Smart Growth 2.0
In 1991, a group of leading architects and planners came together and drafted a set of planning principles outlining an alternative development model to the urban sprawl of American cities and towns. These principles, named for the Ahwahnee hotel in Yosemite, California where they where originally presented, have generally been considered one of the first articulations of what is now commonly referred to as "smart growth."
Twelve years later, smart growth supporters converged in New Orleans, Louisiana – a somewhat less pastoral location – for the 2nd Annual New Partners for Smart Growth Conference. Organized by the Local Government Commission, which also sponsored the drafting of the Ahwahnee principles, and Penn State University, the conference brought nearly 1,000 elected officials, planners, developers and community activists to learn how to further implement smart growth planning principles in our nation’s neighborhoods, cities, towns and regions.
Though the official theme of the conference was "building safe, healthy and livable communities," a much stronger theme permeated much of the discussion: “how can smart growth be effectively implemented?”
After years of effort, many smart growth advocates believe they've succeeded in educating planners and policy makers about the problems of urban sprawl and the merits of smart growth. The task now, as they see it, is to begin moving smart growth development practices from the margin into the mainstream, and to make the public at large accept and even demand smart growth projects in their own neighborhood.
To address the issue, many speakers cited the need for a coalition of prominent groups and organizations to market smart growth to the American public. While planners are mostly enthusiastic about the merits of smart growth, they said, developers and local officials are still weary of the public's reaction to some of smart growth's prescriptions, including increased density and reduced dependence on the automobile in favor of public transit.
Illustrating the growing support for smart growth at the conference was a number of representatives from an assortment of fields, most notably public health and safety. In various sessions throughout the conference, several law enforcement officials cited the success of crime prevention programs that emphasized environmental design to define public and private spaces and thwart criminals. Also voicing their support were several physicians and health care providers, who praised smart growth as a way to promote active, healthy lifestyles that encourage people to get out of their cars and walk while reducing air pollution levels that have led to high occurrences of respiratory problems, especially in children. Highlighting the role of public health partners at the conference was the presence of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a national foundation dedicated to improving health and healthcare in the United States and a major sponsor of the conference.
The multi-disciplinary theme was extended to other conference sessions which sought to involved seniors, youth, and under-represented groups in community planning and the debate of where and how growth should occur. Many participants lamented that fact that many smart growth demonstration projects have excluded minorities and lower-income segments of the population, and re-emphasized the importance of incorporating a stronger commitment to social equity in future smart growth projects.
Other discussions centered on plain old marketing strategies to move smart growth forward, and there were several speakers throughout the conference who suggested that smart growth just hasn't been marketed well. Andres Duany, a charter member of the Congress for New Urbanism, criticized the "anhedonic" approach to marketing smart growth in his speech at the close of the conference. Duany suggested that rather than highlighting what smart growth prevents or discourages developers and individuals from doing, emphasis should be placed on the increased quality of life from the enjoyment of a safe, walkable neighborhood or abundant nearby green space.
Some of the most persuasive arguments came from some local elected officials, many of them conservatives, who have begun to implement smart growth policies on the merits of efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Speaking during the opening session, Patrick McCrory, the Republican Mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, acknowledged that smart growth principles can help fast growing regions to cope with increasing traffic and housing prices, while minimizing public infrastructure costs in the long term. Mayor McCrory offered several examples smart growth policies he helped enact in Charlotte, including a restriction on cul-de-sac subdivisions and a $1 billion mass transit initiative, while challenging other elected officials to do the same.
Another important issue that was raised was the continuing obstacle that outdated planning and building codes pose to smart growth projects. Addressing the problem during several sessions, planners and local officials highlighted the importance of getting "smart" codes adopted by cities and towns in order encourage more smart growth developments and discourage sprawl. Several developers acknowledged that “codifying” smart growth could significantly reduce the cost disparity between smart growth and conventional development by eliminating the lengthy entitlement and approval process many smart growth developments require.
A special and welcomed component to the 2nd Annual New Partners for Smart Growth Conference was a delegation of over 30 high school aged youth from around the country. Members of the youth delegation sat with the attendees throughout the entire conference, asking questions and offering their unique perspectives on many of the issues being discussed. During the final conference session, representatives from the youth delegation expressed their desire to see smart growth positively impact their communities, and urged the conference attendees to work with youth in their respective communities as a resource to further smart growth efforts. The group received a standing ovation from the grown-up participants at the conclusion of the presentation.
After two and a half days of keynotes, sessions, workshops, and a little late-night carousing (it was New Orleans, after all), the participants headed home to reflect on what they had learned from each other during the conference, and face the many challenges in their communities armed with a new and more informed perspective on implementing smart growth policies and creating successful projects.
And while the Ahwahnee principles still infused much of the discussion and dialogue around smart growth, it was also clear to conference attendees that the overall concept of smart growth has evolved, emerging from more than a decade of trial use into a newer, more comprehensive yet more succinct version of smart growth. This new version of smart growth, which leverages a broad-based coalition of support to build communities that are ecologically and economically sustainable while inclusive to all residents, must now be effectively communicated to the American public at large if smart growth is to deliver on its promises for a better quality of life for all.
Christian Peralta is a senior at the University of Southern California majoring in urban planning and development. When not studying, he splits his time between Urban Insight, a Los Angeles Internet consulting firm, and Livable Places, a nonprofit housing developer.