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Ronald

Countering Urban Sprawl: Smart Growth

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I'm studying Human Geography at my University, I just learned a chapter called "City Spaces: Urban Structure".

My book explains urban sprawl as a form of urban expension that consumes large amounts of land, with extensive building, mostly in the form of residential suburbs.

It also explains smart growth as an alternative to sprawl. Smart growth is:

  • perserving large areas of open space by setting aside large fringe areas where development is prohibited

  • Redevelopping inner suburbs and infill sites with new and renovated structures to make them more atractive to (middle and-) higher incomes

  • Reducing dependency on automotive vehicles - esp. 1 person cars - by requiring higher density development, clustering high density around transit stopts, raising gas taxes and increasing public investment in light-rail systems

  • Encouraging innovative urban design and zoning regulations that create pedestrian-friendly communities, mixed land uses, and commercial centers located at transit stops

  • Creating a greater sense of community within individual localities and a greater recognition of regional interdependence and solidarity

Does anyone here have good reasons why he thinks smart growth will or will not succeed in the United States or Canada ?

Personally, I think the concept and ideas of smart growth are very European. Here in Europe, we must already plan our land use according to the ideas of smart growth, because we have a very limited amount of open land left wich we can develop. That's why ideas like high-density developping seem familiar to me.

But, I doubt if smart growth will ever work in North America. There are lots of open spaces and undevelopped land there. Even if sprawl would continue at its present rate, there would still be enough land available in the future. There's just parts of N. America where you can drive for hours without seeing another car. So, smart growth seems a bit unnecessary if you have so much space available.

Secondly, because of the "car culture" in N. America, smart growth won't work. People there are very dependend on their cars and see it as the only way of getting around. They won't take the bus if they had a bus stop in front of their door. And they don't mind the fact that things are very spread out, because they just get in their cars and drive 10 mins to get to a shopping mall. Nobody needs walkable communities! (no offence)

These are just my thoughts on smart growth as a concept that could curb sprawl in the US and Canada.

Please post your thoughts, do you think smart growth would work in the US and Canada, will it ever become the norm that could replace (suburban) sprawl?

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I think the current version of "smart growth" is not smart growth. The answer to curb sprawl is to fix the problems in the urban core and surrounding neighborhoods. Taxes, crime, regulation, poor schools, etc. are the main cause of sprawl. Just remove the push factors from the urban areas and people will be more likely to live there. Also regulations need to be liberalized so more supply can be added as demand increases to keep home prices in the revitalized core more affordable.

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Smart growth is a very European concept. The lack of availability (or interest in) mass transit, in the United States in particular, pushes sprawl.

There are cities in the US attempting not necessarily "smart growth" but "smarter growth."

I'd suggest Portland, Oregon, San Francisco and San Diego as a few that I can think of off the top of my head. These cities are investing in mass transit, re-developing urban areas (a nationwide trend), preserving open spaces, and limiting expansion of road transit systems.

San Diego, in particular, has done well with preserving its open space, but it was late in developing its mass transit system.

San Francisco has resorted to smarter growth because of rising land prices and traffic problems.

One thing to remember though about re-developing urban areas is the gentrification effect. Basically, the poor, "undesirable" people are pushed out due to soaring property values and taxes, and the neighborhood is virtually white-washed with expensive homes purchased by DINKs and yuppies. The neighborhood loses its character and, in many ways, is lost forever. Examples: the Fourth Ward in Houston and the "Lost Barrio" in Tucson.

Here in Tucson, many are eager to follow a path of smarter growth. Current barriers to development which will aid in this include the indian reservation, BLM, national forest and national park lands. All of these are currently off-limits to developers, and they have simply gone around them, but at least they're there. Unfortunately, the BLM has participated in some terrible land swapping deals over the past ten years that I've cut much of what was undeveloped desert into tract home developments.

The mass transit system here is terrible, but that should change providing a transportation-minded and transportation-informed voting public continues to be the majority within the county. Currently, the traffic isn't bad enough to force people to utilize the alternative transportation options around them.

Such is also the case with Phoenix, where massive development pushed much-needed improvements in transportation infrastructure in the 90's. The development continues though, and road improvement is limited. Eventually, people will be pushed to alternative transit options.

