What Is Smart Growth – Urban Planning Principles, Benefits & Examples

Imagine that you live in a small town that’s experiencing a sudden population boom. Very soon, the town is going to have to add more housing and retail space. The town council has received several proposals from builders for this new development, and it’s trying to decide between two plans.

Plan A involves expanding the town outward into new open space. The developer would buy up farmland to make space for a large housing development on one side of town. Then, on the opposite side, it would clear wooded areas to make room for a new shopping center. Since the only way for people in the new development to reach the new shopping area would be by car, this plan also involves building new roads and expanding old ones.

Plan B, by contrast, keeps most of the new development within the boundaries of the existing town. The developer would re-purpose several old, vacant buildings, converting them to apartments and shops. It would also add new apartment space on top of some existing single-story businesses. New residents – and current ones – could easily walk or bike from their homes to the new retail spaces.

At one time, most towns would have chosen Plan A without a second thought.  But today, more and more towns are choosing development that looks more like Plan B. This plan is an example of “smart growth,” a type of urban planning designed to promote better quality of life for everyone. Smart growth conserves resources, protects nature, strengthens local businesses, and creates vibrant neighborhoods.

Principles of Smart Growth

One of the leading organizations that promotes smart growth in the United States is the Smart Growth Network, a partnership of businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This group has developed a list of 10 basic principles for smart growth projects. These principles are all closely interconnected and work as a whole to help towns make strategic choices about what, where, and how to build.

Loosely paraphrased, the principles include the following:

  1. Mixed Land Use. Traditional development often divides towns into housing-only zones and commercial zones, keeping homes and businesses strictly separate. Smart growth, by contrast, aims to keep homes, jobs, and stores close together. This makes it practical for people to get around by walking, cycling, and mass transit instead of having to drive everywhere. It also helps keep money within the local economy and contributes to a bustling town center where people can meet and greet their neighbors.
  2. Compact Development. If you want to build homes for 1,000 people, it takes up a lot more space to build 500 single-family homes than it does to build one apartment building with 500 units. That leaves a lot more open land available for natural “green space.” It’s also cheaper to provide services, such as water, electricity, and trash pickup, for those 1,000 people if they live in one building rather than 500. And finally, it’s much more efficient to route mass transit through a compact neighborhood than a sprawling one.
  3. Varied Housing Choices. Different types of families need different types of housing. To meet the needs of all its residents, a town should offer a variety of choices, including small apartments for singles, big houses for large families, and condominiums for empty nesters. A good housing mix should include some homes to rent and some to own, with prices to fit a wide variety of budgets. By putting single-family and multi-family homes close together, a town can encourage people of different ages and income levels to mix and get to know one another.
  4. Walkable Neighborhoods. Smart growth aims to put the places where people live, work, and shop all within walking distance of each other. Walkable neighborhoods have homes, businesses, schools, libraries, and houses of worship close together, connected by safe streets and sidewalks.
  5. Distinctive Communities. Every community has something that makes it unique, such as a bustling waterfront, a beautiful old library, or an established ethnic neighborhood. These are the things that give the town its distinct look and feel, setting it apart from any other town in America. Smart growth aims to protect and celebrate these special features – preserving old buildings and respecting natural and man-made landmarks, and designing new development to fit smoothly around them.
  6. Open Space. Smart growth isn’t just about development – it’s also about leaving some open spaces undeveloped. By keeping development compact, smart growth helps preserve farmland, waterways, and important natural habitats, such as wetlands. In addition to providing natural beauty, open space protects the air and water quality by filtering rainwater, absorbing overflow from storms, preventing erosion, and helping keep wind and heat under control.
  7. Developing Within Existing Communities. Instead of expanding towns outward into new, sprawling suburbs, smart growth aims to channel new development toward existing communities. This helps preserve open space by putting new buildings in areas that are already built up, rather than paving over new “greenfield land” (undeveloped land). Keeping new development within existing city borders also makes it easier to provide these new homes and businesses with access to services and transit.
  8. Transportation Choices. Residents shouldn’t have to climb behind the wheel of a car every time they need to go somewhere. Building walkable neighborhoods is a good start, but residents also need mass transit options to keep them connected to the rest of the world. Smart growth seeks to give residents as many ways as possible to get around, including safe roads, reliable public transportation, sidewalks, and bicycle paths for bike commuting.
  9. Supportive Government. Smart growth, like any other kind of growth, depends on builders – and builders want their projects to be cost-effective. If towns want to encourage smart growth, they need to make it easy for developers to build this way. For instance, a developer who wants to convert an old factory to apartments shouldn’t have to fill out more forms and pay more in fees than one who wants to knock the building down and put up a new one. To promote smart growth, towns need to examine their zoning laws and building codes, removing all unnecessary barriers for smart-growth projects.
  10. Community Involvement. Every town is different, and growth that’s smart in one place doesn’t always make sense in another. For instance, a town that’s growing rapidly probably needs to focus on adding more housing, while one that’s losing people to the suburbs would be better off focusing on revitalizing its downtown. The best way for town leaders to find out what their community truly needs is to ask the people who live there. Citizens are much more likely to support new development when they have an opportunity to take part in the planning process and guide it to fit their ideas of what kind of place their hometown should be.

