inner-city neighborhoods revealed that “it is not the inadequate garages and backyards or the lack of cul-de-sacs that contribute most strongly to suburban flight. It is crime and the decline of public schools; it is the poor quality of infill development, the lack of code enforcement, and the blight that erode neighborhood vitality.” (Cole, Bragado Corbett, and Sprowls, 1996.)

In-city neighborhoods also must offer qualities and amenities not available in outlying areas to successfully compete with exurban locations. As Peter Calthorpe notes, the inner city can never compete with suburbs as convenient places for automobiles (Calthorpe, 1996). In-city neighborhoods must build on their strengths. They can offer distinctive character, and mature landscaping typically lacking in new neighborhoods, built over a short time. Their central locations can offer quick access to work, shopping, community services and recreational opportunities. Residents in close-in neighborhoods can choose to walk or ride transit as an alternative to driving. Higher densities permit affordable housing, and support a variety of public and commercial services, as well as nearby cultural, social, recreation, and entertainment opportunities. These types of qualities are not guaranteed with lot-by-lot infill development, however. As one infill developer notes, “We are not just building buildings—we are building a neighborhood,” (Charles Shaw in Dan McLeister, 1996). Cities and developers will need to team together to plan, develop and fill the gaps to achieve complete neighborhoods, with full services and attractive amenities. They will need to be attentive to emerging trends and needs. In addition, in declining neighborhoods, revitalization efforts must occur on sufficient scale to produce visible improvements, if they are to engender confidence and attract private sector investment.

In-city living will not appeal to everyone. A Seattle study indicates that households with children strongly prefer detached single family homes in the suburbs. However, studies such as Seattle’s “Housing Preference Study” indicate that there is a sufficient market for in-city living, particularly if certain qualities are present. The Seattle study explores housing preferences and the trade-offs people will make if they cannot have all the things they want in a house and a neighborhood. Seattle was particularly interested in identifying potential candidates for urban village living (residential and commercial neighborhoods within a central city). The Seattle study revealed housing type to be the most important dimension in housing choice for over one-third of the respondents (most preferring single family), while home ownership was most important to slightly less than one-third of the respondents. For the remaining respondents, other features such as affordability, commute time, school quality or crime were more important than housing type. The study found that the presence of neighborhood parks, greenery, good transit, convenient neighborhood businesses and quality urban design doubled the number of metropolitan area residents who would choose to live in Seattle multifamily homes (to about 17 percent of the population). Townhomes, which permit home ownership and offer some of the advantages of single family homes, can sway additional potential residents who put a premium on home ownership. When the above amenities and townhome purchase opportunities were present, the number who would choose urban village central city living rose to 22 percent. If, in addition, city schools and crime were perceived to be no worse than suburban schools and crime, the study indicated that 35 percent of the metropolitan population would prefer Seattle urban village housing to living in multifamily outside the city or to single family homes anywhere (Seattle Planning Department, 1993)…

… a study found that the four top reasons for selling a home were: housing values, schools, crime and taxes (Percy and Hawkins, 1992 in Varady & Raffel, 1995). An Urban Land Institute study of six low-income neighborhoods, among other studies, revealed that low quality of education and crime most strongly contribute to neighborhood decline (Bragado, Corbett and Sprowls, 1995). Similarly, a Phoenix, Arizona study found crime and the perception of crime to be the number one barrier to infill development followed closely by the perception that schools are inadequate or unsafe (Phoenix Planning Department, 1995)…

…prompt repairs, litter pick up and graffiti removal are signs of a involved community. In fact, in the city of Phoenix survey mentioned above, graffiti was ranked as the number one factor in creating the perception that an area had a crime problem…

Mixed use and higher densities do provide a higher level of activity around the clock which, in turn, provides more “eyes” to keep watch and to discourage potential crimes. However, some studies indicate that mixed use and higher densities alone may not assure lower crime. In fact, homogeneous residential neighborhoods with narrow streets and few major thoroughfares tend to be the lowest crime neighborhoods in these studies. A mixture of uses, which was typified by free-standing commercial, set back from the street with parking lots in front were associated with higher crime. Such commercial in residential areas may serve to bring more offenders and victims together and increase the opportunity for crime, when not designed to facilitate informal surveillance. Also, both very low and very high densities may create opportunities for crimes to occur unobserved.

Mixed use can be designed to minimize opportunities for unobserved crime. In addition, when commercial establishments primarily serve local residents, the number of nonresidents entering the neighborhood is reduced. Residents will then be better able to monitor unusual behavior. Regulation of on-street parking and supervision or off-street parking areas can influence crime rates. Community watch programs and increased police patrols may be needed, in addition to design approaches. In-between densities may best provide increased activity and eyes without the crowding that makes surveillance difficult. An analysis of the types of crime, location of incidents, residential location of offenders and victims and similar information can help predict the combination of design and measures which will best accomplish a reduction of crime rates (Greenberg and Rohe, 1984).

