A complete remodeling of our urban fabric

Smart Growth principles can be very powerful

David S. Zelenok, P.E.
Director of Public Works (retired)
City of Colorado Springs, Colorado
Member, APWA Transportation Committee

In recent years, the term Smart Growth has become a powerful anti-sprawl term, a trendy catch phrase, a rallying cry and, in many cases, just about all things to all people. Perhaps even more intriguing, virtually all groups with an interest in the topic of land use and development have attached themselves in some respect to the term. Across virtually all interest groups, it seems possible to find advocates who are pro-growth, anti-growth, anti-sprawl, pro-downtown, pro-environment or even ambivalent on the issue, yet they all appear to be in support of "smart growth." After all, who would admit being in favor of not-so-smart, or stupid growth?

How can this be? In other words, how can groups with such polarized—and opposite—perspectives all seem to agree they are advocating "smart growth"? Perhaps more importantly, what does it mean to the nation's public works leaders saddled with not only a key role in land use planning and development, but implementing infrastructure designs and plans approved by our governing bodies and elected officials?

This article will attempt to explore the topic, and propose a cautious way ahead for our professionals before they embark on support for this delicate and varied topic.

Like clothing and cars, urban planning has gone through periods in which various styles have emerged, only to be declared obsolete as new ones emerged. Thinking back to the 1800s, cities were often laid out in rectangular grids with boulevards wide enough to allow a horse and carriage to perform U-turns. In the mid-20th century the cul-de-sac became trendy, many streets began to take on more free-flowing patterns, and the suburbia as we know it was born. With the advent of computer-controlled traffic signals in the late 20th century, the benefits of a transportation system of limited-access arterials laid out in a square grid pattern with internal collector and residential streets of varying patterns became widely recognized. This time, the grid returned to fashion for an entirely different purpose—to allow two-way traffic progression for vehicles, with the dimensions of the grid often set by desired travel times between traffic signals.

Recognizing that virtually all development patterns have some pros and cons, Smart Growth advocates are adapting some of the best of each style and now blending the best techniques of urban planning with a more traditional style of housing. As a result, design elements in community planning not seen in decades in the U.S. and Canada are now becoming more commonplace.

The problem
Even before gas prices started to soar, engineers and urban planners began to recognize they cannot build themselves out of the problems that emerged as the unintended consequences of the suburban layouts that became fashionable with the advent of the one-family, one-car mentality. Since then, the average family size has decreased in size while their typical single-family home has increased in square footage significantly. Further, as the number of cars in many communities has increased from less than one per family to more than one auto per individual, suburban homes themselves continue to evolve. Perhaps most notably, the number of garages per unit has increased from one, to two, to even three or more. In fact, in many neighborhoods, there are now often more garages than residents.

Other vexing issues such as increasing commute times, uncoordinated planning among neighboring municipalities, a perceived lack of a sense of place or community balanced with an increasing understanding of the value of preserving open space—often for both environmental and recreational reasons—have accentuated the public's concerns. In isolation, these concerns may not seem problematic, but when viewed comprehensively, the cumulative impact of these changes have often led to neighborhoods which give the impression they lack one key ingredient"—neighbors."

Now with the advent of the Internet, our neighborhoods have grown increasingly populated with residents isolated from their communities—or even having a sense of community. In these urban settings, it is not impossible to find that much of the socialization is done via instant messages more often than in person. It's true that an increasing number of residents are able to telecommute from home, but many others spend an increasing number of hours on congested highways commuting, while others choose to drive tens of thousands of miles annually chauffeuring family members between events. Combined, these members of our traveling public are adding even more vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and exacerbating the congestion problem in a seemingly upward spiral in which there is no easy way out.

Prior to adopting these emerging Smart Growth principles, several seemingly intuitive issues must be acknowledged, including:

  • Growth—whether on raw land or via redevelopment—will occur.
  • Infrastructure will always need to be improved, modified or expanded.
  • Governments must be willing to: (1) play a lead role in establishing a vision for their communities; and (2) support changes to their development ordinances, building codes and established methods for approving developments.
And, arguably the most important element:

  • Economics: Supply, demand, and pricing through the private sector will drive the viability of projects and the pace of development.

Common principles
Virtually all Smart Growth advocates seem to agree on a list of key tenets supporting development policies including:

  • Strengthening neighborhoods, a sense of place and community.
  • Protecting the environment and cultural resources. Related issues such as preserving habitats and open space, while important aspects, are not always universally adopted by all interest groups.
  • Promoting multiple and alternative transportation modes with better multi-modal plans and improved connectivity between streets and pedestrian/bike facilities.
  • Recognizing the problem must be addressed comprehensively, by a variety of levels of government and partnerships with the private sector. Interestingly, these issues can lead to calls for a better use of long-range plans and more emphasis on centralized planning regions.

