Friday, February 04, 2011

From 'Smart Growth' to 'intelligent cities'

A Cary, N.C., subdivision circa 1997 (News & Observer file photo)

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?

I digress.

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.


Kyle Merville said...

I think they should go further and just call them "Complete Growth" or "Complete Cities" to go along with the 'complete streets' and other urban planning ideas.

The idea complete goes after everything that a complete community needs - walkability, transportation, accessibility to other forms of transportation if near a large city, parks and open space, education facilities, and service space within the community and not separated. Just my two cents.

People often think this is just 'crazy-talk' but have no idea that the people who build subdivisions and sell them their home are not selling just a home - they are selling a lifestyle. You live your life around your commute, the amount of time spent in a car going from your job to home and the distance between the store and your children's schools. This dictates how involved you are within your community and how much time you can spend with your children, parents, and neighbors (think of a neighborhood watch program). In addition, with the price of oil, it dictates how much of your income you spend on your home and transportation giving people less for a vacation, food, or other fun things.

Peter said...

Let's hope that one day 'biking' will become as 'hot' as walking and transit and whatever else -- maybe then we'll be able to take 'smart growth' seriously.

Anonymous said...

My close-in, 1950s era neighborhood has single family houses on 1/3-1/2 acre lots.

But rates it somewhat walkable.

Am I to be shunned, punished, held up to hatred, contempt, ridicule and scorn for living in a single family house in a somewhat walkable neighborhood?

Is there absolution available?

Bréanainn Séaghdha said...

Thomas Jefferson wasn't altogether wrong in viewing "great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man."

Great cities in the late 1700's and early 1800's had no fire departments and with mostly timber construction they burned readily and often, no police departments so crime was often rampant and order kept in check by standing armies, many streets were as bad as open sewers and the sewers that did exist dumped into the same river everyone got their water from, no indoor plumbing, street lighting at night was spotty and offered only by dim oil or gas lamps on major thoroughfares, brothels and gambling houses had not yet been legislated against and could be found everywhere in cities.

So, when people quote good old TJ on his views of cities, keep in mind the context within which he formed his opinions. And yes, compared to 1790's Paris, life was good on his farm in the hills of Virginia, but if I had a bunch of free labor I'd have a mansion in the mountains too. I doubt Jefferson worked 60 hours a week with 2 weeks of vacation per year for 50 years to get that life.

Anonymous said...

Again we're going with the myth that suburban folks are un-neighborly and don't have time or money for "fun" things and food (that's actually a new one to me--I thought it was inner city neighborhoods that were "food deserts", that trendy new term).
In case you haven't noticed, many companies are moving to campuses in the suburbs, making the commute for suburbanites much shorter. Also amenities such as a variety of shopping options are showing up in the 'burbs as well, again reducing the need to drive great distances. And most suburban parents would love to have schools within short commute or better yet walking distance. But in some quarters that is frowned upon.

I suspect that most people who live in the "golden" inner ring communities around downtown still spend a hefty amount of time in their cars, ferrying kids to activities, taking care of shopping needs, going to restaurants, getting to work, etc., despite the "walkability" of the area.

The area of Louisville that my husband grew up in was considered suburban at the time. Now one of our sons lives in the area and it's considered quite urban and chic, despite the fact that there are no sidewalks in many of the 70 some year old neighborhoods, which are dominated by single family homes, with good sized lots. Things change gradually (actually things probably have changed too fast here, which is part of the problem)--in not too many years hence our suburbs will be considered "classic" and urban.

Anonymous said...

Kyle, there's an element of hubris to your comment: you characterize people as being ignorant of their own self interest, while you see clearly where it lies. I can't help but wonder why you would believe that people often are unaware that their housing choices are related to their life generally, since elements of lifestyle generally drive housing choices. Unless you live with your parents you have chosen your location because of factors in your life. That hardly makes you unique or enlightened, for heavens sake: that's what everyone does.

I imagine that you believe that those who have a different perspective on how they wish to lead their lives do so only because they lack you understanding. If you're a lucky young man, you'll outgrow that.

Anonymous said...

It ain't social engineering, if the market is also adjusting. And the Charlotte market is struggling to catch up to changing attitudes.

Urban apartment homes within walking distance of jobs and fun are quickly absorbed and fetch higher rents. Urban retail spaces are also filled by more small businesses than their auto-oriented counterparts. Even chains have their highest-performing stores in under-served urban markets, such as the Midtown Target.

Seems to me, that the economy has pent-up demand for urban living. Charlotte needs to diversify its built-environment portfolio, lest it fail to remain attractive to all consumers. Sadly, only the first-mile ring of Charlotte is walkable. Hence, the ridiculous prices now for that limited commodity.

Building more market-responsive, higher-density infill within an otherwise low-density metro is not an attack on anyone's lifestyle. Rather, it's a desperately needed diversification of portfolio. And that's why it should be called "durable growth."

Anonymous said...

Does Charlotte really care about Smart Growth?

Think not.

Try NASCAR, huntin' & fishin'.

Anonymous said...

Can't comment on whether or not midtown Target is the top performer in the area but I noticed the Home Depot Design Center did not last. Interesting, though, if you read comments on YELP concerning mid-town Target almost everyone is happy about the ease of parking in the parking garage, which leads me to believe there are more drivers than walkers coming to this store. I also wondered about the comment that urban apartments are quickly rented and command higher rents--is that happening in uptown Charlotte right now? Isn't there a glut of condos, many of which have had to be converted to rentals? And I believe that I read in the Observer not too long ago about all the young people who are getting really good rental deals in the inner ring neighborhoods. Actually not surprising in this economy.

I agree that people need to have choices for this to be an appealing area. But let's not be myth making about all the people wanting to live where they can walk to all the fun. Maybe that depends on what you think is fun--not everyone chooses to live the uber urban lifestyle. And that choice should be respected as well.

Bréanainn Séaghdha said...

Home depot closed all of its design centers nationwide. They were considered ancillary to the primary home depot stores, so the fact that the one closed in midtown really has nothing to do with its specific performance.

Condos in uptown are sadly not being converted to rentals and the rentals available in uptown are at capacity with rents increasing every year. Currently $1.2-$1.5 per squarefoot per month in rent. Still amazingly cheap compared to most cities, but about 2x as expensive as renting anywhere else in Charlotte.

One of the sad things about the housing collapse is the glut of empty foreclosed houses and an utter lack of apartments for people to move into that should never have bought houses to begin with.

People in their 20's making 40-50k per year need to live somewhere to rack up the 20% down that they should have before purchasing that first home.