passenger boarding a bus

Benefits of Smart Growth

Many of the factors that make a town a good or bad place to live – from taxes to traffic, school quality to job opportunities – are connected in some way to decisions about development. Smart growth policies can help strengthen a town’s economy, protect its local environment, and generally improve the quality of life for everyone who lives there.

Economic Benefits

A strong local economy is a self-sustaining system. Thriving local businesses provide good jobs for residents, and they generate tax revenue to fund local government projects.

Smart growth helps the local economy by:

  • Creating Jobs. Smart growth projects, such as new transit lines, provide jobs for local workers. They also make it easier for workers to find jobs because there are more opportunities close to home – an important concern for those who live without a car.
  • Strengthening Businesses. Small, local businesses are more likely to thrive when they’re in a walkable downtown business district, because there’s a steady stream of potential customers going past their doors each day. However, smart growth can help larger companies as well. Being located in an appealing community makes it easier for companies to attract talented, well-trained workers. And finally, smart growth can help businesses run more efficiently, because better transportation options make it easier for them to connect with clients and distribute their products.
  • Easing Pressure on Municipal Budgets. Compact development makes it cheaper for towns to provide infrastructure, such as roads and water systems. It also helps put more tax dollars into the budget by turning unused sites within cities (such as vacant lots and empty buildings) into tax-paying businesses and homes.

Environmental and Health Benefits

One of the main ideas behind smart growth is to build in a way that’s better for the environment and for residents’ health. Smart growth achieves these goals by:

  • Conserving Resources. One major principle of smart growth is to build within older, existing neighborhoods, rather than expanding out into new suburbs. Repurposing old buildings uses fewer resources than building from scratch, and working within a city’s limits makes it possible to use existing infrastructure – such as water and sewer pipes – rather than adding more. In addition, smart growth developers can often put “brownfields” (environmentally damaged sites) to new, safe uses, so that land doesn’t go to waste.
  • Reducing Air Pollution. Smart growth developments are designed to help people get around without relying on cars. A 2005 study of land use and transportation in King County, Washington, found that people living in the county’s most walkable neighborhoods drove about 25% fewer miles per day than those in the most sprawling areas. That means less gas being burned, reducing smog, greenhouse gases, and other forms of air pollution. Smart growth also preserves green space, which can absorb carbon dioxide and slow the effects of climate change.
  • Protecting Water Quality. When water flows over paved areas, it often picks up pollutants and carries them into nearby streams and rivers, damaging wildlife and contaminating the water supply. Rapidly-flowing runoff can also cause erosion and possibly lead to flooding at water treatment plants. Because smart growth development is compact, it requires less land to be paved over for each home that’s built, reducing dangerous runoff and leaving more open land to absorb rainfall. Smart growth also protects the water by reducing air pollution that could turn into acid rain and pollute the water supply. And finally, smart growth projects typically use more efficient building techniques that are designed to conserve and reuse water whenever possible.
  • Preserving Natural Habitats. Old-school development paves over undeveloped land, destroying the habitats of local wildlife. By contrast, smart growth is designed to preserve open space and leave these natural areas intact.
  • Encouraging Exercise. Smart growth is designed to be pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly. Compact development, safe sidewalks, and bike lanes makes it easier for residents to get around on foot or on bicycles, getting healthy exercise in the process. The 2005 King County study found that people who lived in more compact neighborhoods were 23% more likely to walk for non-work-related travel than those in other parts of the county.
  • Making Streets Safer. The same developments that make walking and cycling easier also make travel safer – not just for cyclists and pedestrians, but also for drivers and those who ride public transit, such as buses. A road safety study by the New York City Department of Transportation found that simple, low-cost changes – such as widening sidewalks, installing medians, and adding bike lanes – can dramatically reduce injuries and fatalities from traffic accidents. For instance, when the city widened the medians between East 165th and East 170th Street and added a bike lane, accidents involving pedestrians dropped by 69%.