PLANiTULSA: “Areas of Change and Stability”

The term “infill” can have a negative connotation. It is often used to describe huge houses or apartment complexes out-of-scale with existing neighborhoods. PLANiTULSA intends to differentiate good infill from bad infill. Good infill should add appropriate development that a neighborhood has been missing. Good infill is the right use and scale and adds to the overall neighborhood…

Mapped areas of stability include environmental areas such as rivers, creeks, floodplains, parks and open space; single family neighborhoods; and historic districts.

While the areas of potential change and areas of stability map is not a parcel by parcel map, it is intended to show overall how different areas of the city will be treated in the Comprehensive Plan. This differentiation in types of areas will be carried through into policies that treat areas of change (for example an abandoned industrial site) different than areas of stability (an existing single family neighborhood.) “A Critique of Smart Growth” (4/23/05)
The principles of smart growth and the measures used to implement them are thought-provoking and often useful. However, most of these principles and measures seem intended to be implemented in a decaying and blighted urban environment. Applying them to a healthy and vibrant suburb would force the suburb into high-density high-rise residential growth, exactly what most people moved to the suburbs to avoid. And the current development decision process seems strongly weighted against opponents of this type of growth in the suburbs. When smart growth advocates align with developers to support their projects, you know the smart growth train is really off the track…

…when you change the suburbs to the extent that is being proposed, it drives suburbanites further out to the edge communities to preserve the lifestyle that they moved to the suburbs for in the first place. Because the suburban properties are being bid up in price by developers who will redevelop them at a higher density, the close-in homeowner will reap a bonanza for selling and moving further out. Often the homeowner will be able to acquire a much bigger house, and are often to put up with a longer commute to get it. Thus “smart growth” is providing perverse incentives to develop open space, turn farmland into houses, and hide natural beauty behind the silhouettes of more and more homes.

And ask yourself if the one-eighth acre tot lot that the high density developer puts up is really the equivalent of a back yard?

…Developers are expert in the land use planning and zoning process. Sometimes they are abetted by public officials who see their interests in alignment with these large political donors. Where land use citizen advisory groups exist, they may be captured by special interests, or most of the members may live far enough away from the potential development that they don’t care much about its impact on the neighboring communities. The deck is often stacked against opponents of the proposed development or of growth in general.

What mostly happens is that a developer will suggest to a community the much worse alternatives to his development that would otherwise occur. The developer makes some concessions, and offers a pittance (compared to his profit) for some amenities for the community (community signs, park improvements, etc.). Consultants are brought in to say that the traffic/schools/environment will all be better off after the development, at least in contrast to the bad alternatives. The developer promises that the condos/townhomes will all be high-end, and that the retail tenants will be high-end as well, at least to the extent that he can find some. The community, which is flattered by the attention, feels it has been listened to, and having no experience negotiating proffers is happy with what it has obtained. Listen for the phrase, “We did the best we could.”

Voices in the community who ask why the land couldn’t be built at a low density, or turned into a park or athletic field, are ignored. If they complain about traffic, their innate knowledge of their neighborhood is unfavorably compared to the expertise of the consultants (who are often from out of town). Sometimes, someone who purports to be an expert on smart growth is brought in to explain how the development really is smart growth, even if it only adheres to a principle or two and violates more. Finally, the nay sayers are reminded that either the community or the region as a whole is heading down hill and desperately needs this growth, or in a different circumstance, that growth is inevitable, coming on like a rushing train, and must be accommodated smartly with this development and its ilk. Or sometimes both at the same time.

Jack Bog’s Blog: “The next bad-infill battleground” (7/21/08)

Ask what makes Portland great, and most folks will include in their answer its wonderful neighborhoods, particularly the oldest ones. But these collections of classic Craftsmen and Victorians are always under attack from greedy developers, who care not a whit about neighborhood character and are all about lining their wallets with retirees’ money. Alas, since their plans invariably call for cramming more people into less space, and eliminating all setback and breathing room around their apartment bunkers, they play right into the “eco-density” fad touted by the current generation of planning bureaucrats (many of whom are well intentioned greenies being played by the true overlords in the West Hills).

Canadian Architect: “Good infill development breathes life into cities” (2/14/11)
Good Infill

* “Buildings should be well mannered, respectful and civil,” said Madi, comparing them to good neighbours.

* Good infill adds growth, but fits in the context of the neighbourhood. An example is working with a colour palette that matches other houses…

Bad Infill

* …Be careful of buildings that take up the whole width of a lot. “The rhythm of the buildings is created by the spaces between them,” said Madi.

* Duplexes with no entrance facing the street stick out on a block full of houses with traditional entryways…

Guidelines for Infill Development in Heritage Areas in Hobsons Bay (2006)
To conserve the character of the area, the setbacks and orientation of existing streetscapes should be retained.
This is especially important for buildings facing the street…

The form, massing, height and bulk of the infill building should reflect the neighbouring heritage buildings.