Less commonly-accepted principles
As Smart Growth is being adopted by an increasing number of advocacy groups, support for other, even seemingly unrelated Smart Growth principles often may emerge, including:

  • Affordable, often subsidized or incentivized housing, interspersed with middle- and upper-income housing. It's no surprise that mixing housing costs can have an "equalizing" effect as the two extremes—higher- and lower-end homes—may tend to lose or gain in value when in proximity to each other. Likewise, this principle of Smart Growth may be opposed by the existing high-end owners whose homes may decline in value due to their location.

  • Downtown vitality, urban in-fill and higher density residential developments. Virtually all Smart Growth advocates agree that a vibrant city center is critical to establishing a strong community and a sense of "place." However, encouraging downtown redevelopment, particularly with incentives, may compete with and be opposed by owners of raw land in the urban fringes. Even hidden incentives can fuel tension between downtown and suburban groups. Downtown advocacy groups eager to seek new businesses not only relieve downtown developers from having to construct parking, but use public funds or financing to build parking structures and metered parking through a user-pay system, thus providing a perceived subsidy of downtown development not often afforded to suburban developments.

  • Biodiversity, minimal habitat fragmentation and, oddly, agricultural subsidies to encourage existing agricultural uses of open space may also be voiced as issues by various groups favoring Smart Growth. Not surprisingly, these kinds of Smart Growth issues can be viewed as masking a particular group's opposition to development using the Smart Growth "bandwagon."

  • Better coordination of local governments in some areas can even support calls for the consolidation of local governments. At the extreme, this principle could even call for abolishing the familiar patchwork of local, state and provincial governments in favor of a single decision-maker who can ensure a single comprehensive plan without the "seams" familiar to the fringe areas between municipalities. Obviously, passionately advocating to a city manager that one's own government be abolished consolidated with their neighbors can lead to unintended political consequences for the unaware Smart Growth advocates, particularly if they are from within that agency.

  • Other so-called "hidden agendas" may be expected by advocates of Smart Growth fueled by widely-ranging political, financial or even social agendas.

Some Smart Growth principles may be innately conflicting or at cross-purposes and their implementation strategies need to be carefully considered by public works officials on a case-by-case basis. For example, density, stormwater and open space are often interrelated under the Smart Growth banner in a variety of new ways, such as this scenario:

  • Higher residential density is a common theme of Smart Growth. From a public works perspective, developing, for example, a "traditional neighborhood" may have both narrower streets as well as reduced street miles, leading to a powerful and tempting benefit—reduced infrastructure and maintenance costs. However, there may be consequences of narrower streets such as increased congestion within the development or adjacent areas, delayed emergency service response times and more stormwater runoff since there is more impervious surface area per acre of development.

  • In turn, issues such as the increased use of open space and increased runoff may lead to greater use of more unimproved drainageways (sounds tempting on the surface) and often driven by channels with a wider (and less expensive) right-of-way by simply allowing more erosion, sedimentation and maintenance under an emerging science advocating "prudent line" determinations instead of hard-surfaced, low-maintenance trapezoidal channels. Likewise, higher runoff coefficients may demand additional detention ponds which also, in turn, may require more maintenance and care by public works agencies.

  • Recently, wetlands—whether in naturally-preserved drainageways or associated with man-made detention ponds—have become viewed as both havens of biodiversity rich in "charismatic macro-fauna" or viewed as breeding grounds for infectious disease and vectors such as the West Nile virus and hence, are supported by some groups while vigorously opposed by others, such as nearby neighborhood groups.

Traditional neighborhoods and Smart Growth
When applied in conjunction with a set of comprehensive anti-sprawl policies, Smart Growth often becomes linked to other terms such as "context sensitive solutions" (CSS) and "traditional neighborhood design," or TND.

CSSs deal with designing improvements which are custom-tailored and compatible with their specific setting (think: a bridge rehab project which includes art-deco style decorations in a trendy early 20th century neighborhood). Similarly, TNDs are one of a number of emerging design tools used to redefine the urban fabric using many of the principles employed in the early 20th century in conjunction with more state-of-the art engineering and planning techniques.

In its purest sense, a TND is intended to reduce traffic congestion and VMTs by mixing land uses such as employment centers, shopping and residential areas to comfortable walking distances and easy multi-modal commutes. In these ideal neighborhoods, parents can drop their children at their neighborhood schools and activities, then go to work, shop, visit with the neighbors on their street-facing porches, run errands and return with minimum delay—all without touching an automobile. If a car is needed, it can be found garaged in the detached garage, just off the alley in the back, or parallel parked on the narrow street in front of the house. Sound impossible? Not at all. Dozens of highly successful TNDs have been built and more are on the way in communities all across the country.

