Introduction to the Smart Growth Series

March 24, 2005

SUMMARY:  This article describes the goals and general principles of smart growth as compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency. Because of the difficulty of implementing these principles in practice, particularly in an existing suburban community, attempts at smart growth may well produce something that is not smart at all. Instead, it turns into an effort to urbanize the suburbs. I've written a series of articles about smart growth, and they are summarized below.

Who could be against smart growth? It sounds like such a good idea. You certainly wouldn't want to be in favor of dumb growth. No growth at all might have some advocates, but it sounds stultifying, stuck in the past, not-in-my-back-yard-ish. And smart growth can easily subsume slow growth and balanced growth, so what's not to like about it?

The problem, of course, is that the devil is in the details. While the few main principles that have been articulated for smart growth sound unobjectionable, when they are implemented, the results may be just the opposite of what the people who will have to live with that growth actually want. In this series of articles, I'm going to examine how the theory of smart growth can and does go wrong in practice. I hope in this way you'll be able to make better decisions about how, or whether, "smart growth" should occur in your community.

What is smart growth?

There are a number of web sites that advocate smart growth. One of the best for pulling together the principles of smart growth is the site of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at Of course, you wouldn't know it from the links on EPA's home page, or even their overall index, neither of which mention smart growth. Do a search from the search block.

Let's start with the fact sheet "What Is Smart Growth?" Here's how it begins:

Smart growth is development that serves the economy, the community, and the environment. It changes the terms of the development debate away from the traditional growth/no growth question to "how and where should new development be accommodated?" Smart growth is development that simultaneously achieves:

Perhaps that all sounds pretty good to you, or perhaps you're already seeing how it might lead us astray in some circumstances. Let's move on to a somewhat more concrete elaboration of smart growth principles from the same fact sheet:

The EPA offers two lengthy publications which are well worth reading:

Getting to Smart Growth: 100 Policies for Implementation
Getting to Smart Growth II: 100 More Policies for Implementation

The Smart Growth Series

In the following series of articles, I'm going to focus on smart growth in existing suburbs. How can we apply its principles, and when should we discard them in favor of doing something (or nothing) else?

The first thing we need to address is why suburbs grew up as they did, and why people, especially families, chose to move to them—and why people are still choosing to move to them today. If there are specific, concrete things about the suburbs that people greatly desire, an advocate of smart growth must either accommodate those desires or impose any conflicting principles on current suburban residents and prevent future residents from getting what they want. I discuss that in the first article, "The Difference Between Cities and Suburbs". If you believe that people don't know what's in their best interest, and therefore planners must decide for them, stop reading right here. You won't like the series at all.

Next, I'll examine the idea of walkable communities to determine how practical this really is in the article "Walkable Communities:  Can You Get There from Here?". I'll argue that some of the things that smart growth advocates propose just aren't practical, or at least they aren't practical without transforming the suburb into something else entirely.

Then, in "Fiscal Realities of High Density Development," I'll take a look at why the low density suburban model makes sense, and why, when you try to increase the density, you create problems in terms of raising enough tax revenue to pay for the services that density requires.

After that, I'll go back to the principles listed above and review the possible problems with them in the article "A Critique of Smart Growth."

Finally, since it's not fair to critique without offering an alternative, I'll suggest some ideas about how I believe suburbs should develop.

I wrote this series because you so often hear smart growth offered as the solution to our problems. Smart growth principles purport to tell us how to fix the decaying inner cities and the sprawling suburbs while protecting our pristine rural open areas. It sounds so simple. But nothing is ever that simple. When it comes to the suburbs, smart growth is often used (or misused) as part of an attempt to urbanize those suburbs, eliminating many of the things for which people have always moved to a suburb. I hope this series will be helpful to you as you wrestle with how we might improve the quality of life in the suburbs.

This article can be found at
Go to the next article, "The Difference Between Cities and Suburbs"

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