In Houston, however, you have a culture that is car-obsessed, and a government which is insistent on continually funding road-widening projects, which, in the end, just push more sprawl. One good example is the new I-10 West (Katy Freeway) which will be something like twenty lanes across.

Just some thoughts.

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Smart growth is a very European concept. The lack of availability (or interest in) mass transit, in the United States in particular, pushes sprawl.

There are cities in the US attempting not necessarily "smart growth" but "smarter growth."

I'd suggest Portland, Oregon, San Francisco and San Diego as a few that I can think of off the top of my head. These cities are investing in mass transit, re-developing urban areas (a nationwide trend), preserving open spaces, and limiting expansion of road transit systems.

San Diego, in particular, has done well with preserving its open space, but it was late in developing its mass transit system.

San Francisco has resorted to smarter growth because of rising land prices and traffic problems.

One thing to remember though about re-developing urban areas is the gentrification effect. Basically, the poor, "undesirable" people are pushed out due to soaring property values and taxes, and the neighborhood is virtually white-washed with expensive homes purchased by DINKs and yuppies. The neighborhood loses its character and, in many ways, is lost forever. Examples: the Fourth Ward in Houston and the "Lost Barrio" in Tucson.

Here in Tucson, many are eager to follow a path of smarter growth. Current barriers to development which will aid in this include the indian reservation, BLM, national forest and national park lands. All of these are currently off-limits to developers, and they have simply gone around them, but at least they're there. Unfortunately, the BLM has participated in some terrible land swapping deals over the past ten years that I've cut much of what was undeveloped desert into tract home developments.

The mass transit system here is terrible, but that should change providing a transportation-minded and transportation-informed voting public continues to be the majority within the county. Currently, the traffic isn't bad enough to force people to utilize the alternative transportation options around them.

Such is also the case with Phoenix, where massive development pushed much-needed improvements in transportation infrastructure in the 90's. The development continues though, and road improvement is limited. Eventually, people will be pushed to alternative transit options.

In Houston, however, you have a culture that is car-obsessed, and a government which is insistent on continually funding road-widening projects, which, in the end, just push more sprawl. One good example is the new I-10 West (Katy Freeway) which will be something like twenty lanes across.

Just some thoughts.

Thanks for the "American insights"!

With gentrification nationwide and mass transit (development) in some cities, I'd say smart(er) growth is definitely appearing more and more in the U.S.

But I suppose it all depends on local politics. Like you mentioned, Houston isn't willing to invest significantly in mass transit, Portland, San Diego and San Francisco are willing to do so.

I think that, given the current state of urban infrastructure in (major) US cities, more people will be interested in mass transit in the future. So cities will kind of be forced to invest in mass transit and a consequence of this might be that sprawl would decrease in volume.

It also seems that developers are important decision makers. If they continue to contribute to sprawl, smart growth may not be as efficient as it could be (with gentrification and cities investing in mass transit).

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Just to correct a comment - Houston is investing in mass transit, they have a new light rail system with plans to significantly expand it.

Nothing else to say - just wanted to make that clear.

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Just to correct a comment - Houston is investing in mass transit, they have a new light rail system with plans to significantly expand it.

Nothing else to say - just wanted to make that clear.

Yes. People have had to remind me too.

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Sorry, I kind of got the impression that they didn't invest in public transportation because they build highways that are 20 lanes across.

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I very much like the idea of smart growth. I don't like some of the applications of it - like forced "urban growth boundaries" - but I do believe that the core values it embodies are very positive for this country. Yes, we do have tons of open space, almost an endless amount. We could probably accomodate a couple billion in this country if we really wanted to. But that's not the point.

Car-centered development does not encourage walking and biking as means of transportation. If more Americans walked and biked, they would likely be healthier and less obese. In addition, it would support a more vibrant culture. It gets rather boring commuting to each and every location isolated in one's one little car-world. I would think that new urbanism would promote a better "human ecology". It might be interesting to mention that many American cities built before World War II were quite similar to European cities - fairly dense (although American neighborhoods probably had far more single-family dwellings than Europe then), mixed uses (so stores were located close enough to homes to walk), etc. After WW2, car use exploded, suburban developments popped up out of nowhere, and by the 1970's and 1980's, jobs moved to office parks seperated from everything else and retail space was more and more often in big box stores and malls. This seemed to create a lot of places that really weren't places, just big agglomerations of parking lots, fast food joints, drive-in banks and credit unions, malls, office/industrial complexes, and residential developments constructed at once, often full of cookie-cutter "McMansions" and controlled by a private developer who enforced strict restrictions on home uses (for example, you couldn't run a business out of some homes, certain neighborhoods required certain home colors / shade colors, you couldn't have amateur radio antennas). So smart growth is really a sort of reactionary way of development - going back to a traditional method. When I walk in an old neighborhood, still often with stores and the like, I feel like I am in a place, and it is especially alive if people are out walking also.

