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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

Commentary

Commentary/22″/CW1st By RICK ROSAN What is smart growth? A lot of people are using the term today; not many agree on what it is. But this much is known; smart growth concerns everyone from janitors to CEOs, from retailers to manufacturers, from developers to environmentalists. It concerns anyone who wants to get to work on time, carry out their daily duties in a safe and livable environment, head out on the town for an evening of fun, or sit home and watch the stars from the front porch. Smart growth can only be viewed as anti-growth if one side of the issue does all the talking. Smart growth is all about your quality of life and whether you are prepared to sacrifice it and, if so, to what degree. Smart growth is an attitude, a process of collaborating and working together to create neighborhoods, whether in the city or the suburbs or newly developing areas where, as Hugh McColl, chairman of BankAmerica has said, “housing, employment, schools, houses of worship, parks, services and shopping centers (are) located close enough together that our kids can ride their bikes wherever they need to go, without asking us for a ride every 10 minutes.” America’s cities are finally making a comeback. Challenges remain, but after years, even decades, of losing jobs and people to the suburbs, the hollowing out of urban America is beginning to be reversed. Cities that succeed in building strong, vibrant healthy communities in the 21st century are ones that will learn how to grow smart. The question is not will we grow, but how, and where? Smart growth does not mean no growth, or even slow growth. It does offer an antidote to the sprawl that has pursued unlimited low-density development farther and farther out, away from the city, ever since World War II. Sprawl is like obscenity: you know it when you see it, but you have difficulty defining it. By sprawl, I mean endless sameness of structures lacking distinctive form or character, blobs distending in every direction, urban and suburban areas growing toward each other and blurring the distinctions between them, cookie-cutter subdivisions and strip malls gobbling up precious land. Crowded highways and huge parking lots, big-box stores and homogeneous buildings, row upon row of monolithic housing, no walkable streets, all of it accompanied by air, water and ground pollution, abandoned buildings, smog, and low-density segregated single use patterns of development unrelieved by mixed uses, open spaces or friendly amenities. Sprawl is also an attitude, the frame of mind that says living farther out is better than living closer in. Let’s flee the crime and grime of the cities, and live in the suburbs. No matter the unintended consequences. No matter the hidden cost of new infrastructure. No matter the people who cannot afford it, or do not own cars. No matter the implicit apartheid that isolates the poor and the minorities in concentrations that severely limit their opportunities to realize the American dream. No matter the absence of real choice about where to live, the choking traffic congestion, the degradation of the environment, the inordinate consumption of land, the loss of a sense of place and feeling of community, where the only public realm for children is what James Howard Kunstler has called “the psychotic principality of television,” to which we now might add, the Internet. Smart growth says we need a new paradigm that maximizes value by creating qualitatively better communities rather than quantitatively larger or more numerous suburbs. This new paradigm must include developers of commercial buildings the office buildings, retail stores and shopping centers and warehouse buildings that are vital to any city’s economic growth. It must also include the investors in those properties and the banks and other financial institutions and capital sources that finance their development. In short, Smart Growth is a process that should involve everybody with a vested interest in “livability.” Smart growth is not just a housing issue. It’s a community issue and that includes owners of commercial properties. One need only look back at how real estate values in city center areas around the country dropped as the “flight to the suburbs” began. Smart Growth is about cities making the most of what they have, creatively using infill sites to provide housing and services to an urban community rather than just spawning sprawl for the sake of sprawl. Smart growth is an effort to strike a sensible, responsible balance between unplanned, haphazard, anything goes growth on the one hand, and no growth on the other. It is an effort to be responsive to the current widespread concern about sprawl and its consequences. As such, Smart Growth is not just an issue for the politicians in the 2000 electoral campaign, it’s an issue for everyone; an issue that has implications for our community far into the next millennium. It’s time to stop debating what Smart Growth is, and start debating how we as a community can make Smart Growth work. Rick Rosan is president of the Urban Land Institute, a real estate trade association and land-use development think tank.

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