By Dom Nozzi
Smart growth (according to Wikipedia) is a concept and term used by those who seek to identify a set of policies governing transportation and land use planning policy for urban areas that benefits communities and preserves the natural environment. Smart growth advocates land use patterns that are compact, transit-oriented, walkable, bicycle-friendly, and include mixed-use development with a range of housing choices. This philosophy keeps density concentrated in the center of a town or city, combating suburban sprawl.
Proponents of smart growth advocate comprehensive planning to guide, design, develop, revitalize and build communities that: have a unique sense of community and place; preserve and enhance natural and cultural resources; equitably distribute the costs and benefits of development; expand the range of transportation, employment and housing choices; value long-range, regional considerations of sustainability over a short-term focus; and promote public health and healthy communities.
Are Local Governments the Champions of Smart Growth?
The conventional wisdom holds that developers in the private sector, left to their own devices, will resist or be otherwise unaware of the smart growth objectives of a community. That local government and its land development regulations are necessary to ensure that developers engage in developments that deliver smart growth.
It is expected that democratically-elected local governments would champion smart growth, as opinion polls consistently show large majorities who are opposed to suburban sprawl, and one would expect that local government representatives would “carry out the will of the people.”
However, while majorities pay lip service to opposing sprawl, surveys also show that nearly all of the tactics necessary to effectively slow sprawl are also opposed. More and more, “not in my backyard” (NIMBYs) neighborhood activists attend public meetings to fight against smart growth tactics.
How can this be?
Simply put, a number of factors in our world have come together to create an environment in which we have become our own worst enemies—unintentionally working against our own interests.
For example, the emergence of the car, as a form of travel, has been coupled over the past century with exceptionally low-cost oil necessary to power this form of travel. This enabled a population flight from the “dirty and dangerous” city into the “clean and safe” suburbs. Home mortgages and enormous road widening campaigns further promoted an escape from the city. Free and abundant auto parking was not only provided but required for new developments as a way to accommodate a population that was now traveling by car.
Unfortunately, the car carries with it some tragic consequences.
First, creating a world that over-emphasizes car travel inevitably results in a growing inability to travel by foot, by bicycle or by transit. Economists call this the “barrier effect.”
Because the barrier effect continuously recruits new motorists who were formerly walking, bicycling or using transit, a growing percentage of the population travels by car.
The distorted market (subsidized gas, roads and parking) combines with a growing number of motorists (many of which have been created by the barrier effect) to create an enormous and ever-growing number of vocal, aggressive advocates for community design which promotes car travel.
This state of affairs could perhaps be tolerable except for one simple fact: The interests, needs and values of people are nearly the opposite of the needs of cars. Cars work best when roads are wide and high-speed. When parking lots are endless in size and easy to find. When building setbacks are large. When there are only a tiny number of other cars on the road. People, on the other hand, largely seek the reverse. The human habitat is most desirable when roads are narrow in size and slow in speed. When parking lots are small and hidden away. When building setbacks are modest. And as a gregarious species by nature, humans enjoy the sociability of congregations of people in our travels.
The tragic dilemma, then, is that as people are increasingly finding themselves compelled to travel by car, they increasingly find themselves obligated, unintentionally, to request community design that works against their own quality of life.
In the end, the decline in civic pride and sociability that comes from car travel advocacy leads to a “cocooning” tendency in which people increasingly turn inward. People turn away from the public realm. Houses and commercial buildings pull themselves away from hostile, raceway roads and turn their backs to it. The public realm declines in quality as it is increasingly neglected and held at arms length.
Instead, quality of life is to be achieved by creating a luxurious private realm. The insides of our SUVs, the insides of our commercial buildings, and the insides of our suburban homes become palatial. Outside, our streets, sidewalks and squares become ignored, unkempt “no man’s lands” where only a tiny number (of those without the money to own a car) are found.
What follows is a list of common regulatory strategies that most communities use to block smart growth efforts proposed by developers and promote car travel.
- FAR (floor area ratio) limits in areas intended to be walkable. The higher the percentage of floor area for a given parcel of land, the more compact and walkable the design can be. Therefore, setting FAR limits tends to inhibit walkability.
- Maximum residential densities in areas intended to be walkable. Higher densities promote walking and vibrant sociability, discourage excessive car travel, reduce energy consumption, improve the health of small- and neighborhood-based shops, increase citizen surveillance, promote independence of travel for seniors and children, and promote affordable housing. Therefore, setting density limits in areas intended to be walkable tends to inhibit walkability.
