Is smart growth inevitable?

A piece titled “Why Are Developers Still Building Sprawl?” explores the fate of smart growth in American urban areas:

It may be surprising to hear that so little has changed in the homebuilding industry since the recession, especially in Las Vegas, one of the epicenters of the housing bust. After all, low gas prices aside, surveys suggest that both Boomers and younger generations are interested in living in more urban places where they don’t have to spend so much time in the car getting to and from work. They also don’t mind smaller homes, especially if they’re close to public transit or retail or restaurants. And studies have shown that sprawl has negative health impacts: People who live in far-out suburbs walk less, eat more, and exercise less than those who live in urban environments.

Urban planners and “smart growth” advocates argue that builders should eschew the practice of buying empty land further and further out and building on it, and should instead build more compact, walkable communities near public transit, rehabbing existing land to fit new projects. Doing so is important for the environment, they say, and will save valuable resources and money in the long run…

“Exposing” sustainable development might seem laughable, but it points to a growing divide about how different people think Americans want to live in the future. Do they want to continue to live in spread-out, single-family homes with lawns and garages and spare bedrooms? Or do they want smaller, compact houses where they can easily hop on a train or walk to the coffee shop, without even needing a garage, or a car to park in it?…

Other areas may continue to eschew ‘smart growth,’ and just as America is divided politically, it could become a more divided country in the way its residents live. People in cities such as Washington D.C., Boston, and Seattle, will want more walkable developments, while consumers in what Leinberger calls “the laggards,” including Phoenix, Dallas, and Las Vegas, will continue to live in sprawling suburbs.

But it’s also possible that Boomers and Millennials in the laggard cities will come around. After all, even in Las Vegas and Atlanta, some builders are starting to shift their mentality. Zappos founder Tony Hsieh has poured $350 million into downtown Las Vegas, creating a shopping center built from shipping containers, mixed-use residential development, and a host of walkable amenities like a donut shop and a bookstore. And in Atlanta, a developer is in the midst of converting a former Sears building near downtown to a mixed-use community of apartments, restaurants, and retail.

Three major sets of actors are involved here and it is not clear to me that they all will want smart growth:

1. Politicians. All sorts of zoning policies, tax structures, and other things would have to change to adjust to smart growth. If politicians did want more smart growth, they could adjust policies accordingly. However, they do answer (at least nominally) to voters. While some may talk about this as a free market issue, municipal policies always help dictate housing options.

2. Builders/developers. The short answer is that building larger homes right now offers more profit. Denser projects invite headaches like opposition to redevelopment, bureaucratic red tape, and possible selling smaller units or spaces.

3. Consumers. Would they buy denser, smaller housing if this is what builders provided? Maybe but don’t discount the long-standing American commitments to the single-family home in the suburbs. Many Americans like their private spaces and may not be terribly interested in public spaces or sacrificing for the community. Tastes don’t change overnight though new policies and housing choices could steer people in particular directions.

All together, it would take time, coordinated efforts, and decisions from key actors to truly push smart growth policies. Even then, it is not inevitable that Americans would accept this as the desired outcome, even if it has certain positive outcomes.

Claim: having too many big homes contribute to the housing market downturn

Several experts suggest that one contributor to the downturn in the housing market is a lack of demand for large houses:

America has too many big houses — 40 million, to be exact — because consumers are shifting preferences to condos, apartments and small homes, experts told the New Partners for Smart Growth Thursday, holding its 11th annual conference in San Diego through Sunday.

Relying on developers’ surveys, Chris Nelson, who heads the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah, said 43 percent of Americans prefer traditional big, suburban homes but the rest don’t.

“That means we are out of balance in terms of where the market is right now, let alone trending toward the future,” he said.

He estimated that this demand suggests a need for 10 million more attached homes and 30 million more small homes on 4,000-square-foot lots or less. By contrast, demand for large-lot homes is 40 million less than currently available.

