Who Benefits From Smart Growth?

By Faisal Roble

Politicians all over are hawking smart growth as a formula for enlightened urban development. They include everyone from President Clinton and Vice-President Gore to Mayors in Oregon and Texas.

The smart growth movement endorses development strategies that may one day replace such popular post-war approaches as urban renewal, community development, enterprise zones, and empowerment zones. Unlike its predecessors, smart growth seems to balance growth and the issues of livable neighborhoods in the same way that The New Urbanism does.

Borrowing from New Urbanism, the “neighborhood” is considered as the nucleus and basic building block in revitalizing our cities. This concept assumes that neighborhoods have a core and identifiable boundaries. Within these boundaries are local shops, a neighborhood school, library and other community facilities such as health, recreation. The image of a neighborhood’s cohesiveness is augmented by the population density, a network of roads and paths that link the residents to the core of the neighborhood. A sense of inclusiveness, loyalty and permanency is fostered with a logo and a thematic landscape marking the edges of the neighborhood. Smart growth proponents echo this New Urbanist view.

While smart growth is presented as an antidote to suburban sprawl, the question is whether smart growth will actually improve the lives of city residents, especially those in the inner city. Or is smart growth one more empty planning promise that fails to resolve such intractable issues as urban poverty, decent housing, and livable neighborhoods?

Defining Smart Growth

What exactly is smart growth? There is yet no coherent definition of smart growth and it means many things to many people. To the city of Austin, Texas, one of the first cities to draft and adopt a smart growth initiative, it is “an effort to reshape urban and suburban growth to enhance our communities, strength the economy, and protect the environment.” To the Sierra Club it is an effort to halt the progressively deteriorating environment. To farmland owners it is a promise to halt urban encroachment. To some developers it is an opportunity for in-fill development within the boundaries of big cities. And to the Clinton administration, smart growth is an effort to build a more “livable environment.” Al Gore has even made smart growth his primary domestic promise for his presidential bid, dubbing it the “new Livability Agenda for the 21st Century.”

The proponents of smart growth make three claims:

• Smart growth reverses urban sprawl in favor of in-fill development — what the late French Marxist and urban sociologist, Henry Lefever, called “vertical vs horizontal intensification.”
• Smart growth strengthens urban economies.
• Smart growth protects the environment, including open space and farm land.
The most salient feature of smart growth, derived from environmentalists and New Urbanists, is halting suburban sprawl by clustering new developments in existing city neighborhoods.

Pressures on elected officials, particularly by the Sierra Club and the American Farmland Trust, have led to endorsements of neighborhood oriented growth, or smart growth. The strongest argument of the smart growth proponents is that low-density “sprawl” is inefficient and is consuming far more of California’s unique agricultural land than is necessary to accommodate the state’s growing population. This argument is echoed in other states, particularly Maryland, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming.

In practice, the Federal government, a prime proponent of the Gore/Livability Agenda version of smart growth, would rely on four government implementation programs: $700 million in tax credits for state and local bonds, mainly for re-packaging urban beautification projects; $6.1 billion for alleviating traffic congestion; $1.6 billion for state and local efforts to reduce air pollution, along with an additional $50 million for other air quality programs; $40 million for crime prevention: and $10 million to encourage parental participation in local school design. To this end, the Los Angeles based Getty Museum recently hosted a “Better Neighborhoods” conference focusing on new school construction in Los Angeles.

In contrast to the smart growth agenda, a portion of the real estate industry, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), representing developers of low density suburban projects, believes that more rural land is needed to accommodate population growth. This camp argues that 1.3 million new households are created each year in America and their housing needs can only be met by developing rural land. These proponents, most notably Randall G. Holcombe, Professor of Economics at Florida State University, also accuse the Federal government of maintaining monopoly control over public land since “the federal government is the nation’s largest landowner. It owns 60 percent of Oregon… and 46.9 percent of California.” Furthermore, Holcombe writes in the January 28 issue of Realty Times, “Developed areas in the United States, excluding Alaska, are only 6.2 percent of the nation’s total land area.” (Realty Times, January 28, 1999)

