This is my Saturday op-ed column. I'm posting it early for all you Naked City readers.
It’s been a while since I heard people talking about Smart Growth.
Some of that’s because Charlotte’s seen little growth, smart or otherwise, since late 2008. Consider the change: In 2008 the City of Charlotte approved 35 single-family subdivisions, totaling 1,407 lots on 612 acres. In 2009 it approved four, in 2010 just two.
Even before 2008, though, it seemed the term Smart Growth had been supplanted. I’ve heard "resilient cities," "sustainable communities," or – today’s fad – "intelligent cities." Urban sociologist Robert Lang told USA Today recently that, as a term, "smart growth is at the end of its shelf life."
Despite terminology, the topic still pulls in a crowd. Some 1,200 people came to Charlotte this week for the New Partners for Smart Growth national conference. Sessions showcased topics from traffic safety to food systems to so-called "zombie" subdivisions – platted but unbuilt – (here's a link to a report on zombie subs from Anthony Flint of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, which helped organize the session).
The breadth of topics helps show how widely Smart Growth has been embraced, yet hints, too, at one reason the term faded. What began as a welcome alliance among environmentalists, New Urbanists and transit advocates kept inviting others into its tent, adding worthy goals such as economic inequities and social justice. In time its cohesive message blurred.
Meantime, themes that 25 years ago were outsiders to conventional planning became embedded in the profession. You don’t find many planners now who don’t know that the circa-1955, large lot, single-family residential codes aren’t environmentally or fiscally prudent. Even traffic engineers are coming around to embrace bike lanes and sidewalks.
When I first wrote about Smart Growth a dozen years ago, I’d have to explain it. Here’s how I defined it in a 1999 article: "Smart Growth aims for development that looks better, conserves important natural features, preserves farms, doesn’t squelch downtowns and gives options to automobile travel."
How threatening does that sound? But maybe because many early Smart Growth advocates were environmentalists who believed – gasp – that global climate change is real, even today many conservatives equate Smart Growth with socialists out to seize private property and give it away to the labor unions, whose members are lazy crooks because they are among the last remaining U.S. workers who still receive pensions. Or something like that. Friday, a local libertarian blogger Tweeted: "Smart Growth is a cult." Maybe. But wouldn’t libertarianism be one, too?
Smart Growth, as a concept, won a huge victory in 1997, when Maryland enacted a statewide initiative to discourage sprawl, strengthen cities and protect farms and environmentally sensitive areas. But a 10-year analysis found that for a lot of reasons, including a lack of cooperation from municipalities, it hadn’t solved the problems it tried to address. Tom Wright, executive director of the Regional Plan Association, a New York nonprofit, told me he thinks advocates pitched Smart Growth as a cure for so many problems that it was bound to disappoint.
Now, consider the title of a new book from Harvard economist Ed Glaeser: "Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier." Cities, says the publicist’s blurb, "bring out the best in humankind."
For a couple of centuries, that wasn’t many Americans’ view of cities. They agreed with Thomas Jefferson, who said, "I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man." (He appears not to have noticed that the system of slavery that supported his beloved farm was also pestilential to morals, health and liberty.)
Today, it’s views such as Glaeser’s that are taking hold. Cities are hot. They’re "green." Transit is hot. Walkable neighborhoods are hot, including among astute developers eyeing aging boomers and the echo-boomers just now hitting adulthood.
Smart Growth helped environmentalists see how dense cities can hold the greenest neighborhoods. It pushed urban designers to think more creatively about stormwater and wetlands. The overall alliance has been healthy. Whatever it’s called in the future, let us hope it continues.