- Environmental regulations that are not relaxed in-town. Strict in-town environmental regulations (where the environment tends to be relatively degraded anyway) add another layer of discouraging costs for in-town development and redevelopment. Such infill is already disadvantaged by enormous public subsidies promoting sprawl (mostly road and parking). In addition, the habitat for wildlife tends to be incompatible with the habitat for humans (spaces tend to be too large to walk through, nuisances such as insects, unkempt vegetation and water tend to be extreme, etc.).
- Mixed use limits (and overall employment of use-based instead of form-based coding, the latter of which increases predictability and therefore infill investment). Mixed-use promotes transportation choice, affordable housing, sidewalk vibrancy, citizen surveillance, reduction in excessive car travel, and improved business climate (less need for costly rezonings). Most communities prohibit residences in commercial areas and commercial in residential areas.
- Minimum parking requirements. Such requirements create an excessive amount of free, unwalkable, unpleasant, unsafe seas of asphalt. Such car storage areas deaden the financial and social vibrancy of an area. They encourage excessive car use and discourage transportation choice. They enable long-distance travel by car. They increase the cost of goods and services (because parking is not free for businesses which must provide it). They make housing less affordable.
- Minimum lot size. Such a regulation makes housing less affordable. It creates a less compact, less walkable design. It therefore tends to reduce transportation choice.
- Minimum lot width. Like minimum lot size, such a regulation makes housing less affordable. It creates a less compact, less walkable design. It therefore tends to reduce transportation choice. It also tends to reduce sidewalk vibrancy.
- Large and required building setbacks. Such a regulation makes development less walkable, thereby reducing transportation choice. It reduces housing affordability. The public realm is degraded as a human-scaled sense of enclosure (through the creation of “outdoor rooms”) is extinguished.
- Minimum public school playing field size. This requirement chases a large number of neighborhood-based, walkable public schools from in-town, walkable neighborhoods, since such neighborhoods tend not to have the space to accommodate such large school sites. Such a requirement also discourages the retrofitting of walkable, neighborhood-based schools into existing neighborhoods.
- Large stormwater basin requirements (and allowing basins to abut the street). This requirement frequently creates unwalkable site development design. The public realm is degraded as a human-scaled sense of enclosure is less possible.
- Allowing parking lots in front of buildings and at intersections. This requirement frequently creates unwalkable site development design. The public realm is degraded as a human-scaled sense of enclosure is less possible. (This issue pertains to a lack of a regulation.)
- Prohibition on awnings, canopies, colonnades, cafes in ROW. This makes the character-rich, romantic, walkable, weather-sheltering traditional design of storefronts illegal.
- Large vision triangle and huge turning radius. Tends to increase the turning speed of motor vehicles and reduces the attentiveness of drivers. Tends to increase crossing distance exposure of pedestrians across street intersections. Tends to reduce the likelihood of a human-scaled sense of enclosure.
- ADUs often not allowed. Accessory Dwelling Units (often called “granny flats”) are an easy way to create affordable housing and higher neighborhood densities, as well as improving household and neighborhood security.
- Property tax based on building value rather than based only on land value. This tax system, used in nearly all American communities, financially penalizes development, redevelopment, infill and intensification of in-town properties, which promotes sprawl, reduces in-town vibrancy and retail health, reduces local government tax revenue, and strongly incentivizes the speculative holding of property in low-value uses such as surface parking.
- Limiting the number of “families” (particularly in single-family residential zoning). This regulation is designed to indirectly control problems associated with too many cars (spillover parking, etc.). By limiting the number of families, we inhibit smart density increases and make affordable housing less likely.
- Applying “One Size Fits All” Building Codes to Downtown. Nearly all communities have a building code that applies citywide. Often, as a result, property owners find that it is not cost-feasible to rehabilitate older, dilapidated buildings downtown because it is too costly to meet code requirements that would require, for example, hallways or doors to be widened for fire safety. Therefore, to incentivize the re-use of existing buildings, the State of New Jersey has adopted a “Rehabilitation Code.” The code resulted in a substantial increase in the amount of rehabilitation work in New Jersey urban areas during the first year the code was in place. The code relaxes certain requirements without compromising safety. Overall, the argument could be made that because of the successful rehabilitation of New Jersey urban buildings, public safety has improved. (Healthier downtowns means less suburban motor vehicle travel, and the rehabbed buildings are often or always safer than in their previous state—even if they are not built to the statewide code for new buildings.)