Common elements of TNDs include:

  • Mixed land uses—for example, employment centers, often small businesses intermingled with patches of residential development.
  • Increased density of residential units per acre.
  • Reduced setbacks, typically with either no front yards or very narrow ones.
  • Distances between houses reduced or virtually eliminated.
  • Less emphasis on the residential streets, including: (1) narrow alleys are often constructed behind the houses, typically with detached garages with little or no setbacks from their alleys; (2) separate living quarters are commonly built above the garages known as "granny flats," "artist lofts" or "cottages" and may be included with some of the units, depending on local building codes; (3) when developments do include a driveway from a residential street, the driveways may be reduced to a single lane, and the garages themselves may be "tandem" which means cars are parked in the garage end-to-end instead of side-by-side; and (4) mandatory on-street parking, effectively reducing the street width and having a calming effect on the traffic.

OK, so you ask—why would a developer bother? The answer can be quite simple since economics often drive the pace of development. Because density is higher and infrastructure is reduced (think: skinny streets, smaller lots), developers can often squeeze more units per acre onto the same size parcel. Further, because demand for housing with these attributes is often higher, the homes—again, smaller in size, without driveways or standard-width streets—will even sell at a premium over their standard-sized cul-de-sac cousins nearby. Net revenue per unit can be significantly higher, and it often comes down to a dollars-and-cents rationale which will vary by the market forces of supply and demand.

Too good to be true? Maybe.

Vehicle Miles Traveled - Developers often point out success stories from other cities in which traffic counts in neighborhoods have gone down, thus allowing the streets to be much more "skinny." While true in some locations, the fact is that many people who cannot move their employment location will continue to work elsewhere, but enjoy a TND for its many benefits including their "sense of community." Not surprisingly, these people continue to drive the same or even more miles to their current places of employment. Likewise, people who work in the TNDs may not be able to afford a residential unit there, so they must commute to work from outside the TND. As a result, actual ADTs (Average Daily Traffic) may be the same—or even higher—than in their cul-de-sac counterparts. In these cases, traffic generation per unit may be roughly the same, but due to increased density, trips per acre may be increased since no modal shift has occurred—residents are simply driving to work with the same number of vehicle miles traveled as in any other situation. The point is, extra caution is needed before relenting to the developers' demands and accepting designs with reduced street width (and costs) on promises of reduced VMT and lower maintenance.

Mass transit and alternate modes of transportation - Since not everybody can live and work within walking distance and mass transit is needed, public works professionals should ensure that mass transit resources are available to support the TND. In fact, many smaller projects relying heavily on necessary mass transit may find the transit provider unable to serve fragmented TND areas since their residents often continue to commute via automobile. As a result, would-be transit-friendly residents and workers may not be able to convince their local transit providers to support them with the service levels—in frequency or service hours. Even worse, many TNDs are proposed without regard to availability of alternative modes of transportation and miles from the nearest bus stop. As a result, while the proposed plans may be viewed worthwhile, they may be in reality simply a higher density development with porches in the front and alleys in the back—attractive as sales pitches, but often "missing the boat" and the other elements of Smart Growth. Likewise, if pedestrian-friendly features (walkways, bikeways, trails, etc.) are not included with destinations like schools and employment centers nearby, the proposal may need to be treated simply as a contemporary development.

A cautious approach
APWA, largely under the Transportation Committee's guidance, has studied the Smart Growth issue in great detail. Since there remains a wide range of opinions as to the definition and interpretation of the term, the association has not yet taken a position to support Smart Growth per se. Rather, many of APWA's policy statements have recently been revised and now include advocacy efforts and embrace many of the techniques and benefits of Smart Growth.

In other words, with such politically charged and often polarized positions supporting Smart Growth, its wholesale support can place public works decision-makers in an awkward position—whether or not to appear to support, or oppose, the term Smart Growth. In contrast, however, many of the Smart Growth principles can undoubtedly lead to increased quality of life and reduced miles of infrastructure when compared to the current residential designs. When thoughtfully applied and taken in conjunction with changes to existing land use policies and traffic design standards, its principles can be very powerful and lead to a complete remodeling of our urban fabric over time.

The bottom lines

  • No one wants to be opposed to Smart Growth or in favor of urban sprawl.
  • One size won't fit all—what's smart in Maryland may not be very smart in Wyoming.
  • Don't be seduced by the moniker—Smart Growth is still many things to many people.
  • Spend some time studying and embracing many of the emerging principles often associated with Smart Growth, and be courageous to resist other interest groups' agendas.
  • Be cautious and give careful consideration to the many implications and consequences of Smart Growth—in your own local setting.
  • There is no right or wrong way to implement Smart Growth!

David S. Zelenok, P.E., is a former Director of Public Works for the City of Colorado Springs, Colorado. He can be reached at dzelenok@yahoo.com.