Are Smart Growth Ideas Still Ahead of Their Time?

By Dom Nozzi

I sometimes get a bit depressed about the fact that many of the walkable, compact, mixed-use planning strategies were being discussed at least 30 years ago.

It would be easy for people to learn that many of the “new” Smart Growth tactics are actually quite old, and just sadly conclude that it is naïve to think such ideas can ever become reality.

However, I believe it is important to keep in mind that, as scientists and engineers know (or should know), the underlying conditions (political, environmental, technological, economic, etc.) are much more critical and influential than “good ideas.” “Good ideas” don’t just magically become adopted because they are good ideas. In other words, lack of good ideas is not our problem (usually). We have plenty of good ideas to save ourselves. But we need to be patient with our ideas and wait for conditions to be ripe.

A couple of examples: Galileo invented the good idea of helicopters, but the idea was not implemented until the underlying conditions were ripe. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony came up with great ideas about equal rights for women at the turn of the century, but the conditions did not become “ripe” until the 1960s.

We have plenty of good ideas about reining in sprawl or creating compact cities or reforming transportation and land use, but many will not be implemented until the conditions for them are ripe. As a result, one of the most important tasks of those seeking to improve our communities — in both the public and private sector – is to modify underlying conditions so that we accelerate the ripening process. That is largely why I’ve always championed things like user fees, congestion fees, and model traditional developments.

By deciding, democratically, to do these incremental things, we can change underlying conditions that allow people to more easily see the need for positive change. Another way of putting it is that an important role for us in the public sector is to, as economists would put it, “internalize externalities”

For example, instead of having a company increase its profits by emitting polluting emissions from their drain pipe into a river – a form of externality – we charge the company a fee which is high enough to compensate for pollution so that the community will have more money to clean up the pollution. By charging this water pollution fee, we internalize the cost so that the emitting company pays for the pollution to be cleaned up, rather than the overall community (similarly, gas taxes partly internalize the externalities of driving a car so that the motorist pays more for their negative impacts to the community while driving).

After all, the better we internalize such costs, the better capitalism works the way Adam Smith thought it would work. That is because according to Smith, we need all the relevant information before we are able to make rational decisions in the marketplace.

I’ve always lived by the rule that I am a pessimist of the intellect, but an optimist of the will. Our situation as a society seems hopeless in many ways, but giving up is not an option. Persistence pays off. Overall, I’m hopeful because I think we are on the verge of turning things around in various ways (particularly with transportation and land use reform) to the point where positive changes are self-driven, rather than being forced on us by regulations.


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]

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1 Comment

Filed under Economics, Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

One response to “Are Smart Growth Ideas Still Ahead of Their Time?

  1. This specific article Are Smart Growth Ideas Still Ahead of Their Time?
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