How Smart is Smart Growth?
Thu, February 2, 2023

How Smart is Smart Growth?

Smart growth enhances the quality of life in healthy communities. / Photo by: Trong Nguyen via 123rf


In the early 1990s, a movement to guide growth and development in the United States was initiated and promoted to serve the economy, community, and the environment. It was called Smart Growth and defined as “giving priority to improving services such as schools, roads, affordable housing, and transportation in existing communities rather than encouraging new housing and commercial development in the countryside.” It is an inward development to manage rather than control growth.

Through comprehensive planning and land use regulations, smart growth builds and revitalizes communities that protect and conserve natural resources, increases opportunities for employment, housing, and transportation, reduces energy consumption, improves finances by allowing long-term costs of development, and supports public health and housing choices. In short, smart growth enhances the quality of life in healthy communities.

How Smart Growth Came About

The sprawling land development in the countryside has intensely swelled at a staggering speed. By definition, sprawl is a dispersed kind of development located along highways outside urban centers. This low-density residential development imperils open spaces and farmlands, jacks up public service costs, generates traffic congestion, and degrades the environment and the quality of life. In response to this threat, concerted efforts at all levels (government, civil society, and other concerned groups) emerged to preserve open spaces and rebuild cities and suburbs. Smart growth initiatives came alive through new policies and practices advocating better housing and transportation, economic prosperity, and environmental conservation. Smart growth became the influential model in the 70s and the powerful federal legislation vision in the 90s.

Underlying Principles of Smart Growth

Founded on communities’ experiences that used smart growth approaches to build and sustain healthy environs, 10 basic principles to guide smart growth strategies were developed:

1. Mix land uses like a mix of residential with commercial, high density with low, pedestrian and bike access, etc.

2. Take advantage of compact building design to increase density and reduce space.

3. Create a range of housing opportunities and choices to augment and adjust the housing needs of diverse residents.

4. Create pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods according to people on foot rather than to people with cars.

5. Foster unique, attractive communities with a strong sense of place through less dependence on identical big malls in every, city, region, and country. Create facilities reflecting local and regional variations in vegetation, climate, and landforms.

6. Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas to improve quality of life and increase local recreational opportunities.

7. Build up and lead development toward existing communities.

8. Provide a variety of transportation choices by creating transit and non-motorized alternatives to reduce traffic congestion.

9. Formulate fair and cost-effective decisions.

10. Encourage community and stakeholders to work together on development issues and decisions.

Issues and Concerns on Smart Growth

Although smart growth is widely supported, there are still skeptics who are wary of its implementation. One big concern raised by critics is that the reclamation and renovation of existing developed areas increase attractiveness but raise value and cost of living. Land prices escalate and affordable housing is replaced by more expensive homes, all in the name of growth management. It has been argued that the price increases are not due to growth management but rather to marketing dynamics, employment, and income. It was also argued that smart growth is less expensive as they lower infrastructure investments and as such accrue savings that can be passed to reduce housing costs.

In summary, the following are additional issues on smart growth raised by critics:

• Underscores public space over private space.

• Wages war on cars.

• Promotes high-concentration houses in low-density neighborhoods.

• Favors open space for homes but not for solar fields, biofuel crops, or wind farms.


Wage war on cars is one of the additional issues on smart growth that is raised by critics. / Photo by: welcomia via 123rf


Lessons Learned

 Barring criticism from skeptics, smart growth initiatives have been in place and are being put into action in cities across the world. Implementation is expected to magnify as Baby Boomers retire and millennials move into cities, placing greater demands for services enabled by connected technology.

From the experiences since inception, the following are some key lessons learned:

- The most important lesson is that it is enormously needed to rally, engage, and educate all the relevant stakeholders from the public, private, non-profit, and community sectors. They need to understand and have an optimistic interest to change for it to have any chance of being effective.

- The second key lesson is that there must be a greater commitment of resources from the state or federal governments. Substantial funds need to be invested in transportation alternatives, brownfields clean-up and redevelopment, affordable housing, infrastructure, and public facilities and amenities. Investments and financial support from all sectors are critical for smart growth initiatives to work.

- Finally, it is vital to recognize and concede that change will not happen easily and swiftly. More visible improvements in urban reinvestment and open space preservation can be achieved but cutting suburban sprawl will be a difficult and long-term challenge. The world we live in is dominated by people who love cars and single-family homes. Changing their attitudes will take time.

A glimmer of hope remains from the increasing number of urban residents unhappy with traffic congestion, air and water pollution, deteriorating environments and quality of life, lack of a sense of community, and burgeoning costs of public infrastructure and private housing prices. Smart growth seems to be the right answer. Let us take the first step on the path to sustainable development.