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Smart growth: a toolkit for containing urban sprawl

By Gayle Berens - posted Tuesday, 15 May 2001

Sprawl is on everyone's mind these days. Politicians, planners, ordinary citizens. It crosses all sorts of political and ideological boundaries.

The 2000 Census in the US found the population had increased 32.7 million to 281.4 million in 10 years. Four out of five Americans still live in cities or suburbs. Growth was the watchword of the 1990s. Las Vegas grew 83% in 10 years.

Traffic volume has increased and the time spent in cars has increased. The average American spends 60 minutes every week-day in the car - only 32% of that is for work trips. It's been found that the average American spends more on travel and transport than on housing.


In Washington DC the subway system is the second most used system in the country. It's only 25 years old but the system is close to breaking down. The train cars are breaking down, escalators and elevating are breaking down. It's one more unintended consequence of growth.

Industry groups started discussing the unintended consequences of growth and Smart Growth seemed to be the panacea. We can't avoid growing - it's a question of how we grow.

Smart Growth is growth that is economically sound, environmentally responsible and supportive of community liveability.. The ULI has re-focussed its entire research agenda for Smart Growth.

One of the myths is that Smart Growth is a code word for no growth - or that it will eliminate the need for new roads.

We developed the Smart Growth Toolkit which looked at five different communities: Atlanta, Georgia; Austin, Texas; Charlotte, North Carolina (where the population tripled in 20 years); Montgomery County, Maryland; and Silicon Valley, California. Each of those communities has begun to make a very strong effort to improve quality of life and implement Smart Growth principles. Austin has developed Desired Development Zones which offer special incentives: lower fees, better parking rules, streamlined approval processes. It's designed not to stop the growth but to direct it.

Nine features of smart growth:

  • Collaborating on solutions
  • Mixed land uses
  • Encouraging in-fill development and re-development
  • Building master-planned communities
  • Providing transport choices
  • Providing housing opportunities
  • Lowering barriers to, and providing incentives for, smart development
  • Conserving open space
  • High-quality design techniques

The No.1 preference among consumers now is Open Space. When they survey consumers about what they want in their housing, the answers have nothing to do with the master bedroom with en suite - they want more Open Space outside.

There is community opposition to Smart Growth: the NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard), the CAVEs (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) and BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything). One poll found that 73% said they would not consider buying a home that was closer to other houses than the one they currently live in. That's a real problem for the Smart Growth movement because higher density is part of it.

In Washington DC, environmentalists, civic groups, builders and developers have got together in a process for Smart Growth - doing research on land-use issues, holding workshops and forums, public education programs to address the NIMBYs, CAVEs and BANANAs.

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This is an edited version of a speech given to the Cities For The New Economy Leadership Summit at the Marriott Hotel, Surfers Paradise, 23-24 April 2001.

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About the Author

Gayle Berens is Vice President of Real Estate Development Practice at the Urban Land Institute (US).

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