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How Smart Growth Fits Into Small Towns

December 17, 2007, 7am PST | Anna Haines, Mary Edwards
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For politicians and developers, advocating for "smart growth" is easy. But for small towns, pursuing those goals can be a challenge. Researchers Anna Haines and Mary Edwards examined the "smart growth" plans of 30 small communities to see just how well small towns can adopt smart growth ideals.

 Mary Edwards Anna HainesSmart growth has become ubiquitous and controversial as one of the chief and contrasting alternatives to sprawl. A number of states over the past decade have passed comprehensive planning laws of which many have included smart growth principles. Wisconsin's law, passed in 1999, instantly became known within the state as the "smart growth" law. Some of the key drafters of the original bill decry the use of the term "smart growth" in reference to the law and prefer the more descriptive title -- Wisconsin's Comprehensive Planning and Smart Growth Law -- to emphasize the comprehensive planning focus of the law. The law essentially defines a comprehensive plan, details fourteen local comprehensive planning goals, outlines efforts to promote public participation, requires consistency between zoning, subdivision, official map ordinances and the comprehensive plan and provides limited funding to local governments to assist in preparing plans. We undertook to evaluate 30 comprehensive "smart growth" plans that had been adopted under this law to find out to what extent community comprehensive plans include goals and policies that promote smart growth.

As it turns out, our set of communities had very small populations ranging from about 10,000 on the high end to about 600 on the low end. These local governments represented cities, villages and towns, and each had applied for and successfully received state grant funding to assist in preparing plans. Within the grant application, each community was required to state how they would address each of the fourteen local comprehensive planning grant goals. To better understand how the communities were generally addressing smart growth principles under this new "smart growth" law, we chose to examine a specific set of six smart growth goals. These goals are included in the state's fourteen local planning goals, which also have analogues among the smart growth principles developed by the Smart Growth Network. The six goals are: directing new development toward existing development; creating walkable communities; providing a variety of transportation choices; preserving open space, farmland and critical environmental areas; fostering distinctive attractive communities with a strong sense of place; and creating a range of housing choice and opportunity.

Addressing Smart Growth Goals

So, what did we find? First, the good news. In terms of smart growth goals, all 30 communities addressed the preservation of open space, farmland and critical environmental areas. Similarly, nearly all (96 percent) addressed the goals of creating a range of housing choice for residents and fostering distinct and attractive communities.

In contrast and perhaps the bad news is that we found about one-quarter of communities did not have any goals related to either creating walkable communities or developing a variety of transportation choice. In addition, about 40 percent of the communities only addressed these two goals in a narrow sense, for example, for one area of the community or for one group in the community (the elderly for example). Almost one-fifth did not include provisions for directing new development toward existing development. When we turn to policy, the news gets worse.

In examining the presence or absence of a set of policies under each of the six goals, we found that many smart growth policies under five of the six goals (housing choice, transportation choice, sense of place, walkability, and directing development) are barely addressed, if at all. These policies reflect those promoted by the Smart Growth Network.

Another way in which we evaluated these plans was to score each one based on the inclusion of smart growth policies. We scored each plan and its policies with the highest score possible 60 points. We were struck by the very low scores overall, averaging just 13.21. In delving into the data, we found that cities and villages averaged a slightly higher score of 17.91 points. This score contrasts with towns which received an average of only 9.11 points.

Small Towns Not Growing Smartly?

Despite these low scores and the lack of attention paid to the smart growth policies encouraged by proponents of smart growth, it was far too easy to conclude that these smaller communities are simply not growing smartly. This kind of thinking would have emphasized the kind of urban bias that the planning profession is accused of. Thus, we looked more closely at the plans to see what other kinds of policies they had included in them. These policies largely addressed the close relationship these communities have with both their local rural economy in conjunction with local natural resources. Policies included encouraging local businesses to feature locally-grown and -produced agriculture and forest products, and ensuring that all future mining operations will someday be reclaimed to a natural setting. Thus, the lack of "smart growth" goals and policies does not mean these communities are indifferent to growing smart, rather it means that these communities are preparing plans that address their own reality, but not in a neat and tidy way that may define them as "smart growth" communities.

We concluded that a broader conversation needs to occur to define what smart growth is to small cities and rural areas and to identify a set of principles they can use to help guide their plans and decision making. Small towns and rural areas, typically characterized by low densities and large land areas, are diverse and complex and confront different challenges than do their urban counterparts. Because our planning methods must meet the needs of both large and small communities, a unique set of smart growth guidelines and policies specifically targeted to small and rural communities to assist them in implementing a smart growth agenda would go far in ensuring that this agenda is indeed meant for all communities.

--- Anna Haines, Ph.D., is an associate professor and director of the Center for Land Use Education at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point.

Mary Edwards is an assistant professor with the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Note: This article is an adaptation of a study published in the Fall 2007 issue of the Journal of Planning Education and Research.

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