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Smart Urban Planning

Exploring the different development and conservation strategies for smart growth.

In the mid-1950’s, the United States, with its economy prospering, embarked on a massive highway construction project, supported by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The project, which was supposed to have 66,000 kilometers of new roads, now spans over 74,000 kilometers. Eisenhower, who was impressed by Germany’s Autobahn highway network while serving as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, saw the system as not only a way of connecting the different regions of the far-flung nation but also as a defense asset that could facilitate the movement of military supplies and troops in case of a domestic emergency or foreign invasion.

Plans for the system were drawn up primarily at the national level. But, unfortunately, as construction proceeded, people around the country began to rebel when they realized that many of the new roads would require demolishing local neighborhoods. In the 1960’s, the so-called “freeway revolts” in states like California, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Ohio led to the cancellation of many proposed highways and prompted a re-evaluation of how and why roads were being built and which cities they connected. Opponents rallied around the writing of Jane Jacobs, an influential journalist and author who criticized top-down urban planning, saying, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

“The smart growth movement came out of several trends—you can date it to Jane Jacobs and you can date it to the freeway revolts,” says Marlon Boarnet, chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.

“People were saying, ‘We are losing sight of how transportation networks fit into the totality of neighborhoods,’ ” he adds. “Their argument was, ‘If you can connect land use planning to transportation infrastructure planning on a more thoughtful level, you might be able to build better cities.’ Today, smart growth has really evolved to be another way of describing good urban planning—planning that is holistically comprehensive and long-term, meaning decades, in its approach.”

As the American environmental movement gathered strength in the 1970’s, smart growth became part of its mission and is now defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the following manner: “Growth is ‘smart’ when it gives us great communities, with more choices and personal freedom, good return on public investment, greater opportunity across the community, a thriving natural environment and a legacy we can be proud to leave our children and grandchildren.”

Achieving these goals, the U.S. EPA says, involves “a range of development and conservation strategies that help protect our health and natural environment, and make our communities more attractive, economically stronger and more socially diverse.” These strategies include the following.


Transit-Oriented Development

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The goal is to maximize the use and value of urban centers by making them more accessible and attractive to a wide range of people.

Smart growth calls for integrating land use and transportation planning to accommodate not just cars but also other options like mass transit, bicycling and walking. The goal is to maximize the use and value of urban centers by making them more accessible and attractive to a wide range of people.

“Transportation planning is a key component of smart growth, which itself is essentially recognizing that growth is going to happen and planning for it in the most responsible way,” says Jennifer Henaghan, deputy research director and Green Communities Center manager at the American Planning Association (APA), a not-for-profit educational organization with about 40,000 members in nearly 100 countries.

One example is the “Minimum Grid: Maximum Impact” project of Midtown, Inc., a nonprofit community revitalization group, in Columbus, Georgia. In 2015, it won a grant from the Knight Foundation’s cities challenge, which promotes “civic innovation at the city, neighborhood and block levels, and all sizes in between.”

Columbus, founded in 1828 and now Georgia’s second largest city, “is a great model for what a midsize city can be and a great place to test out innovation,” says Anne R. King, executive director of Midtown, Inc. The project, which involves strategic updates to Columbus’ existing infrastructure, is intended to result in “a city that attracts people whether they’re on foot or riding a bicycle or bus, and that emphasizes our public spaces,” she explains.

Transit-oriented development will become more important to cities as the global economy becomes increasingly connected, notes University of Southern California’s Marlon Boarnet.

“Cities develop, in part, because many types of firms operate better in large urban areas, where people are more productive,” he says. “As we move toward a more knowledge-based economy, the productivity benefits of people living in cities are becoming more powerful.” If viewed in combination with the trend of shared mobility, it’s clear that planners will have to learn how to deal with density in innovative ways.


Compact Neighborhoods and Accessible Public Spaces

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Compact neighborhoods are intended to include “quality housing, varied by type and price, integrated with shopping, schools, community facilities and jobs.”

Among the core principles set forth by the APA in its Policy Guide on Smart Growth is, “Neighborhoods and communities focused around human-scale, mixed-use centers and well-defined community edges, such as agricultural greenbelts, wildlife corridors or greenways permanently preserved as farmland or open space.”