The aesthetics of car-cenetered design are also rather questionable. Most such buildings are of the throw-away category with strip malls, giant concrete boxes. They are also surrounded by infinite parking lots.

Car-centered design also encourages poor energy use. Think of how much gas would be saved if fewer suburbanites chose to drive to every errand. As we approach what may be "peak oil", this is a very important consideration.

Car-centered development can also require homes to spend additional money on more vehicles that they would not otherwise need.

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All excellent points. You sound like an urban planning professor giving a speech :thumbsup: I think the obesity factor and its relation to our place's physical designs (and lifestyles promoted/reinforced by these designs) is one of the most important problems facing us today.

I think Jacob just gave us the New Urbanist Manefesto.

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Here in Miami, developers are starting to listen because for the last few years these mega-luxury condominiums were popping up all over Downtown and other historically Black neighborhoods in the surrounding suburbs, but local activists are fighting back. For example, the new "Crosswinds", luxury, mixed-use deveopment that the developers thought they could sneak by and build near a historic, Black neighborhood, has been delayed, as local grassroots organisations caught them changing the zoning restrictions to suit their needs. Now, they are being forced to build "high-standard", low-medium income housing along with the luxury units. I haven't been to the last three meetings, but I've heard that, now, for every 10 luxury unit that they build, the "Crosswinds" developers have to build 5 middle-low income ones. Now, I know that seems like government intervention, but sometimes gov't intervention is necessary to keep private developers and corporations in check, otherwise, they would just run rampant with destroying communities with no qualms about doing so.

The point I'm trying to make is that smart growth only works with strong, fair community involvement: not just the rich, now, but EVEYONE. Is it sometimes difficult? Of course, but community involvement is always difficult. I've been to planning/zoning meetings where people almost get into fisticuffs. I've seen situations where developers and other development representatives had to be escorted to their cars because of fear of being attacked by community activists and their cadre of supporters. But, anything involving the complexity of humanity and place is going to be difficult, but it MUST be done.

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Now, they are being forced to build "high-standard", low-medium income housing along with the luxury units. I haven't been to the last three meetings, but I've heard that, now, for every 10 luxury unit that they build, the "Crosswinds" developers have to build 5 middle-low income ones. Now, I know that seems like government intervention, but sometimes gov't intervention is necessary to keep private developers and corporations in check

Isn't that called linkage ? My Urban Planning book wich I am studying now (I've got a test next monday), explains linkage as a social form of exaction. When a developper develops a project, he is obligated to contribute to the construction of low-income housing, to compensate for his own development project. The reason for this could be, that if a developer causes the share of high-income housing within a community to rise, because his project attracts high incomes, the developper is obligated to contribute to the construction of low-income housing to compensate for the surge in high income housing.

This "trend" nearly only occurs in the US, and it is increasingly being used for other purposes than housing.

And @ Jacob, that's really interesting. I never imagined that the concept of smart growth could lead to a decline in obesity-rates, if people start walking/ cycling more, instead of driving.

That's a very positive effect of smarth growth.

I can imagine you feel like some American places like suburban indoor malls, office parks, residential areas aren't real cities because you hardly ever see anybody outside, walking or cycling around. Instead, there's a ton of cars parked on the endless parking lots. It kind of feels like a ghost-town.

But still, if you're coming from Europe and you see these kind of places, you're amazed.

In Europe, functional segregation of spaces and places occurs less than in the US.

But the American malls and suburbs all look so wealthy and rich. It's all very modern, high-tech, and brand new. Constructing this must have costed a ton of money. Where in Europe, cities are generally very old and some streets haven't changed in hundreds of years. Sometimes you feel like the cities here could use some cleaning up and some modernizing. I sometimes think, if you want history, go to a museum. Some houses here have to be perserved even though they are on the verge of collapse. That's far less funtional than the brand new American suburbs. And not to forget, buildings and places are very packed-together in small cities. Kind of an "extreme form" of smarth growth. Sometimes you wish you had a little more space to move around.

