As cities become more conscious of their environmental and social impact, smart growth has become a ubiquitous umbrella term for a slew of principles to which designers and planners are encouraged to adhere. NewUrbanism.org has distributed 10 points that serve as guides to development that are similar to both AIA’s Local Leaders: Healthier Communities through Design and New York City’s Active Design Guidelines: Promoting Physical Activity and Health in Design. Planners all appear to be on the same page in regards to the nature of future development. But as Brittany Leigh Foster of Renew Lehigh Valley points out, these points tend to be vague; they tell us “what” but they do not tell us “how”. 10 Rules for Smarter Smart Growth by Bill Adams of UrbDeZine San Diego enumerates how to achieve the various design goals and principles that these various guides encourage.
“These days, a lot of projects are crashing through the gates of community plans and dashing existing neighborhood character under the banners of smart growth or transit oriented development. Typically, such projects are simply high density or near transit corridors, or sometimes they include gratuitous green space and walking paths. However, they fail in many of the finer points of smart growth, new urbanism, or transit oriented development.” – Bill Adams
This introduction makes a most poignant point about how runaway development is possible under the guise of “smart growth” by using specific principles while ignoring important factors that contribute to community development. Adams begins by discouraging the use of the term NIMBY. ”Every criticism or opposition to a high density project is now labeled as NIMBYism, with little further discussion of community concerns.” This behavior dismisses community concerns and fails to create compromise between developers and affected communities. Adams also notes that community involvement in the planning process of future development is crucial to accounting for community needs and respecting the kind of development that has gone in to building existing neighborhoods.
It follows that new projects are most successful when they integrate into the urban fabric, or at the very least engage the community and avoid “building islands or erecting barriers”, as Adams puts it. In this way, it is more likely to be welcomed and incorporated within the community, encouraging the walkability and accessibility of the environment – a tenet that is touted by many of these guidelines. In the same sense, the characteristics and identity of the communities should be preserved and should be compatible with the context and type of land use.
It is also important for transit oriented development (TODs) to avoid becoming complicit to programs that encourage car use. Adams notes that TODs are not as successful when the areas that they service are just as easily accessible by personal cars. He writes, “they are usually just as close to major thoroughfares, imbued with ample off-street parking facilities (usually required by the municipality), and pedestrian deterring exteriors. These project rarely enhance walkability, and the convenience of public transit is offset by equal or greater auto amenities and convenience.”
Density is frequently a high priority in “smart growth” and Adams mentions that this should be done incrementally, encouraged by municipal governments through zoning and code development. For example, Adams suggests that infill development should be prioritized over lot-clearing projects or incrementally reducing setback requirements that encourage small lots to be built higher without challenging the character of the street life. He warns that maximizing density is not as effective as increasing density in a responsible way.
“The antithesis of smart growth and the trademark of sprawl are wide streets, dispersed development, and parking lots.” Narrow streets and usable open space bring people to the street, and create engagement with the surrounding programs, whereas “parking lots and wide streets directly undermine the attraction. Conversely, people come to successful traditional commercial districts despite the auto inconveniences. Auto inconvenience means pedestrian orientation.” Along the same vein, Adams suggests making exclusive opportunities to for pedestrians and cyclists that cannot be accessible by automobiles. This not only prioritizes specific functions, but also encourages their use. And they should be considered as a higher priority than road building. This is also an issue of scale. Where major roadways provide one means to a destination, but local traffic is encouraged through public transit systems, walking or biking.
These principles are not ground-breaking, but they provide a fundamental reasoning to the rhetoric that has been circulating among urban planning and design texts. When we hear terms like “walkability“, “sustainability”, “accessibility”, or “density” we can understand them better within the context of a specific community in regards to transit orientation, building design, and zoning codes. Ultimately, it is most important that the jargon of urban planning does not overpower a community’s ability to participate in its own development. Bill Adams’ breakdown of the ways in which “smart growth” can be smarter does just that.