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Smart Growth: Time to Grow Smarter

In an earlier post we looked at the strip mall, patron saint of suburban sprawl. Let’s return again to that image, as it’s so useful.  When discussing Placemaking, we noted the suite of features that makes strip malls so distinctively indistinct, un-walkable roads, car centric locations, utilitarian architecture, single use zoning, and so on.   The reason the strip mall is such a useful case study is that these features are common hallmarks of sprawl in general.  The strip mall is a microcosm of the greater landscape dominated by multi-lane local roads and nondescript buildings reachable only by personal car.

We’re revisiting the strip mall in this post because Placemaking is a component of a larger principal, one that pertains not just to the creation of a singular location but rather to entire urban area: Smart Growth.   Smart Growth is an urban planning practice that, at its simplest, focuses growth in compact centers, with an emphasis on walkability and access to public transportation in order to diminish the negative impacts of urban and suburban sprawl.   Smart Growth, in turn, falls under the even broader umbrella of New Urbanism, an urban design movement born in the 1980s advocating for walkable neighborhoods featuring a range of land uses, specifically the mix of housing and commercial land use.  These movements draw upon pre-war, pre-automobile urban design practices that put a premium on sustainability.

In 1996, the Smart Growth Network created a series of guidelines for Smart Growth development.  They are as follows:

  1. Mix land uses
  2. Take advantage of compact building design
  3. Create housing opportunities and choices for a range of household types, family size and incomes
  4. Create walkable neighborhoods
  5. Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place
  6. Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas
  7. Reinvest in and strengthen existing communities & achieve more balanced regional development
  8. Provide a variety of transportation choices
  9. Make development decisions predictable, fair and cost-effective
  10. Encourage citizen and stakeholder participation in development decisions

The benefits of Smart Growth are diverse and, at times, surprising.  It is easy to forget how our built environment influences innumerable aspects of our lives.  The choices urban planners make are extremely important for the prosperity of our cities and homes. We can divide the benefits into the following categories:

  1. Economic – From increased home ownership due to larger housing choice, to increased consumer spending due to lower transportation costs, to increased access to jobs, Smart Growth can change the economic landscape of a city for the better.
  2. Environmental – Smart Growth impacts the environment in a variety of ways; some examples include better air and water quality, better disaster remediation, land conservation, and brownfield redevelopment.
  3. Public Health – Public transportation and walkability don’t only influence our ease of movement; they also make us healthier.  Smart Growth makes the air we breath and the water we drink safer while making our cities more conducive to physical activity.
  4. Social Cohesion – As we saw with Placemaking, Smart Growth facilitates social interaction and discourse as well as a sense of ‘place,’ which fosters stewardship and pride.

We’ll explore these benefits in depth in later posts to better understand why Smart Growth is such an important trend in today’s urban development.

Until then, grow smartly!

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