One thing that's very well-arranged here is public transportation, though. I go to my university by train each day.

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There's a post on the Hartford forum that references an article done by the Hartford Courant, might be interesting to you guys.

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Large malls are usually constructed for the mainstream population, and house outlets of gigantic companies, e.g. Old Navy/Gap/Banana Republic, Abercrombie and Fitch/Hollister, etc. who can easily afford the expenses, which will be paid off in new arrivals, usually.

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Asia way is fast and straight to the point.

Asian urban growth seems chaotic to me. Just look at the explosive growth of chinese cities, or the chaotic cities in thailand or india. very dysfunctional!

An exeption to the general chaos in asian cities, are japanese cities. they seem tidy and better organized than the other ones in asia, where things can be even more packed together on a small surface than in europe.

It's either american or european urban growth to me

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I think that right now in the U.S. there are two strong directions that are completely different in terms of urbanism: suburban sprawling vs. urban revitalization or as some people like to call it "gentrification". The suburban sprawling is the dead of the idea of the city as a place where people interact, a place where people not only work but also live, buy, have fun, rest etc. I think that suburban sprawling is just an answer to the necessity of the working class to find a house to raise a family at a moderate price. There is something very similar to this going on now in Europe, but the difference it's that in Europe (especially in southern countries like Spain, Portugal or Italy) there are creating what we may call "inner city suburbs". This inner city suburbs are little cities in itself, they have there own "downtown", there own comercial areas, parks, schools, and of course (especially in Madrid) a good public system transportation. I think that in the U.S. only Chicago, NY, Boston and maybe San Francisco have some of these "inner city suburbs". On the other hand there is this trend all over the U.S. of revitalization of the downtown cores and the areas closer to the downtown that were abandoned during the "white flight era". I know that there is a strong component of gentrification in this phenomenon, but I think that big cities as well as medium-size cities are getting good results and it is a phenomenon that is expanding itself everywhere.

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So many Americans, myself included, are simply married to their autos. A lot of people here are simply too selfish to travel by any other means (I'm not trying to offend anybody). Others simply don't have access to decent public transport. Riding public transit in so many areas is largely inconvenient because the various systems are too few and far between.

I must confess, I could ride a bus to work everyday, almost door-to-door, very little walking would be involved. The thing is, despite the recent spike in gas prices it's still cheaper to drive my car, even cheaper than a month pass! Believe me, I'd love to see a shift away from not necessarily cars, but at least away from gas use. (My next car is gonna be a hybrid...)

Still, it's relatively cheap to own and drive a car in the U.S. Until it becomes more cost prohibitive, we won't abandon them, and until public officials figure out mass transit that actually makes sense for a particular area,we won't abandon them. We also tend to like our space. I'm amazed at how far some of my coworkers are willing to commute for just this reason. I don't see an end to the sprawl in the near future.

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I still don't think it is really acknowledging the issue properly. The whole argument of Smart Growth, and in fact many other urban planning philosphies, rests on dividing everything up into Urban/cities versus Sprawl. I don't think that really gets to what the real issue is.

In the US, there are several different opinions on where people want to, or should, live. Some people like to live in the cities. But there is also a significant part of the population that is looking for something more peaceful. Privacy is a lot more important to some people, and dense housing really takes that away. Same thing with self-control - Americans, despite our international politics or government right now, really do value independance and self-sufficiency, and cars are the most independant transportation mode, and in fact put as much of the cost of the system on the individual as it can. So the suburbs are really attempts by people to find the best compromise of finding work and services versus privacy and independence. And what is a mall anyway, but an enclosed carless street.

The real problem, I think, is a matter of 1) our feeling of becoming annonymous in a world wher everything is a major chain and a big conglomorate without any individuality, and 2) our feeling of being isolated. The malls and stores and such are distanced from the road, they are closed in, blocked off. we cannot connect to them. I think we also feel vulnerable in the big open parking lots, ironically we loose our rural character we seek in the suburbs. So maybe part of the solution requires addressing not the creation of parking lots and shopping plazas, but how they are designed and how they are controlled, and who has access to them and who can start businesses.

