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Why Smart Growth Needs New Urbanism and Vice-Versa

April 5, 2004, 12am PDT | Joel S. Hirschhorn
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Though smart growth and new urbanism have different origins, constituencies, and tactics, the leaders of these movements must identify how they complement one another. Both have strong common enemies, and to succeed, both must accept the truth that continuing population growth requires major new housing in both suburbs and cities.

 Joel HirschhornThere are many reasons why "movements" fail. Usually they become insignificant rather than disappear. Rarely do two different movements emerge at roughly the same time and share similar broad goals. Considering the many difficulties of achieving widespread success of any movement affecting American society, the worst scenario is competition or outright confrontation between two such movements. Though smart growth and new urbanism have different origins, constituencies, and tactics, it is critical to identify how they complement each other and how they can reinforce each other. If not, their common enemies, and there are several, may defeat both of them. Trite but true: in unity there is strength. Already, it is clear to me that some enemies sense an opportunity to "divide and conquer."

First, consider the fundamental shared interests of smart growth and new urbanism. And I do mean fundamental, from the perspective of the outside world. Both are attempting to change a dominant paradigm, what I call the sprawl built environment. No need to argue about highly technical and overly precise definitions. The sprawl basis of American society is automobile dependence, absence of high social capital neighborhoods, and commodity housing. All of these can be explained in terms of both political and design factors. We know that something changed profoundly after World War II and that it was definitely associated with suburban sprawl land development. If either smart growth or new urbanism truly succeeded, there would be a return to a built environment, culture, and society that once existed. Sprawl's momentum or trajectory set over some 50 years would be derailed. Not stopped, but definitely shaken enough so that sprawl-oriented companies could restructure themselves and adopt on a wider commercial scale both smart growth and new urbanism principles.

Now consider the obstacles to stronger collaboration, coordination and cooperation between people and organizations in the two movements. For the sake of brevity I will summarize these: environmental roots for smart growth versus architectural roots for new urbanism; a public policy focus for smart growth versus a design orientation for new urbanism; people with environmental, planning, social equity or public policy backgrounds in smart growth versus architects, designers and academics in new urbanism; established organizations with their own funding, members, and supporters--chiefly Smart Growth America and the Congress for New Urbanism. Movements, like individuals, have "egos." Movements create labels for individuals. People make choices about where to put their time, money, and intellectual capital. From websites to books and conferences, people tend to align themselves with one or the other of the movements. Newspaper reporters decide to use the term smart growth or new urbanism. Community activists fighting sprawl decide to invite a leading smart growth or new urbanism "expert" for a plenary talk. Elected officials choose between the rhetoric available from both camps.

What matters most in the long term is that smart growth and new urbanism have strong common enemies. Again, for the sake of brevity, I summarize these. The biggest enemy of change is always the status quo; in this case it is everything supporting the current sprawl built environment and the many business sectors that profit from it. The current local, state, and federal government system of planning, policy and politics overwhelmingly supports the current sprawl paradigm. Then there is the mass market for housing and a high level of consumer ignorance about the true personal and social costs of sprawl, and about alternatives to sprawl housing and communities. And last and certainly not least is the national network of right wing conservatives and libertarians that I call "sprawl shills" who, for a host of philosophical and pragmatic reasons, support the automobile-centric, sprawl-based, and largely anti-environmental business sectors.

I want both smart growth and new urbanism to succeed, because then American society will improve, which means a higher quality of life for more people, better personal health from more active living, more environmental protection, less time-poverty, much less land gluttony, and reduced costs for public infrastructure that translates to lower taxes. There is some truth to the viewpoint that the smart growth movement has tended to overemphasize the role of government, but also that new urbanism has too much faith in market forces. This has resulted in pro-sprawl, pro-car activists favoring new urbanism over smart growth. Smart growth is more accessible to ordinary Americans and has built a strong grassroots network, and new urbanism does have elitist and trust-the-professional dimensions.

But at the end of the day there is no "either-or" here. Both movements need to promote both stronger consumer demand for alternatives to sprawl housing and shopping through better information. Both camps must support more fair government laws, regulations and processes that promote a level playing field for sprawl and its alternatives to compete on their merits and costs, so that developers can pursue what they want and consumers get more housing and transportation choices.

Perversely, there has been too little focus on "growth" in the smart growth movement and too much importance given to the "new" in new urbanism. For too long the smart growth movement emphasized revitalizing cities but not new suburban communities, and the new urbanism movement stressed greenfield projects rather than infill projects in cities and older suburbs. For both movements to succeed, both must accept the truth that continuing population growth requires major new housing in both suburbs and cities.

Whenever attacks are made on smart growth or new urbanism, the other camp must exploit opportunities to support who is attacked. Whenever support is explicitly given to one movement, it should be made clear that it is not a vote against the other camp. Whenever possible both groups must join forces and present a common front to the public and elected officials. Get ready for "smart urbanism."

Joel S. Hirschhorn is the former Director of Environment, Energy and Natural Resources at the National Governors Association. He is a consultant and author of the forthcoming Sprawl Kills -- Better Living in Healthy Places, and can be reached through

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