- Use-Based vs. Form-Based Codes. Most land development codes are focused on separating uses, ensuring that “sufficient” car parking is provided, that citizens are dependent on car travel because destinations are so far away, and reactively specifying what is not allowed (rather than proactively describing a community vision of what is preferred). Very few, if any, of the regulations indicate what should be built. In addition, the quality of the public realm tends to be ignored (unless it is to provide a nice view for the passing motorist).
- Wide travel lanes for roads. Tends to increase the speed of motor vehicles and reduces the attentiveness of drivers. Tends to increase crossing distance exposure of pedestrians across street intersections.
- Resistance to “spot” zoning. Nearly all community planners and elected officials have a policy that dates back to the beginning of zoning regulations from the early part of the 20th century. Known as “spot” zoning, this strongly discouraged change in the use of land constitutes, usually, a proposal to change the zoning designation from residential use to commercial use on a piece of property that is surrounded by other properties zoned for residential. In the anachronistic interest of “segregating” dissimilar uses of land from each other, the underlying premise is that a rezoning is not appropriate when the proposed new zoning is unlike any zoning for adjacent property. Again, the idea harkens back a century ago when it was deemed important to separate noxious industrial activities from residential properties. Today, most of the opposition to “spot” zoning is based on a desire to minimize the nuisance of excessive car trips drawn by an isolated office or shop to surrounding residences—an important concern in an auto-dependent society. Ironically, resistance to “spot” zoning (often specifically prohibited in the community long-range plan) leads to a growth in per capita car travel, since such efforts squelch changes that would introduce neighborhood-based shops and offices that could be walked or bicycled to.
- Road concurrency (and exceptions without meaningful design requirements). This rule strongly promotes suburban sprawl and suboptimizes the needs of cars over the needs of people and community. Most communities require that new development in urban areas not “degrade” free-flowing traffic conditions on nearby roads or otherwise create congested conditions. Because cars consume so much space, striving for free-flow results in the requirement that either enormous, unsafe and unwalkable roads be built, that density or intensity be kept as low as possible, or both. (Only a tiny number of people are necessary to congest a road, given the large size of cars. Striving for “tiny number” densities deadens an area and makes lively urbanism impossible.)
For nearly every planner, every elected official, and every citizen, when a new development is proposed, the overwhelming question (and often the only important one) is this: “Can the roads serving this new development handle the car trips that will be generated by the new development?” Regularly, the answer is “no.” Three “solutions” are generally suggested, both of which are deadly for city-building: (1) require the roads to be widened, at great expense to the developer, the local government, or both; (2) require a substantial reduction in the density or intensity of the project (which promotes low-density sprawl); or if neither of these is feasible, (3) deny the development permission to build. The first “solution” takes precious dollars away from much-needed community services and facilities. It also degrades the community quality of life because wider roads inevitably harms the human habitat. Cars become faster, louder, more dangerous and more necessary. The second and third “solutions” take away from the health of the city, as healthy cities require agglomeration economies. That is, a city is stronger and more fit as it adds more people and activities within a compact, diverse space. And denying projects on the basis of “insufficient” road capacity works at cross-purposes with the essential need of a city to strive for agglomeration. Life-giving energy and vitality are denied when a development is stopped due to insufficient road capacity. Conversely, over-sized roads diverts energy and vitality to outlying areas. In effect, then, contemporary local government planners are single-mindedly and ironically obsessed with a quest to strangle the life-blood out of a community.
Some communities in Florida grant exceptions to the statewide requirement that new development maintain free-flow conditions, but such communities generally do not require meaningful urbanism in exchange for the exception.
Each of these 20 items share at least one characteristic in common: they all profoundly and systematically degrade the public realm—the streets, the sidewalks, the public square, and other spaces where citizens have an opportunity to interact, and where the character and vibrancy of a community is perceived.
An overriding desire in an auto-dependent society is that new development should minimize the number of cars that would congest our roads and take up our parking spaces. This largely means that new development must either be stopped, or its density minimized (to reduce the number of cars that will hog our roads and parking lots). And unlike in the past, when this opposition came mostly from environmentalists, this form of anti-city advocacy now comes from all groups: Not just “Greens,” but also Republicans, Democrats, business owners, liberals, conservatives, the Chamber of Commerce, and even libertarians.
Increasingly, it is the private developer who most often leads the way in proposing smart growth developments, and must frequently face a barrage of time-consuming, costly and often fatal obstacles, such as those above. Rather than “evil” developers, all too often the most serious barrier to smart growth are obstacles, such as those listed above, put in place by local governments still counterproductively trapped in the auto age.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
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