Smart Growth: Claustrophobic, Unsafe, and Bad for Gas Mileage

Rick Harrison argues that smart growth looks good on paper, but in application the density creates a whole host of problems.

"One goal of Smart Growth is to move our society away from dependence on cars, and many Smart Growth plans intentionally make it difficult to drive through the neighborhood, making walking more inviting. Smart Growth planners advocate short blocks in a grid pattern to distribute traffic (vehicular and pedestrian) evenly within a development. These short blocks produce a multitude of 4-way intersections, and add a multitude of those trendy "turnabouts," to make a bland site plan look more interesting.

But all of this together destroys 'flow'. On the other hand, in a grid planned neighborhood you might drive a straight line with an occasional turn, giving the impression of a much shorter drive than a curved subdivision. But with short blocks, a driver must stop completely, pause, then when safe accelerate through the intersection onto the next intersection, then repeat multiple times. This scenario uses a tremendous amount of energy; the car eats gas."

Full Story: Smart Growth? Or Not So Bright Idea?




Yes, MPG's plummet, but so does actual gallons used per day, which is the whole point.

Valid critique

It seems like every critique I hear about Smart Growth or New Urbanist developments is not the concepts that guided their design, but the actual implementation of the design. The problem here is not the principles, but the people applying them. Here is where a packaged set of easy-to-apply design techniques have replaced GOOD DESIGN - which requires much more time, thought and tedious design considerations than developers would like to spend. The scenario used by the author is a valid critique... Which can be simply remedied by rectangular-shaped blocks whereby the streets along the long side of the block have stop signs and the streets along the short side do not. Most of the residences would front on the long side, so they would feel protected by the stop-and-go traffic; yet the non-stop streets get them where they need to go in an efficient manner. This requires that 1) the non-stop streets have unobstructive features (texture & enclosement, not humps and curves) that keep the traffic slow but steady and 2) the non-stop streets must be oriented in a way that connects neighborhood destinations (so that they will be the preferred route).

As basic as these details sound, they are often ignored because of the one-size-fits-all approach that makes Smart Growth and New Urbanist principles so easy to apply. It's fantastic that such principles been so marketable to developers. The problem is: for them to work properly, there's a lot more to it. If this continues, we are only feeding the critics with additional ammunition that is counter-productive to the cause.

I've seen better critiques

If you want a good critique of smart growth read "Sprawl: A Compact History" by Robert Brugemann. I'm still a fan of smart growth, but Brugemann will keep you on your toes.

This critique is haphazard and easy to poke holes in. Okay, more stop and go lowers MPG, but it, combined with density and use mixture, helps to create the conditions that allow people to use alternative transportation, which more than balances out the stop and go. What's really dangerous for pedestrians is being forced to jaywalk because there aren't enough crosswalks.

The point about street trees blocking solar panels only applies if the buildings are suburban-style one and two story structures. Real density implies at least three stories in my book.

If you take density seriously smart growth unquestionably reduces the amount of paved surface area, so that criticism is gone.

A densely settled street may have more cars parked on it than a suburban street, but the people in the densely settled area aren't as reliant on them as the suburbanites.



His argument is basically that by putting people in a place that you don't have to drive everywhere, it makes it harder to drive, and therefore less energy efficient. What he fails to realize is that people would no longer be driving to acheive every single little task. Not to mention the fact that things are closer together, so even car trips don't travel as many miles.


Every philosophical and design movement has, at it's base, the goal of social engineering, to some degree or another. To that end, all iterations of the next best thing have considerable, if not, nominal drawbacks. I think that the questions he raises are sound, yet lack that understanding.

I can't take him seriously

I believe this is his website showing the work he does...

For his sake, I hope he's in development just for the money and not because he truly believes in what he's saying.

The Old Suburbanism

That web site shows the worst sort of 50s sprawl design. There is absolutely no street connectivity, so you have to drive long distances to get anywhere. And most of the developments are on greenfield sites in the middle of nowhere, little subdivisions breaking up large swaths of open space and fragmenting wildlife habitat.

Charles Siegel

Reduced travel eliminates worries about reduced MPG

I think my own personal experience sums things up nicely. I live in a denser old urban neighbourhood composed of narrow-lot single family homes and some 3-5 storey apartment blocks, with a couple of commercial strips of street-fronting retail cutting through the area. Yes, when I drive, it is very stop-and-go and I get terrible gas mileage. But because I am a 10 minute walk to two large grocery stores, a 2 minute walk to a good transit route, a 10 minute walk to a major transit corridor, and a 30 second walk from a convenience store, I only use my car on the weekends to visit friends and family out in the 'burbs.

I may only get 15 mpg (or less) in the city instead of the 30+ mpg some of my friends get travelling on the highway or major arterials (no freeways in Winnipeg), but the fact that I drive less than 50 km per week still makes for far fewer emissions, and far less of a contribution to congestion. If a car share ever starts up in my neighbourhood, then I probably won't need to own a car anymore.

Someone else made a good point in this discussion though - "Smart Growth" is too often a catch-all term for neotraditional-looking housing developments built on greenfield sites far away from services. They are walkable only in the sense that they are nice for a stroll, but walking to shops and services is usually impossible because there are none. True smart growth should have the following characteristics (but this is by no means an exhaustive list):

• walkable
• a blend of mixed use and single-family
• overall higher density
• small lots and short building setbacks
• good transit service (doesn't need to be rapid transit though, especially not in large infill areas well within the urban boundary)
• good medium sized grocery store right in the neighbourhood (not adjacent to the area on a nearby freeway or high-speed arterial)
• good pedestrian/bicycle, transit and road connections to adjacent areas

The last point is easily one of the most important (far more important than front porches on houses), but it is the one that gets missed most often. Smart growth is only smart if it is integrated with the surrounding area. If it's an isolated pod of neotraditional houses, then it is nothing more than sprawl with porches. A neighbourhood can look as traditional as can be, but if all traffic (car, bus, pedestrian and bicycle) is forced to enter and exit the neighbourhood through one or two access points that lead only onto high-speed arterials, then what you have is certainly nothing more than dressed-up sprawl.

Inter-neighbourhood connectivity is one of the most important things for making "smart growth" smart.

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