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"Smart Growth" - Why Now?

Signs of central and inner area revitalization are now emerging in many large US cities, including New York, Boston, Denver, Philadelphia, Seattle, and San Francisco. Why is “smart growth” happening now?

First, “if you build it they will come,” appears to hold true with transportation infrastructure: cities that build freeways will sprawl; cities that emphasize transit will not. European cities have mostly abandoned large road building and have used rail transit to focus development and encourage revitalization. The US ISTEA legislation is shifting priorities away from freeways to transit as it favors more local planning solutions.

Second, one of the underlying dynamics for sprawl, the need for large expanses of land to create jobs in manufacturing, is no longer present. Jobs, especially the high paying jobs, are mostly being created in information-related services. Rather than favoring scattered development, the information-based city needs intensive areas where people can meet to share their expertise, to plan and develop their projects. Electronic communication supplements face-to-face contact; it does not replace it.

Third, over several hundred years, cities worldwide have tended to develop based on a half-hour average journey to work. Motor vehicles and freeways have taken sprawl about as far as it can go in most large auto-based cities. Sprawl seems to have reached its political as well as its environmental limits.

Fourth, cities that prioritize freeways and sprawl spend a much higher proportion of their wealth on transportation –12 to 16 percent of gross regional product, compared to 4 to 8 percent spent by cities that prioritize transit and more compact development. “Smart growth” is smart economics.

Cities justify “smart growth” for many reasons – reducing greenhouse gases, facilitating the new economy, saving landscapes – but common to all is the desire to rebuild community. Those cities we have studied where “smart growth” is being implemented have responded to the visions of their civil society for more community. “Smart growth” is a grassroots movement.

– PETER NEWMAN

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