According to APA’s Jennifer Henaghan, achieving this requires “recognizing the problems that come from urban sprawl, drawing hard limits on physical growth and working within those limits,” combined with “a comprehensive planning process and decision making at the local level focused on what residents want their community to look like in the future.”

With smart growth, compact neighborhoods are intended to include “quality housing, varied by type and price, integrated with shopping, schools, community facilities and jobs,” notes the APA. “Human-scale design in harmony with the existing urban form and quality construction contribute to successful compact, mixed-use development and also promote privacy, safety, visual appeal and compatibility among uses and users.”

The desire to live, work and play in close proximity arose, in part, as a backlash against the rise of suburbs that necessitated long commutes to jobs in city centers, says Gregory Pierce, senior researcher at the Luskin Center for Innovation at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“We used available spaces for a long time without thinking about the impact of that,” says Pierce. “People have become much more aware of that impact in the last 10 years and want land to be used more rationally.”

Compact neighborhoods are also a goal of the U.S. EPA. In 2009, it collaborated with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Transportation to form the multi-agency partnership for Sustainable Communities. The partnership “works to coordinate federal housing, transportation, water, and other infrastructure investments to make neighborhoods more prosperous, allow people to live closer to jobs, save households time and money, and reduce pollution.”


Water Management

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Technological advances, including better metering of water use, will help smart growth in the future.

Smart growth calls for water to be regarded as a collective public resource and managed in a sustainable manner, meaning that an individual’s right to water is always subjected to governmental oversight to protect the welfare of the community as a whole. According to the APA, water resources should be managed in ways that do not impair their present and future values, with policies that address both the current and long-term needs of humans and the environment.

Upholding this principle can be challenging because of the jurisdictional complexity surrounding water resources, points out Kelly T. Sanders, assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

“Water is managed very locally and that gets very complex very quickly, because hundreds of entities have their hands on water and, for example, the ones responsible for doling out water often aren’t the ones responsible for quality,” says Sanders. “We have a very disjointed patchwork of policies and that can constrain the concept of smart growth. All of our resources need to be managed holistically. For example, before we build a power plant, we should think about the effect on water resources. We’re starting to make linkages between all these things.”

Conservation and reuse are important elements of smart water management, notes the APA, urging water resources and supply plans be developed with, at least, a 20-year horizon.

Sanders thinks that technological advances, including better metering of water use, will help smart growth in the future.

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure. Historically, water has been very loosely measured—the meter man comes around once a month and, even in California, there are areas where water isn’t metered at all,” she adds. “That’s changing—we’re going to see better measurement of water use.”


Energy Management

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The future of smart energy management will depend on a combination of advances in generation, conservation and efficiency.

Like other elements of smart growth, energy management requires working with the existing urban infrastructure while simultaneously planning for future technological innovations. For example, organizations like the APA advocate for upgrading and retrofitting existing structures to improve their energy efficiency, as well as research that advances and facilitates construction of low- or “zero-” energy buildings. Planners and local decision makers are also urged to factor in an area’s current and future energy sources and make conservation and efficiency major considerations when creating and evaluating proposed developments.

Smart growth advocates recognize current policy initiatives and incentives will play a crucial role in determining what energy options are available to consumers in the years to come. However, they also see the need for flexibility in terms of technology. For example, the APA notes that vehicles fueled by natural gas are currently competing with plug-in electric hybrids to become the dominant transportation technology of the future. Since each of these competing technologies depends on different infrastructure systems—pumps versus electrical outlets—planners and city officials are urged to consider a variety of possible transportation energy scenarios rather than assuming one technology will win out.

While renewable energy sources like biomass, solar and wind are a focus of smart energy management, they currently supply only about seven percent of America’s electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) 2014 data. About two-thirds come from fossil fuels and another 25 percent from nuclear and hydropower. However, when combined with advances in metering technology that can help consumers make better choices about their electricity usage, renewable sources are likely to play an increasingly important role in energy management.

The future of smart energy management will depend on a combination of advances in generation, conservation and efficiency, says University of Southern California’s Kelly T. Sanders, noting that energy and water management are inextricably connected.


Waste Management

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Smart waste management begins at the point of production. How do we make things so they are easier to use and to recycle?”

