Can't Smart Growth And Sprawl Just Get Along?
Problems with nomenclature may prevent "smart growth" -- or high-density housing -- from being used appropriately, including targeting the right audience. If the vast majority of people want "sprawl", should they get it? Smart growth may only be appropriate for the minority willing to accept it, writes Rick Bishop, AICP.
Let's run down the list of things people tend to frown upon. Serial killers. Earthquakes for sure. Dysentery. And, of course, there's high-density housing.
Forget about the occasional story in newspapers across the country that enthusiastically touts the "new" mixed-use projects popping up here and there. That high-density and mixed-use developments are even reported at all in mainstream media -- their "newsworthiness," in other words -- serves to exemplify how these developments are still a sort of novelty act. They are news because they are different. And forget about getting all excited about the institutional magazines, websites, and planning-oriented newsletters that glamorize and focus on this topic. They are only read by, well, people like us.
In spite of the increased hoopla, mixed-use and high-density developments are still the planning equivalent of the lizard-skinned man at the county fair. Maybe not quite at "freak-show" level, but still far from planning mainstream. Their prospects remain relegated to the redevelopment wing of urban planning, often seen only as an acceptable approach and safe risk for revitalizing areas that are underutilized and run down.
The lion's share of resentment for and wariness of high-density tends to be heaped onto the NIMBYs. But in recently attending a meeting of state and regional planning leaders discussing California's future, I was struck by the overall neutrality toward these planning approaches, particularly as they might be incorporated in greenfield development.
Part of the problem may be that issues surrounding mixed-use and high-density development have been sucked into a nomenclature vortex. Rather than simply touting the many benefits of high-density and mixed-use development -- reducing automobile trips, providing variety and affordability in housing opportunities, improving air quality, providing more opportunities for open space preservation and creating distinguishable city centers, to name a few -- we've spent extensive time disguising the term "high-density," packaging it instead as "transit-oriented design", "neotraditionalism", "livable communities", "new urbanism", "smart growth", or "urban villages". That effort has yielded questionable results, considering the various interpretations of these terms that have now developed in recent years.
In some cases we have ourselves to blame. I've attended more than one planning conference session entitled "Smart Growth" only to hear panelists focus on the use of urban limit lines to corral and/or slow growth. And if planners don't have a handle on how to interpret the term, imagine what a single swipe from a nationally-syndicated columnist can do. George Will once wrote that "The purpose of 'smart' 'coordinated' growth is to prevent the masses, in their freedom, from producing democracy's byproducts -- untidiness and even vulgarity. And the bland notion of 'planning' often is the rubric under which government operates when making its preferences and prophecies -- often meaning its arrogance and its mistakes -- mandatory." Great.
Too often planners, the public, and decision-makers seem to make smart-growth an "all-or-nothing" issue when discussing future development. In their simplest form, though, smart growth concepts should be one of many common and acceptable approaches utilized by jurisdictions to plan for and accommodate future growth. In western Riverside County, California, for example, we know through survey research that 85% of prospective home buyers desire to purchase a single family home in a suburban-style setting. Current development patterns in the subregion correspond to these desires, and there's nothing wrong with that. There's no need for smart growth efforts to be geared towards changing the preferences of the 85% who steadfastly seek suburbia. But what about focusing on the 15% of respondents who are looking for something else?
Planners and policy makers need to find ways to bring mixed-use and high-density development into the planning mainstream to meet these needs, both in rebuilding existing communities and, especially, in building new ones. Mixed-use and high-density developments deserve equal standing as we build our new cities; they shouldn't be viewed only as a way to revitalize the dead ones.
Rick Bishop, AICP, has over 20 years of intergovernmental planning experience in both the public and private sectors. He serves as Executive Director of the Western Riverside (California) Council of Governments, which includes 15 jurisdictions as member entities. The views expressed in this article are solely the author's, and do not reflect any policy of WRCOG or its member agencies.