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Why The Smart Growth Movement Will Fail

Proponents have a lot of work to do if they want smart growth to move from the margin into the mainstream.
June 17, 2002, 12am PDT | Joel Hirschhorn
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Joel HirschhornThe smart growth movement is more than alive and well -- it is bursting with energy and receiving increasing support in both the public and private sectors. Yet most movements do not fail by totally disappearing. The more American style of failure is marginalization. In particular, smart growth may not produce a solid displacement of the sprawl culture, either in the near or long-term. If sprawl with its single land use development remains the dominant form of the built environment, and smart growth places satisfy only a niche market, then the smart growth movement has failed to fulfill its promise.

Here are some weaknesses in the smart growth movement that if given more attention could be addressed to better ensure longer term success.

We Need To Engage Our Opponents
Smart growth advocates all too often preach to the choir, seek out like-minded persons and groups, and do not effectively address the issues and concerns of opponents. At the endless stream of smart growth conferences there rarely is a speaker that is truly an opponent to the core principles of smart growth. Nor is there any session where smart growth advocates seriously examine what the opposition prefers and what strategies might be used to directly address opposing viewpoints, data, and arguments.

Smart Growth Is Becoming Diluted
The smart growth community has not focused enough attention on inauthentic actions of those who seek the benefits of smart growth but do not deliver the real thing. These include some developers, builders, trade associations, and government officials. The desire for building broad support and partnerships can undermine the integrity of the smart growth movement. Flexibility is fine. But when the fundamentals of smart growth get muddied or distorted, then the movement is sliding down the slippery slope into sprawl. Everyone does not have to use the term smart growth. But not all things labeled smart growth, sustainable, livable, mixed use, or new urbanism are necessarily consistent with the original principles of smart growth. Smart growth police should not deny the right of others to build or choose sprawl. But the public should not be taken advantage of through deceptive actions masquerading as smart growth or low quality attempts that fail to deliver high performance.

Help The Public Understand The Tradeoffs
The smart growth movement has not focused enough on a message to the general public that informs consumers about the fundamental tradeoff between private and public space that is at the core of the sprawl versus smart growth choice. The sprawl culture that has evolved over some 50 years has caused a fundamental societal preference for private space over public space. This can be related to lots of things, like social capital, alienation, high resource consumption, social exclusion and segregation. For people to choose smart growth places and style of living it is necessary to understand the many benefits of neighborhood and community public places over the private space within and around homes. Sprawl will prevail if Americans do not value public places of all sorts much more than they do now. The public realm must be a place that people want to go to and be in, not places to fear or use as quickly as possible, usually in a vehicle.

Connect Smart Growth To Schools
The smart growth movement has not connected enough to the issue of large schools that students must get to in vehicles versus small schools that not only students can walk to, but that also have been consistently proven to offer higher quality education and social experiences. Sprawl could not have succeeded without the construction of mega-schools. It is not enough to advance arguments about infrastructure costs. Smart growth advocates need to build a solid substantive connection with school and educational quality that resonates with parents. School boards must become advocates of smart growth.

As long as the sprawl industry can make money it is not likely to restructure itself. Ultimately, consumer demand will determine the degree of success for smart growth, not conferences nor books. The smart growth movement needs to focus more on markets, housing consumers, and the supply-demand equation, and less on noble big-picture benefits. When smart growth serves selfish interests it will succeed on a large scale. And it can do this. It is not about saving the environment or the planet. It must be about giving people some very tangible benefits, not the least of which is better personal health.

Of course, these are just my opinions and I could be wrong. All too often, however, the high-energy, creative spirits of a fast-paced successful movement fail to appreciate their opposition and the incredible forces at work to maintain the status quo. Status quo and arrogance, more than sprawl itself, may undermine smart growth.


Joel Hirschhorn lives in an old neighborhood near Rock Creek Park in Chevy Chase, Maryland, very close to Washington, D.C., and likes it much more than the suburban sprawl subdivision he once lived in. He has worked in the environmental and policy areas for many years and is currently Director of the Natural Resources Policy Studies of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.

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