A Critique of Smart Growth

April 23, 2005

SUMMARY:  The principles of smart growth and the measures used to implement them are thought-provoking and often useful. However, most of these principles and measures seem intended to be implemented in a decaying and blighted urban environment. Applying them to a healthy and vibrant suburb would force the suburb into high-density high-rise residential growth, exactly what most people moved to the suburbs to avoid. And the current development decision process seems strongly weighted against opponents of this type of growth in the suburbs. When smart growth advocates align with developers to support their projects, you know the smart growth train is really off the track.

The principles of smart growth and the measures for their implementation offer some useful and interesting reading. Two of the best sources come from the EPA in the form of primers containing examples and case studies. They are "Getting to Smart Growth: 100 Policies for Implementation" and "Getting to Smart Growth II: 100 More Policies for Implementation". When cited in the text below, they are referenced by the numbers (1) and (2) respectively. I recommend that you take a look at them. There are some wonderful ideas to be found there.

However, be sure to keep one thing in mind as you read those documents. Many of the measures those publications offer were meant to apply primarily to urban areas, and decaying ones at that. Some of the measures proposed would actually lower residential density and provide needed retail in blighted urban neighborhoods. They were also designed to apply to decayed and blighted suburbs. When you attempt to apply these measures to healthy, vibrant suburbs, on the other hand, you may get vastly different results. That is the subject of the critique of smart growth that appears below.

Finally, take a look at some of the pictures of smart growth development that appear in both publications. Ask yourself if you would want to live there. Would you want those developments anywhere near your house? Pay particular attention to the photo at the start of Chapter 3 in the first volume. It's of a forlorn little 1950s ranch house in the shadow of the most hideous unadorned concrete apartment building that ever Le Corbusier could have imagined. This photo was intended to be the poster child for "a range of housing opportunities and choices."

Here, then, are my thoughts about smart growth principles and measures as some would have us apply them to our suburban neighborhoods. The numbering of the principles reflects their order in the EPA publications.

Principle 1:  Mix land uses

The first smart growth land use principle is the intermixing of residential, retail, and office uses in close proximity to each other. The intent is that people will be able to live, shop, and work in a smaller area.

Redevelopment of a property rarely occurs in a vacuum; there is existing development around that property. For this principle to make sense, then, one can't just consider the specific project that a developer proposes. It's easy to mix uses on that one site. What is important is how that project impacts the neighborhood as a whole. Will the project contribute to a better mix of uses, or will it just provide more of the same at a higher density?

In the suburbs, the existing development is usually a mix of residential and retail uses. If the developer were to develop a commercial office property in the vicinity, the community would get the mix of uses this principle advocates. Because office properties are net revenue gainers for localities, local government could either reduce the tax burden on the homeowners or increase the services local government provides. And office properties are usually deserted on the weekends and on week nights, making them far less disruptive to local residents than retail which stays open long after young children are in bed. This application of the mixed uses principle would therefore be very beneficial. Comprehensive plans are designed to do just this—look at what is already in place and provide the opportunity for what is needed and wanted in the future.

However, Fairfax County seems to be trying a site-specific approach with its PRM (Planned Residential, Mixed-Use) zoning, which allows very high residential high-rise density combined with office and retail space. Although such zoning was intended for areas around rail stations or other transportation hubs, it is permitted anywhere in the County. What has primarily been offered by the developers is the high-density residential with a small amount of retail and commercial space as a concession to the smart growth people. Why the emphasis on residential development, other than the current overheated housing market?

The developers know that the retail stores they attract will be convenient for the residents of the development, but there won't be enough residents to make the businesses there a commercial success. Therefore, if the community as a whole is under-served by retail (as you might find in some urban settings), the retail in the new development may become a destination of choice for the entire community (and most of those people will drive to it, causing traffic and parking problems). If the area is already well served by retail, the retail in the new development will likely fail to the extent that it can't take business away from its already-existing competitors in the much wider community. As a result, developers tend to minimize retail development in these projects; they know they will struggle to keep it leased, probably losing money on it, but it's the price they pay to be allowed to build the highly profitable residential component.

Commercial development in these projects is likewise problematical for the developers. They aren't in the business of leasing properties. They want to build, sell, and be gone. As a result, their proposed solution is office condominiums which they can sell and be done with. One wonders how many doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, architects, tax-preparers, and other potential users of such condos might be looking for space, but let's look at the developers' plans. Again, developers resist committing more space to this use than they absolutely have to. And it's highly unlikely that many of these professionals will want to live in the residential condos instead of single-family houses, making the smart growth advocate's dreams of residents walking to work to their office condo just that, dreams.