The Claims of Smart Growth Advocates

Holcombe’s argument does not deal with the claims that Gore makes in favor of smart growth:

• Preserving green space that promotes clean air, clean water… and providing families with places to walk, play, and relax.
• Easing traffic congestion by improving road planning, strengthening existing transportation systems, and expanding alternative transportation modes.
• Restoring a sense of community by fostering citizen involvement in local planning, including the placement of schools and other public facilities.
• Promoting collaboration among neighboring communities to develop regional growth strategies and address common issues like crime.
• Enhancing economic competitiveness by nurturing a high quality of life that attracts well-trained workers and cutting-edge industries
The smart growth movement seeks to clean and recycle inner city brownfields while concentrating growth within existing city neighborhoods instead of the suburbs. Depending on substantial direct and indirect public subsidies, it also promotes new sustainable urban neighborhoods where housing, circulation, schools, shopping, public open space, libraries, recycling, and composting are well designed and integrated. Aided by transit-oriented districts and pedestrian zones, each community is supposed to be self-contained.

A lead article in the 1996 Atlantic Monthly persuasively argued that Smart Growth’s integrated approach to neighborhood development will contribute to the solution of America’s urban ills. The possibility of establishing inclusive, all-income neighborhoods ð where a “university professor, a graduate student, and a working mother of four live together” ð is promoted as a panacea for contemporary urban ills. The highly touted and well-financed (by both private and public monies) Playa Vista coastal project in Los Angeles, California, is emerging as a test case of Smart Growth.

When discussing Smart Growth, we shouldn’t forget the many elegant neighborhoods in cities across the nation, such as Hancock Park in Los Angeles or Potomac, in the Washington, D.C. area. They were established long before Smart Growth and have managed to be perfectly livable without the federal dollars promoted by the Clinton administration or the local dollars accorded to the Playa Vista project. A combination of private investment and good planning made these neighborhoods notable exceptions in America’s urban environment. They set a precedent of successful ð albeit expensive ð community design.

Smart Growth for All?

Inner city neighborhoods are plagued with the problems of intractable crime, lack of dependable transit systems, and sub-standard housing akin to slum conditions in Third World cities. Will these conditions continue or will the Smart Growth movement, with its well-designed projects, become a force for their elimination? We need to watch the emerging Smart Growth neighborhoods such as the Playa Vista project in Los Angeles to see if they drain resources from surrounding neighborhoods or become a model for their improvement. In other words, the success of the smart growth movement should be measured by the rate at which “livable” environments are replicated in other communities, especially poor, inner city neighborhoods. To this end, critical observers will want to know if the advocates of smart growth promote well funded citywide, as opposed to project-specific, programs of strict design controls, integrated sign programs, pocket parks and recreation programs, public streetscapes, multi-modal transit systems, bike and jogging paths, and composting and recycling.

Class and Top-down Planning

Over a century since the first urban problems in capitalist cities, leaders of the “free world” consider the urban question still important enough to be the basis for an “Agenda for the 21st Century.” They can’t quite grasp that the urban question is basically a working class question.

Why is the urban question that smart growth attempts to solve taking more than a century to resolve? One answer is that most solutions, including smart growth, have been top-down approaches. The working class is excluded from the design and implementation of these strategies. Most of the monies allocated for these solutions end up going to builders, contractors, and other partners of the building industry. If the National Association of Home builders is opposed, one can surmise that it is only because new urban in-fill projects directly compete with their low-density projects on the urban fringe.

The most important explanation for the persistence of the urban question has to do with the basic issue of resource distribution. The concept of smart growth emphasizes growth and not social justice. In the past growth has promoted social and spatial inequalities in our cities. How much of the effort invested in smart growth will go to poorer neighborhoods? Will smart growth narrow the spatial inequalities in our cities? Proponents of smart growth must seriously address these questions if they are to offer any true and lasting improvement to the urban working class neighborhoods.

Will the proponents of smart growth learn from the failures of their predecessors and become champions for a new grassroots urban movement to promote livable neighborhoods?

Faisal Roble is a city planner in Los Angeles. He can be reached atfabroble(at)cs(dot)com

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