How do we make sure our communities grow in a sustainable and equitable way? A set of guiding principles known as smart growth is a good place to start.
What’s the issue?
As areas develop across the U.S., including growth at staggering rates in Utah, and people question how to redevelop our ways of life in the time of COVID-19, a smart growth movement is gaining speed
- Local municipalities and lawmakers
What’s the history of this?
- Development has always been a contentious issue in urban and rural areas
- To grow in a more sustainable, equitable manner, the idea of smart growth was developed
- Smart growth is an approach to development that integrates environmental and economic goals of a region, prioritizes measures to reduce impact, promotes community engagement
Smart Growth Principles
Mix land uses
- Mixing land uses means building homes, offices, schools, parks, shops, restaurants, and other types of development near one another—on the same block or even within the same building.
- Mixed land uses bring more people to a neighborhood at a variety of times of day, which can support businesses, improve safety, and enhance the vitality of an area. Mixing land uses also makes it possible for people to live closer to where they work or run errands, and means they don’t need to drive a car to get there. Mixed-use neighborhoods are in-demand, meaning this approach can boost property values and keep them stable, protecting the investment of homeowners as well as tax revenues for municipalities.
Take advantage of compact design
- Compact design means making more efficient use of land that has already been developed. Encouraging development to grow up, rather than out, is one way to do this. Infill development—building on empty or underutilized lots—is another. Building within an existing neighborhood can attract more people to the jobs, homes, and businesses already there while also making the most of public investments in things like water and sewer lines, roads, and emergency services.
Create a range of housing opportunities and choices
- Building quality housing for families of all life stages and income levels is an integral part of a smart growth approach. Housing constitutes a significant share of new construction and development in any city, but its economic importance is sometimes overlooked. Adding housing in commercial districts can breathe new life into these neighborhoods in evenings and on weekends. And more importantly, the housing options available in a community will influence families’ economic opportunities, costs of living, and how much time they spend commuting each day. Diversifying housing options within existing neighborhoods can give everyone more choices about where to live.
Create walkable neighborhoods
- Walkable neighborhoods are in high demand across the country and it’s hardly a mystery why. Walking is a convenient, affordable, and healthy way to get around that never goes out of style—so long as people can do it safely and conveniently. Walkable places are created in part by mixing land uses and taking advantage of compact design, but are activated by smart street design that makes walking not only practical but safe and convenient to enjoy.
Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place
- Unique, interesting places that reflect the diverse values, culture, and heritage of the people who live there have the greatest staying power. Projects and neighborhoods that incorporate natural features, historic structures, public art, and placemaking can help distinguish a place from its neighbors to attract new residents and visitors, and support a vibrant community for the people who already live there.
Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas
- Preserving open spaces like prairie, wetlands, parks, and farms is both an environmental issue and economic issue. People across the country want access to natural recreation areas, which translates into demand for housing and tourism. Meeting that demand improves a city’s ability to attract employers, while also supporting agricultural industries. Preserving open spaces can also make communities more resilient, protecting them from natural disasters, combating air pollution, controlling wind, providing erosion control, moderating temperatures, protecting water quality, and protecting animal and plant habitats.
Direct development towards existing communities
- Developing within existing communities—rather than building on previously undeveloped land—makes the most of the investments we’ve already made in roads, bridges, water pipes, and other infrastructure, while strengthening local tax bases and protecting open space. Regulations, zoning, and other public policies sometimes make this approach unnecessarily difficult for developers, however. Local leaders can and should change policy to encourage development within existing neighborhoods.
Provide a variety of transportation choices
- Providing a variety of transportation choices—high-quality public transportation, safe and convenient biking and walking infrastructure, and well-maintained roads and bridges— helps communities to attract talent, to compete on a global scale, and to improve the day-to-day lives of their residents. To make this happen, elected leaders and transportation agencies must change how they prioritize, select, invest in, build, and measure transportation projects at the local, regional, and nationwide level.
Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost effective
- Developers play a crucial role in how towns and cities are built. Many developers who want to build walkable, urban places but are thwarted by restrictive regulations or complicated approval processes. Municipalities interested in encouraging smart growth development can and should examine their regulations and streamline the project permitting and approval process so that development decisions are more timely, cost-effective, and predictable for developers. By creating a supportive environment for development of innovative, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use projects, the government can provide smart growth leadership for the private sector.
Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions
- Every community has different needs, and meeting those needs requires a different approach from place to place. Communities suffering from disinvestment may need to focus on encouraging development downtown; communities with robust economic growth may need to focus on addressing social equity. The common thread is that the needs of every community and the strategies to address them are best defined by the people who live and work there.
- Smart growth is not possible without the perspective of everyone with a vested interest in a town, city, or neighborhood. Smart growth is about building a future for a community that everyone can participate in, and gathering the ideas, feedback, and support of everyone in a community is the only way to do that. This process is not only inclusive and equitable, it also will give projects built-in support and staying power.
What’s happening now?
- Organizations like HEAL and Smart Growth America are promoting the use of smart growth principles into state legislation, local goals, and business considerations
- By normalizing these ideas, we can make decisions that can create a more fair, sustainable, free, and accessible way of living
What’s at stake?
- To create a better future for our communities, we need to make smarter decisions today
- If towns develop without guiding principles or accountability, we will continue the harmful pattern of stepping on other communities, threatening the environment, and making a comfortable living environment accessible only to the few
- Decisions made at the local level will have a more direct impact on our lives than any other decisions – so taking action locally is imperative
How can I help?
- Attend your local city council meetings and encourage the use of smart growth principles in development decisions
- Ask your city and county mayor to prioritize smart growth principles
- Align your business practices to support these principles