What will happen, of course, is that these highly dense almost-all-residential high-rise developments will change the character of the neighborhood and be a fiscal burden to the local government.

A variant of this can be found in the currently popular advocacy of conversion of strip malls to mixed use development as embodied by the measure of creating "opportunities to retrofit single-use commercial and retail developments into walkable, mixed-use communities." (1) Many of the objections to such strip shopping centers on the part of smart growthers stem from the fact that this shopping is only accessible to shoppers coming by car, and that there must be lots of paved parking as a consequence. Unfortunately, as I've demonstrated in the walkable communities article cited above, for most purchases people want to make in person, there's no way around this. They aren't going to take the bus or ride a bike to Home Depot for a sheet of plywood.

It's also worth noting that a well designed strip shopping center with the right mix of stores and sufficient sidewalks to provide access to all them will be very popular with the community and can allow shoppers coming by car to consolidate errands. Shoppers could drive to one spot, drop off dry cleaning, walk to the office supply store, get lunch or a cup of coffee, shop for clothes, and buy groceries, instead of having to drive to a separate location for each of these. There is nothing about a strip shopping center that inherently violates smart growth principles.

Converting such shopping centers is certainly viable and worthwhile in a decayed and blighted urban neighborhood. However, in a healthy neighborhood, strip shopping centers will be profitable unless the individual stores are badly managed (think K-Mart). Even then, the property owner knows that the real estate itself is worth a lot of money to other retailers. Developers who want to convert such properties to mixed use will have to build at a very high density to make their purchase pay. And, as discussed above, it's not clear that such development will benefit the surrounding communities.

Principle 8:  Provide a range of transportation options

This principle is a response to the existing traffic congestion and envisions the implementation of such measures as:  "increasing the availability of high quality transit service; creating redundancy, resiliency and connectivity within [the] transportation networks; and ensuring connectivity between pedestrian, bike, transit, and road facilities."

For this principle to actually relieve congestion rather than contribute to it, the public transit service must be added to an unserved or under-served area, or it must have a large amount of unused capacity. If this is the case, some number of commuters will switch from their cars to the public transit, especially if it is made convenient to do so or if they are provided with some other incentives. If, however, the public transit already exists and is at or close to capacity, it will be unable to accommodate many new riders. As a result, any new construction will overwhelm the public transit system and put even more cars into the already existing congestion on the highways.

Unfortunately, this last scenario is exactly what Fairfax County's proposed "transit oriented growth" will do. The idea is to build high density mixed use around existing Metro stations and encourage residents, shoppers, and workers to use Metro. To ensure Metro use will actually take place, the County plans to require the developer to provide incentives to residents and workers to use Metro and disincentives to travel by car. Even using the County's wildly optimistic assumptions about 50% of the new trips being on Metro, that means the other 50% will be new trips on already heavily congested roads. As a result, things will get worse BOTH on Metro and on the roads. And, paradoxically, we will be violating the principle of providing a range of transportation options, since we are attempting to narrow the range to Metro only.

Principle 3:  Create a range of housing opportunities and choices

This is an excellent principle, but one very badly applied to the suburbs by the smart growth advocates. As I've written in "The Difference Between Cities and Suburbs," people move to the suburbs to have a single family house with a yard. Yet in none of the proposals advocated by smart growthers will you find evidence of support for three or four houses to the acre, typical densities for suburban development. That's sprawl, and is A VERY BAD THING. Even townhomes at eight or twelve to the acre are pretty much beyond the pale. The choice being offered, it seems, is between a condo with one bedroom and a condo with two. Or a condo on the fifth floor versus one on the ninth floor. And this fits into another smart growth principle. . .

Principle 6:  Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas

This is inherently a great idea. However, in the hands of many smart growth advocates, it means that any population growth must be accommodated by forcing people to live in ever more densely packed suburbs to keep them from moving farther out (to the so-called edge communities). In the case of our own Fairfax County, that means that we should endure much higher densities (and probably much worse traffic) so as not to disturb the bucolic life of the horse farmers in Middleburg.

What this idea fails to comprehend is that when you change the suburbs to the extent that is being proposed, it drives suburbanites further out to the edge communities to preserve the lifestyle that they moved to the suburbs for in the first place. Because the suburban properties are being bid up in price by developers who will redevelop them at a higher density, the close-in homeowner will reap a bonanza for selling and moving further out. Often the homeowner will be able to acquire a much bigger house, and are often to put up with a longer commute to get it. Thus "smart growth" is providing perverse incentives to develop open space, turn farmland into houses, and hide natural beauty behind the silhouettes of more and more homes.