bike lane in the road

Community Benefits

Smart growth can turn old, run-down neighborhoods into attractive, convenient, interesting places to live. It can help residents save time, save money, and form closer ties with their neighbors.

Smart growth improves communities by:

  • Restoring Infrastructure. A town’s infrastructure is all the buildings and services that keep the town running, such as water lines, power lines, roads, and mass transit. As this infrastructure ages, it becomes less reliable, causing inconveniences like frequent power outages or transportation delays – or even safety hazards, such as unstable bridges. Traditional development, which directs new building towards the outskirts of cities, doesn’t bring in any money for repairing infrastructure closer to the city center. However, smart growth, which focuses on building in existing neighborhoods, channels much-needed money toward existing systems – restoring buildings, repairing roads and bridges, and upgrading water and sewer networks.
  • Improving Housing Choice. In a smart-growth area, you can find single-family homes, townhouses, condominiums, small and large apartments, lofts, and studios located above shops or garages. This mix of different housing types helps people of all ages and income levels find a home they can afford. It also makes it easier for residents to stay in the same neighborhood when their needs change. A growing family can move to a larger house without having to transfer their children to a new school, and a pair of empty-nesters can downsize to a smaller home without having to move farther from their jobs and their friends.
  • Easing Strain on Household Budgets. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 50% of the average American family’s annual spending goes toward housing and transportation costs. In 2010, the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) developed what it called the Housing and Transportation  Affordability Index to measure how these combined costs differ throughout the country. The CNT concluded that compact, walkable communities with good public transit are often more affordable than sprawling suburbs because, even when housing costs are higher, transportation costs are much lower. That’s because in these areas, it’s easier to get by without a car, which is the single biggest transportation expense for most families.
  • Reducing Driving Time. Numerous studies show that people who spend less time going to and from work each day are happier with their lives than those who have long commutes. People who have to drive in rush-hour traffic are most likely to say their commute is stressful, while those who walk or bike to work often find it relaxing. Compact development, which puts homes and jobs closer together, reduces the amount of time people spend behind the wheel and improves their overall quality of life. Smart growth also reduces the total number of cars on the road, so when people do have to drive, the traffic isn’t as bad.
  • Involving Residents in Decision-Making. One of the principles of smart growth is to get people involved in planning their town’s development. Residents are a lot more likely to be happy with the place they live when they get a chance to let town planners know about their needs – from improving transit, to lowering crime rates, to adding more shopping choices. Smart growth also gives residents a chance to help out hands-on – for instance, by putting together a neighborhood watch group or turning a vacant lot into a community garden. This helps strengthen their connection to and pride in their hometown.

Examples of Smart Growth

Each year, the EPA gives its National Award for Smart Growth Achievement to communities that have used smart growth strategies to protect the environment. The EPA looks for towns that have done a good job of preserving open space, improving transportation choices, redeveloping brownfields, or reducing paved area to improve water quality. The winners of the award for 2015 provide three good real-life examples of how smart growth can make a town a better place to live.

