by Eric Parfrey
It seems that every other newspaper or magazine you pick up has something about
"smart growth." Articles about population growth, suburban sprawl, loss of
farmland, and "neo-traditional" planning seem to be part of the latest fad.
Part of the reason that "smart growth" has become such as high profile issue
is because all levels of government have jumped on the band wagon. In California,
following every population growth cycle we inevitably see a reaction from people in fast
growing cities, who clamor for growth management or growth control. We are seeing this
phenomenon play out in places like Ventura County in southern California, whose voters
adopted a set of growth boundaries last year, and in the Central Valley, where even Fresno
County has adopted new guidelines to limit sprawl and increase densities of new
development. In Sacramento Governor Gray Davis is under pressure to address suburban
sprawl, loss of farmland in the Central Valley, and fiscal policies which cause cities to
compete for "big box" retailers and auto sales lots because of the favorable
sale tax revenues, while discouraging other types of economic development. And at the
federal level, Vice President Al Gore is clearly pushing "smart growth" as a key
issue in his run for the presidency next year.
What is "smart growth"? John Hopkins of the Institute of Ecological Health, a
small non-profit organization in Davis, is one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of
grassroots activists in California who are trying to define and implement smart growth
strategies. In his latest newsletter, Linkages, John has outlined some solutions to growth
problems. (The InstituteŪs Web page is: thecity.sfsu.edu/users/IEH.
John can be contacted at 530/756-6455 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The following are some of the most important concepts that "smart growth"
advocates are espousing, as outlined in John's article:
Livable communities, designed for people rather than for automobiles. This
requires changing the layout of many new developments, as promoted by the
žneo-traditionalÓ planners and New Urbanists. At the neighborhood scale, livable
communities have shops, restaurants, other amenities, and offices within walking or biking
distance for most residents. The designs for these new livable communities include
narrower streets and no cul-de-sacs, shops that front directly onto sidewalks instead of
onto parking lots, as well as office, apartment and condominiums above the shops. This
scheme is a far cry from the typical walled-off suburban subdivisions that are connected
to shopping centers and strip malls by a few crowded arterial roads. Livable communities
also include a true žtown center,Ó which is a compact area with civic buildings - a
church, library, post office, community center - contained in a plaza or other auto-free
open space, with a mix of private businesses.
Closeness to nature and permanent conservation of important lands. A closeness
to natural areas is vital for many people, and this is not antithetical to compact
development. Greenways, such as corridors of native vegetation along streams, and small
nature preserves make nature accessible to suburban and city dwellers. Productive
agricultural areas, wildlife habitats, and key open space should also be permanently
protected by fee acquisition and easements that buy development rights.
Viable public transit at the city and metropolitan area scale is needed to
support compact forms of development. Subdivisions at low densities of four houses per
acre (typical for suburban places like Fairfield and Tracy), as well as shopping centers
or business parks centered around huge parking lots, all stymie public transit since these
low density development patterns make transit very costly to provide.
Revitalization of older suburbs and downtowns, and rundown commercial areas.
Infill development and redevelopment of older districts and contaminated žbrownfieldÓ
industrial sites can help to counter suburban sprawl and revitalize inner cities, by
providing housing near existing jobs and shopping areas.
Urban growth boundaries are a key solution to contain continuous sprawl
development. Growth boundaries or žurban limit linesÓ draw a line around cities and
allow for 20 or 30 years of growth, and they often can be changed only with a community
vote. But such boundaries will only work over time if they are accompanied by changes in
community design, infill development and the other steps mentioned above.
Long term visions for communities and regions. Unless citizens decide what they
want their communities to look like in 50 years, and unless we address land conservation
needs, and growth/transportation dynamics at regional scales, we invite a continuation of
suburban sprawl. Regions and subregions must achieve a jobs/housing balance to minimize
long distance commuting and preserve resources such as air and water quality, and prime
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