And ask yourself if the one-eighth acre tot lot that the high density developer puts up is really the equivalent of a back yard?

Principle 5:  Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a sense of place

This comes from the conceit of urban dwellers who, although they don't know their neighbors in the next apartment, believe that there is no sense of place in the suburbs. Here's a wonderful quote from Roger K. Lewis in the Washington Post (March 5, 2005, page F5):

The Post published a story recently about Northern Virginia suburbanites taking the initiative and working to create a strong sense of community within their far-flung subdivisions. This is a newsworthy achievement because a common critique of suburban sprawl is that any sense of community, either socially or physically, can be lacking.

My own little "subdivision," (we suburbanites call these "neighborhoods" or "communities") formed its voluntary citizens association on September 16, 1952, a year after the first house was built and four years before the community was essentially complete. The association and its traditions still exist today. In the early days when the neighborhood consisted of young couples, most of the 840 families knew each other through their children and their children's sports and school activities. The community newsletter has been published continuously by volunteers, with a six year interruption, since 1953—and the community has almost all the back issues. In 1999, the community put up its web site. Officers of the citizens association participate in wider groups, committees, and meetings throughout the district and the county and keep the community informed. We still hear from former residents who have discovered our web site. No sense of place?

We can argue attractive and distinctive all day long. But take a walk through a well-kept suburban neighborhood with its diversity of lawns, gardens, trees, and shrubs and compare that to the astringent landscape design of a high-density community, what little of the landscape there is.

Principle 10:  Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions

Sadly, this principle is mostly honored in the breach. Developers are expert in the land use planning and zoning process. Sometimes they are abetted by public officials who see their interests in alignment with these large political donors. Where land use citizen advisory groups exist, they may be captured by special interests, or most of the members may live far enough away from the potential development that they don't care much about its impact on the neighboring communities. The deck is often stacked against opponents of the proposed development or of growth in general.

What mostly happens is that a developer will suggest to a community the much worse alternatives to his development that would otherwise occur. The developer makes some concessions, and offers a pittance (compared to his profit) for some amenities for the community (community signs, park improvements, etc.). Consultants are brought in to say that the traffic/schools/environment will all be better off after the development, at least in contrast to the bad alternatives. The developer promises that the condos/townhomes will all be high-end, and that the retail tenants will be high-end as well, at least to the extent that he can find some. The community, which is flattered by the attention, feels it has been listened to, and having no experience negotiating proffers is happy with what it has obtained. Listen for the phrase, "We did the best we could."

Voices in the community who ask why the land couldn't be built at a low density, or turned into a park or athletic field, are ignored. If they complain about traffic, their innate knowledge of their neighborhood is unfavorably compared to the expertise of the consultants (who are often from out of town). Sometimes, someone who purports to be an expert on smart growth is brought in to explain how the development really is smart growth, even if it only adheres to a principle or two and violates more. Finally, the nay sayers are reminded that either the community or the region as a whole is heading down hill and desperately needs this growth, or in a different circumstance, that growth is inevitable, coming on like a rushing train, and must be accommodated smartly with this development and its ilk. Or sometimes both at the same time.


Smart growth is supposed to be about improving neighborhoods and the quality of life. Somehow many of the smart growth advocates have lost their way here. If a development adheres to some of the smart growth principles, or claims to, they support that development, even if it spoils an older neighborhood and turns an already bad traffic situation into a nightmare. For them, open space is a good thing at the edges of suburbia and beyond, but open space in the form of parks, athletic fields, and even front and back yards within suburbia is a bad thing, at least in comparison to a high-density high-rise smart growth development.

Are the suburbs like that village in Vietnam that needed to be destroyed so that it could be saved? It's clear that for some, smart growth is only the means to an end—stamping out "dependence on the automobile." Because the growth of the suburbs was only possible with the freedom offered by the automobile, the suburbs appear to be expendable, a necessary sacrifice in a holy war.

That's really a shame, because the principles and measures of smart growth are truly worth discussing in terms of how they can make our neighborhoods better places to live. But when it's assumed dogmatically that each principle and measure applies everywhere all the time, those principles will do more harm than good. Smart growth advocates should serve as a counterweight to developers, not as facilitators or cheerleaders. When developers tell you that their high-density high-rise project is smart growth, you know the smart growth train is seriously off the track.

In my final article, I'll outline my vision for the suburbs.

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