1. Jackson, Tennessee

Country Store at Casey Jones Village in Jackson, Tennessee, photo by sporst

Country Store at Casey Jones Village in Jackson, Tennessee

Downtown Jackson was a struggling, rundown area with a high crime rate before tornadoes devastated the area in 2003. The city looked on the crisis as an opportunity to remake its downtown as an attractive, popular neighborhood. City leaders sought input from residents, neighborhood associations, and business leaders to develop a plan for rebuilding the area.

The result of that plan was Jackson Walk – a 20-acre redevelopment district around Central Creek and a brownfield site. The city combined private investment with a variety of federal and state grants and loans to fund a complete top-to-bottom transformation of the area.

Today, Jackson Walk has a mix of housing, with 149 apartments and 10 single-family homes, plus 20 new houses to come in the near future. Several of these homes were sold to lower-income buyers with the help of affordable housing grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The neighborhood also has new sidewalks, street lights, and landscaping to make it an appealing place for walks.

The surrounding area includes a farmers market, an outdoor amphitheater, a one-and-a-half-mile fitness trail, a dog park, and a variety of restaurants and shops, including a grocery store specializing in natural and organic foods. The centerpiece of the development is the Living in a Fit Tennessee (LIFT) wellness center, which combines a gym, urgent care clinic, and outpatient rehab center under one roof. Constructed with green building techniques, the LIFT offers a huge variety of fitness equipment, including an indoor track and a climbing wall, as well as classes in exercise, disease management, and nutrition.

The Jackson Walk project has been a great economic boon to the city. The LIFT center added more than 80 new jobs, and the new development has raised property values, bringing in new tax revenue. The popularity of the area attracted more than 30 new businesses between 2012 and 2014, which have brought still more jobs and tax revenue. And the new, thriving community is attracting more visitors than ever to downtown Jackson to shop, work, and play.

2. Hamilton, Ohio

Artspace Lofts under construction in Hamilton, Ohio

Artspace Lofts under construction in Hamilton, Ohio

Hamilton, Ohio was once a significant industrial business center. However, by the early 2000s, its major factories and businesses had all shut down or moved away, and the town was a shadow of its former self, with half its buildings unoccupied. After receiving extensive input from residents and other interested parties, the city eventually decided on three mixed-use projects to revive the decaying downtown.

In 2003, the city bought the Mercantile Lofts, an old, badly damaged building in the heart of downtown that had been scheduled for demolition. Instead, over the course of the next nine years, the city hired a developer, found funding, and remodeled the building to hold 29 new apartments with four retail spaces on the ground floor. Within nine months of opening in 2012, all 29 apartments were rented, and the ground floor was home to a coffeehouse, a gift shop specializing in repurposed items, and other businesses.

The success of the Mercantile Lofts spurred interest in the rest of the block. By mid-2015, developers had invested another $15 million in nearby buildings, and the occupancy rate downtown had increased by 14%. A bus stop located right behind the Mercantile Lofts connects Hamilton residents with the rest of the county.

Meanwhile, the city continued to renovate other historic buildings. The former Journal-News building became a cultural center, and the Dixon-Globe Opera House-Robinson-Schwenn Building, a former orchestra hall dating from 1866, became a mixed-use building housing retail and office space. The building also hosts live music and drama, art displays, classes, and lectures.

3. Newark, New Jersey

newark bus

Newark, New Jersey, photo by Frank Deanrdo

The city of Newark, New Jersey wouldn’t exist without the Passaic River. It once formed the basis of all the city’s industry and commerce, including a thriving jewelry industry at the turn of the 20th century. But 100 years later, these industrial sites had all been abandoned, leaving a barrier that cut off city residents from the river that had once been their lifeline.

In addition to the lack of river access, Newark residents had very little green space in general. In particular, the Ironbound section – a working-class, ethnically diverse area surrounded on all sides by railroad tracks – had less than half an acre of parkland for every 1,000 residents.