The height and proportions of the new building should reflect the predominant height and proportions of adjacent
buildings in the street…

A new building should be recognisable as a product of its time and not create a false impression of age or a style. Good contemporary design is strongly encouraged.

Reproduction of period detailing on new infill buildings such as cast iron lacework and timber decoration to
gables is inappropriate. Contemporary detailing however, which is sympathetic to other buildings in the street, is

Jack Bog’s Blog: Big new condo building disrupts pattern of street (7/18/08)

From the east, a couple of two-story houses whose western exposure is completely blotted out by your monstrosity. And your lack of setback fits in real well with their front yards…

Eugene, Oregon: “Infill Compatibility Standards”
Changes to the R-2 zone standards have allowed intensive, multi-unit development in backyards and on alleys in two historical areas of the Jefferson and Westside Neighborhoods. Prior to the changes, these areas had been fully built-out as pedestrian-friendly, compact neighborhoods with single-unit dwellings, modest duplexes, and small accessory dwelling units (ADUs). The incompatible development now occurring creates significant negative impacts on adjacent residents and property owners, as well as on the overall neighborhood character.

An overlay zone, developed through a neighborhood community process, that will provide effective infill standards to protect the character and stability of the neighborhood, while allowing substantial additional development that’s
compatible with the neighborhood character.

…Many negative impacts of infill could be eliminated if the city proactively enforced the current code. Illegal conversions, illegal parking, over occupancy and nonowner occupancy when secondary dwellings units are present are some of the negative impacts resulting from inconsistent or incomplete land use code enforcement.

…Improve tree removal regulation, taking a comprehensive approach to significantly reducing serious abuses
and readily avoidable impacts which currently occur, especially in small and medium-sized developments,
and which specifically reduce the compatibility of those developments with the rest of the area.

The Washington Post: “Razing of Old Home Opposed in Alexandria” (10/8/07)
When the Rosemont Historic District was created in 1992, many people thought that the federal designation would be adequate and that they wouldn’t need to risk micromanagement by historic preservation mavens who would place unreasonable restrictions on private homes.

“There’s much more sentiment for it now,” Pickering says.

Lang isn’t so sure.

“It’s not come to the critical point yet” in people’s minds, she said.

But that boiling point has been reached on Sunset Drive, residents said. They fear Maravi will build another home like the one he has put up on Sunset Drive, which they say is out of character with the community. Most Rosemont homes feature large windows and entrances that look out onto the street and encourage neighborly interaction.

“He put up a monstrosity there,” Greenway said.

Residents said they hope the infill task force, which began meeting in April, will devise solutions to problems created by residential construction in neighborhoods. 

New Geography: “Smart Growth? Or Not So Bright Idea” (5/13/09)
Nobody can argue against the character of a tree-lined street… no one, that is, except the city Public Works department that must maintain structures being destroyed by trees growing in close confines to concrete walks and curbs. Smart Growth/New Urbanist compact front yard spaces are typically 10 feet or less. This simply cannot provide for enough room for tree growth when there is a 4’ wide walk typically a few feet away from the curb, the area where street trees grow. Without trees to define the street, these solutions have very little organic life to offset the vast volume of paving in front of each porch.

Now and in the near future there will be a new era of solar heat and power, most of which will be mounted on the roofs of homes. Guess what blocks the sun’s energy? Yep – street trees! High density means that the proximity of trees to roofs will deter the sun’s energy from reaching those solar panels.

Planetizen: “Smart Growth, Bad Air” (5/3/07)

A number of recent studies have confirmed the health risks of living near freeways and busy roads. Within a quarter mile of downtown Portland’s freeway corridors, carcinogenic pollution levels measured 100 times higher than state safety standards. These areas have seen a boom in smart growth housing in the last few years. In another study, USC researchers found that children living near Los Angeles freeways suffer from impaired lung development, leading to lifelong respiratory disorders…

…planners will need to carefully consider air quality when exploring new residential projects. There is no good reason to build up against a freeway when urban neighborhoods with more diffused traffic exist, even if these alternative locations require construction at smaller scales. Buffering residential areas with parkland would also help. Most importantly, new developments should be part of the solution (walkable and transit oriented) rather than part of the problem (autocentric malls and condominiums).

See also:

“Power at the Local Level: Growth Coalition Theory”
…local power structures are land-based growth coalitions. They seek to intensify land use. They are opposed by the neighborhoods they invade or pollute, and by environmentalists…

The growth coalitions also have a well-crafted set of rationales, created over the course of many decades, to justify their actions to the general public…

Smart Growth and Crime

Attract People to Infill Areas with Amenities
…we suggest the following to ease the way politically and safeguard the “receiving areas” (see map):

  1. Give people positive reasons to live and work in the receiving areas (beyond any environmental or aesthetic benefits of curtailing sprawl). These might include:

  2. Prioritize the enactment of infill design guidelines

The drive for infill should be part of a larger political bargain with residents in the receiving areas, so that their risks are minimized and their benefits are clear.