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So many Americans, myself included, are simply married to their autos. A lot of people here are simply too selfish to travel by any other means (I'm not trying to offend anybody). Others simply don't have access to decent public transport. Riding public transit in so many areas is largely inconvenient because the various systems are too few and far between.

I must confess, I could ride a bus to work everyday, almost door-to-door, very little walking would be involved. The thing is, despite the recent spike in gas prices it's still cheaper to drive my car, even cheaper than a month pass! Believe me, I'd love to see a shift away from not necessarily cars, but at least away from gas use. (My next car is gonna be a hybrid...)

Still, it's relatively cheap to own and drive a car in the U.S. Until it becomes more cost prohibitive, we won't abandon them, and until public officials figure out mass transit that actually makes sense for a particular area,we won't abandon them. We also tend to like our space. I'm amazed at how far some of my coworkers are willing to commute for just this reason. I don't see an end to the sprawl in the near future.

Agreed. Public transport is mostly inefficient outside the largest cities. Of course a subway system or a bus system is going to work in NYC or Chicago, because the people live closer together and there are more people who can't afford cars. It won't work in smaller cities because people live spread out over a number of suburbs. Like you said, the systems are too few, and they are too far removed from each other.

Another thing is, that here in the Netherlands it's very hard to obtain your license. I took the test twice and failed it both times. And I really had the idea I could drive very well. Perhaps it's easier to get your license in the US. Gas prices here (around $6 a gallon) also keep a lot of people from driving.

@ Cloudship: wasn't the idea behind a mall to give people the illusion that they are in a nice, safe place, far away from the outside world, so that they can shop without being distracted by whatever's happening on the streets?

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Public transport is mostly inefficient outside the largest cities. Of course a subway system or a bus system is going to work in NYC or Chicago, because the people live closer together and there are more people who can't afford cars. It won't work in smaller cities because people live spread out over a number of suburbs. Like you said, the systems are too few, and they are too far removed from each other.

I agree with this, and wanted to add a thought or two.

One reason public transportation can work is if it follows two lines of need:

a. planned travel (i.e. getting to work at the same time every day)

b. spontaneous travel (i.e. "let's meet downtown for lunch!")

If you have to own a printed version of the bus schedule just in order to take the bus somewhere, then you're less likely to opt for the bus. Same if you have to look online, hunting it down. Option b works better if you can just go the bus stop and know that within 10 minutes a bus will come, and you don't have to have an associate's degree in your city's bus route to know where it's going by the destination listed over its windshield.

Having lived in various medium and big cities, and small rural towns, around the northeast US and New England, I've been astounded to see how connected people are to their cars especially in the more rural and suburban areas, where there seems to be a complete lack of reliance on public transportation in most cases. As though trains and buses don't exist. If you do not have a car to get around, you are lost. No matter how you feel about owning a car.

Until the culture shifts, or we learn the lessons the hard way (who knows what that looks like), I think smart growth will see a lot of resistance in these parts. If it even has any advocates. As was pointed out, there still seems to be so much land, so much room for expansion, even in densely populated areas. Here in Western Massachusetts we have so much wildlife to pave!

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And to toss in another sentiment, I don't know about everywhere, but the VTA buses here in Santa Clara County seem awfully bumpy, noisy, and just generally uncomfortable. There also seems to be the perception that buses are a "ghetto" form of travel, the "shame train". I personally don't see them in this light, but I guess I could understand how some people might, especially here where there is a considerable amount of affluence. I am glad though that I can take the bus to work in the event of my auto breaking down, which is a possibility at every turn of the key (poor, old gal! :wacko: )

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^ Busses and trains can be very uncomfortable here, too. Trains are often delayed and bus drivers are seriously the worst drivers. They drive way too fast, wich is OK if it's safe. It's not safe when you allmost fall over because he has to brake very hard when approaching an intersection. And because we here in Holland mostly lack the kind of straight, wide lanes and avenues wich are present in US cities, busses often drive too fast in small, very curvy streets.

This is why a lot of Urban Planners here talk about "HOV", wich means highly comfortable and reliable public transportation, as a way of luring people out of their cars. To be honest, I don't think that's gonna happen here for a while!!

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