In an attempt to address both these problems, the city started looking for places along the river that could be converted into green space. Eventually, it decided to redevelop a brownfield that had once been the site of a metal-smelting plant. After receiving input from residents and funding from more than two dozen organizations, the city cleaned up the brownfield and started transforming it into Riverfront Park.

This process took place in several stages and still isn’t entirely complete. The first segment of the park opened in June 2012, the second in August 2013, and the third section is scheduled to open sometime in 2016. When the park is complete, it will cover a total of 19 acres and will link up with the older Riverbank Park, a 10-acre park that, despite its name, is cut off from the river by a major roadway. The park will form part of a chain of riverfront parks and trails stretching for five miles along the Passaic.

The new park’s environmentally friendly design includes native plants, recycled materials, stormwater drainage, and signs to educate visitors about the site’s environmental and social history. Its presence along the river also provides a buffer to protect homes from flooding and helps steer new development farther inland to the city’s older neighborhoods. Riverfront Park hosts performances that celebrate the neighborhood’s diverse cultures, from hip-hop to Ecuadorian dance. About a mile away, a major railway station provides a link to New York City and helps draw visitors to the park and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Supporting Smart Growth

If you think smart growth would be a great move for your town, but you’re not sure how to get your local leaders on board, there are several steps you can take:

  • Educate Yourself. Start by learning more about how smart growth works. The EPA Smart Growth page is a great place to start. It offers publications and links to information on a variety of different topics that relate to smart growth, such as green building, affordable housing, and climate change. You can also find videos about successful smart growth projects. Both the EPA and the Smart Growth Network sometimes offer webinars that explore specific smart growth topics in depth.
  • Check Out the Local Situation. Once you’ve learned about smart growth in general, you can start exploring the specific situation in your area. The website of New Jersey Future, a state smart-growth organization, has links to several different tools you can use to figure out how smart your town’s development is right now. For instance, you can see how your area measures up in terms of pedestrian-friendliness, bikeability, municipal development. You can also check an EPA map of smart growth projects across the country to find out about smart growth measures in your community.
  • Join a Local Organization. Once you have a good idea of what your community’s particular needs are, you can look for a local smart growth group that can help you work to meet those needs. Start by visiting the website of Smart Growth America, a national coalition of state and local organizations that support smart growth across the country. Check out the list of its members and look for an organization that serves your area. If you don’t find one, try doing an Internet search for “smart growth” followed by the name of your city or state.
  • Start Your Own Group. If you can’t find a local smart-growth organization, you can try starting your own. SmartGrowthBC, a smart-growth group in the Canadian province of British Columbia, offers a guide to direct you through the process of finding like-minded people to join your group, outlining your goals, choosing specific activities, making the organization official, and funding your work.

woman and her baby enjoy public outdoor space

Final Word

Smart growth is a win-win for towns and the people who live and work there. Town budgets benefit from the lower cost of infrastructure, as well as the higher tax revenues that come from rising property values. Business owners benefit from increased foot traffic that sends more customers in their direction. Residents benefit from clearer roads, lower transportation costs, more housing choices, more green space, and a thriving, healthy downtown environment.

The real question is, if smart growth is such a great deal for everyone, why isn’t it more common? Part of the answer is simply inertia. Towns that have always directed new development to the suburbs don’t always see any need to change, or even realize that it’s possible to do things differently.

The other problem holding back smart growth is ignorance. To some people who don’t know a lot about smart growth, it sounds like these policies are really a way of keeping their towns from growing at all. Some also fear that smart growth is much more expensive than traditional development.

So if you want to help promote smart growth, one of the most important things you can do is talk about it. For instance, when you hear someone complaining about a sprawling new subdivision, bring up the idea of smart growth as a better alternative. If you hear someone express fear or concern about the cost, explain how smart growth can actually save money by taking advantage of existing resources. Most of all, stress the many ways in which smart growth can make life better for residents.

How has smart growth affected your town?