“Smart growth” (SG) is an urban growth management strategy that applies planning and design principles conceived more than 40 years ago towards mitigating the impacts of continued growth. If properly applied, these principles represent a positive contribution to new urban development. However, SG advocates have taken this formula too far by claiming their medicine is a cure for the ailments of growth.
SG advocates tell us that we can continue to accommodate growth indefinitely if we follow their program. Growth is not the problem, they say, it’s just how we grow that needs to be addressed. SG has a recipe for growth and, if followed closely, advocates promise it will keep us on the path of growth without sacrificing our environment, eroding our quality of life, or losing the amenities and attributes that we care about in our communities.
The gospel of SG is certainly seductive: we can keep on doing what we’ve been doing, and with a few fairly easy changes protect all that we care about. But can we really just keep on growing while protecting the environment, our natural resources, and the quality of the community for current and future generations?
The SG approach fails to recognize that even the smartest growth places a heavy burden on our environment and our communities, and creates significant impacts, most of which cannot be fully mitigated. An expanding local population requires more land, more food production, more roads and other expensive infrastructure, more services, more energy, water, and natural resources, more waste production, and more greenhouse gas emissions.
SG proponents are making an implied tradeoff – they are concluding that the benefits from continued growth are greater than the costs, as long as their SG formula is applied. But what precisely are these benefits from growth? Where are they documented? And how do they compare with the costs? None of this sort of objective accounting is ever performed by SG proponents.
SG is a pro-growth strategy that is ultimately about accommodating and facilitating more growth. While sprawling development is viewed as undesirable, non-sprawling development is viewed as beneficial and desirable. Thus, SG proponents believe that growth, if done properly, can be transformed from a costly blight on the landscape into an attractive development with predominantly positive impacts on the community. From the SG perspective, it’s okay to keep developing rural lands as long as it’s done properly in an orderly and efficient manner.
The myth of SG is that it represents the complete and ultimate solution to our growth-related problems. At best, SG is a partial and temporary solution that has the potential to mitigate some of the impacts of continued growth on environmental quality, natural resources, the fiscal condition of local governments, transportation systems, and livability.
The moral dilemma with SG is that it provides a rationale for allowing us to make the problem bigger. To the extent that SG serves to perpetuate growth by commandeering the public dialogue about managing growth and by misleading citizens into believing it is the complete solution to growth-related problems, it serves to delay real problem-solving while allowing the problem to grow.
Given the historically-unprecedented magnitude of growth and change we have been witnessing nationally and globally, it’s hard to comprehend the optimism surrounding SG. Globally, more people were added to the population in the past 50 years than in all prior history. We’ve passed the 7 billion mark and added the latest billion people in just the last 12 years. With more than half of these people living in severe poverty and one billion of them in hunger, it is hard to see how more growth could be “smart.”
We must distinguish between solutions that fix the problem, and those that buy us more time to fix the problem. SG buys us a little more time by reducing the per-capita impacts of growth. But if the SG movement fails to recognize the rest of the solution, then any extra time is wasted while the problem grows bigger.
Eben Fodor is a sustainable community planning consultant at Fodor & Associates and is the author of the book Better, Not Bigger: How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community, as well as recent research examining the Relationship Between Growth and Prosperity (published in Economic Development Quarterly, August 2012). See the full commentary on smart growth.