These experts suggest that older adults and the younger generations are looking for smaller, more urban homes. But how does this line up with recent figures that suggest big homes are being built and sold?

While this sounds like an interesting conference, I wonder how this group might be spinning the recent data and trends. What do you do if 43% of Americans do want “big, suburban homes” but you personally are committed to building and pushing for smaller and denser housing? Presumably you leave the building of those larger structures to others but 43% is still a large number. It would be interesting to see how this group and its experts speak as they see some light at the end of the tunnel (several demographic groups who want smaller homes) versus time periods when it may have seemed more Americans prefer big houses and sprawl (1980s through roughly 2006).

A call to update the definition of smart growth

The term “smart growth” has been around now for several decades. Kaid Banfield argues that the term needs some updating to include more recent concerns. After listing the principles from The Smart Growth Network, Banfield suggests a few things should be added:

Notice anything missing in those principles?  I do.  There’s nothing explicit about equity, health, food, water, access to jobs, parks, energy, green technology, and more – many of the things that have come to the forefront of community and environmental interests in 2010 were simply not on our minds in the 1990s or, if they were, not to nearly the same degree.  If we want to stay relevant, and honest and true to the issues that confront us and the people we represent, we need to do some updating…

[T]oday we confront a very different set of trends than we did in the 1990s.  In fact, I would say that we have made so much progress on these things – with market forces on our side, now, too – that we who like to think of ourselves as “progressive” risk being anything but, if we don’t turn some attention to the issues that have emerged in the 21st century.

My quick thought about these suggestions as a whole is that they are a call for making more explicit the goals or aims of the smart growth movement. If you look at the original principles, such as “Mix land uses,” it is not immediately clear why one should pursue this. But if a later principle then stated goals about equity or preserving the environment, the link between practice and intentions (and how they would affect the lives of people) would be more explicit.

It would be interesting to trace how some of Banfield’s suggestions, like equity, have developed over time. What is the narrative among planners and thinkers over time regarding how to make sure there are “communities of fairness and opportunity?” How does a narrative like this resonate with Americans?

h/t The Infrastructurist

Gallery of 2010 Smart Growth award winners

“Smart growth” is a popular term. It typically implies an antidote to sprawl and a quest to construct or design more people-oriented, mixed-use, and sustainable places. Here is a gallery of images that show the winners of the EPA’s 2010 Smart Growth Achievement award. Read more about the award winners (and see some more pictures) in the EPA’s explanation of the award and the winners.

These look like attractive places. One of the projects was described as “an outdoor public living room” while a number of the other projects reduced the barrier between people and streets.

It is interesting to note that these winners were all in large cities (New York City, Baltimore, Portland, San Francisco) or in small towns (a corridor of Maine communities). Were there any suburban places in the running for this award?

h/t The Infrastructurist

The rise of “smart growth”

Reuters reports on “smart growth” initiatives across the United States with Rockville, Maryland as a prime example. With a weakened economy, more buyers seem to prefer locations closer to downtowns where they can walk, more easily access amenities, and avoid some of the pitfalls of suburban sprawl.

From the article:

Rockville’s renaissance over the past four years shows how the shift toward urban-style living has reached the suburbs. And urban planners insist the trend has legs.

Dubbed “smart growth,” the movement favors the development of a mix of housing and businesses in and near existing cities. At the same time, it discourages the Topsy-like growth of peripheral suburbs, known disparagingly as “sprawl.”

“Sprawl” is a term commonly used to describe the suburbs. It implies automobile dependence, spread out houses, strip malls, big box stores, and a lack of open space. In contrast, “smart growth” offers something different: more dense development, mixed-use development, more thought-through development principles, and a lessened reliance on automobiles.

More suburban communities seem to desire “smart growth,” particularly to help revive their downtowns. This translates into certain development goals: building around existing transportation facilities (like railroads), constructing condos and more dense residential units, and seeking to attract dining, retail, and entertainment uses that can expand a downtown from just a place to errands in during the day.

h/t The Infrastructurist