Waste originates locally—with consumers, businesses and other organizations—but is often transported to other locations like sorting facilities, landfills and incinerators. Thus, smart growth planners have set forth a hierarchy of techniques for dealing with it. These include the following.

Pollution prevention calls for a comprehensive planning process regarding the location of waste management facilities, which would include meaningful public participation and consensus. Medical and nuclear wastes should be handled in ways that do not jeopardize human or ecosystem health.

Waste minimization calls for laws supporting the use of biodegradable products and packaging, incentives for the use of reusable products and refillable packaging, and the banning of non-recyclable products and packaging.

Reuse and recycle requires laws that mandate recycling and reuse of materials in the waste stream through collection and separation programs that include removal of common hazardous wastes. Product redesign is also important. “Smart waste management begins at the point of production,” says University of Southern California’s Kelly T. Sanders. “How do we make things so they are easier to use and to recycle?”

Resource recovery supports programs that produce soil additives, mulch or compost from yard debris and organic waste as a way of reducing the amount of solid waste going into landfills. Materials like asphalt, brick, mortar and concrete should be ground up and used as aggregate in construction.

Waste to energy supports the sorting and separation of collected materials into those that must go into landfills and those that can be safely incinerated, with the resulting heat being used to generate electricity or to warm buildings.

Coordination and cooperation is encouraged at the local, state and regional levels in the planning and approval of new landfills and in the expansion of existing ones. Planning and regulatory processes should ensure that lower socioeconomic neighborhoods are not disproportionately burdened by environmental hazards associated with landfills and other waste management facilities.


Preservation of Natural and Cultural Resources

Photograph by The Urbanophile/Courtesy Flickr

Most of us are going to live in cities in the future, and it’s up to us to make them the kind of cities we want.

Smart growth can re-energize cities by saving and showcasing their cultural resources. Hamilton, Ohio, for instance, proved this with a project that won a National Award for Smart Growth Achievement from the U.S. EPA in 2015. The project was described this way:

“After years of disinvestment, the Rust Belt city of Hamilton, Ohio, has become an emerging hub of innovation and revitalization. With creative vision, strategic planning and community engagement, the city and Historic Developers, LLC, completed three catalytic, mixed-use projects that reinvigorated the city’s central business district and set the stage for new economic development. The projects helped create a walkable downtown with new amenities, jobs and housing options, and spurred the creation of a formal partnership to buy and redevelop downtown properties.”

The project began with the city’s purchase of a historic building complex in the heart of downtown, which was in severe disrepair and had been slated for demolition. Development partners from the private and nonprofit sectors agreed to help renovate the complex. Later on, other culturally significant buildings in the downtown area were also renovated through arrangements that met the U.S. EPA’s criteria of “generating partnerships among public, private and nonprofit stakeholders; and serving as national models.”

“We believe that a healthy urban core is critical to the health of the whole community,” says Liz Hayden, business development specialist with the City of Hamilton.

“Rehabbing our existing urban stock makes it easier for people not to have a car, and the benefits are far more widespread than if someone was doing a suburban development out on our fringe. People are so excited. It’s been really important to the psychology of the community—for 20 years, nothing was going on in downtown and now people are walking around and seeing buildings being transformed. There’s a lot of pride in what’s going on.”

Smart growth is inherently easier when new communities are being planned, says University of Southern California’s Kelly T. Sanders, but it must also be a priority for existing cities.

“There are a lot of opportunities for smart growth in the developing world with new cities, because you’re essentially starting with nothing and moving toward something that has been agreed upon. With legacy infrastructure, you have to pick a start date and everything has to be retrofitted at the same time, which obviously is harder,” she says. “But ultimately, the biggest thing is realizing that we have to work holistically and we all have to work together. Most of us are going to live in cities in the future, and it’s up to us to make them the kind of cities we want.”

Smart Growth Principles
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set forth 10 principles for smart growth.
They are:
1.  Mix land uses.
2.  Take advantage of compact building design.
3.  Create a range of housing opportunities and choices.
4. Create walkable neighborhoods.
5. Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place.
6. Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty and critical environmental areas.
7. Strengthen and direct development toward existing communities.
8. Provide a variety
of transportation choices.
9. Make development decisions predictable, fair and cost-effective.
10. Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions.


Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.