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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

An open letter to the smart growth community

Kaid Benfield

Posted October 22, 2008

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There is no way we should be settling for, or applauding, this . . .

transit-oriented in Virginia (by: Rob Goodspeed, creative commons license) above Metro in Arlington, VA (by: EPA Smart Growth)

When we should be advocating this:

Vancouver, BC (by: NNECAPA, creative commons license)green transit on the Atlanta Beltline (courtesy of Atlanta Beltline)

It is time to take smart growth advocacy beyond "smart growth" as we have been defining it.  In short, we should be doing more for the environment.  And we should be doing more for the social health of our neighborhoods, too.

I am proud to have been at the center of the national smart growth movement since its beginning.  But I believe it is time for advocates and practitioners to embrace a broader, more holistic vision of what smart, sustainable development should be in the 21st century. 

This will mean retaining, but also being more ambitious than, the largely "infill, compact development, and transit" agenda for smart growth that has served us very well so far.  rendering of Via Verde in the Bronx (courtesy of RoseCompanies)It will also mean reforming the broader environmental community's (yes, including my own group's) advocacy for watersheds, green technology, and cities to place those issues in a context that more explicitly embraces growth and urbanism.  The environment demands this of us, and so does our aspiration to teach and to lead.

This may seem a bit remote to those of us who are focused intensely on an immediate legislative agenda (e.g., the upcoming federal transportation bill or the wonderful recent achievement of California's SB375), a local community's comprehensive plan, or the latest proposed highway (or even LEED-ND, a fine program over whose criteria I have shed more personal blood than I wish).  But I believe that we must think not just about the menu in front of us but where we want to - and where we can - take our communities over the next generation and beyond.

Sprawl as we have known it may not be dead but it is surely not well, and we are already seeing the beginning of its end.  The smart growth movement can take a lot of credit for developing and pressing the more compact and transit-oriented development that will replace it.  This is wonderful; but it is not enough.  We should now begin developing a vision and a program of advocacy that looks beyond fighting sprawl and focuses not just on where, how much, and by what mode of travel, but also on what, and how.

Smart, sustainable development for the 21st century should include not just infill, density, and better transportation choices but also the following:

  • Green building (there is simply no excuse for not doing it at this point)
  • Urban green infrastructure, including neighborhood parks (that can help heal ecosystems while also making the densities we need for transportation efficiency more hospitable)
  • Inclusive urban revitalization, with equity, affordability and historic preservation (most US central cities and older suburbs have so much capacity for growth, if we do it right)
  • 3rd St Cottages, Langley, WA (courtesy of The Cottage Company)Walkable neighborhoods that facilitate fitness and health
  • Livable, human-scaled, place-based neighborhoods that create good ambassadors for our movement and that NIMBYs want rather than fight

Most of us, if asked, will say that we already support these things, and we do.  But we almost never advocate them as a whole.

We're all guilty of being too narrow.  Frankly, I think it is a disgrace that green building advocates have almost gleefully turned a blind eye to the locational consequences of building.  I was personally involved in an innovative housing partnership that has been remarkable in its accomplishment for green building and affordability, but that largely failed to embrace meaningful smart growth standards.  My very good friends in new urbanism can be inspirational and are the very best at placemaking, but can sometimes turn soft when it gets to location and green building.  Some of my colleagues in the environmental community still act parochially, as if growth and development will somehow disappear or become more benign if we chase it away from a place that occupies our attention, when in fact it is likely to find a place or a form that elicits less resistance but the prospect of even more environmental damage. 

But we in the smart growth movement, too, are at fault.  Much of what is being constructed, for example, in the name of transit-oriented development -- frequently with our applause -- does little for the environment other than transportation efficiency and is just plain ugly.  I don't blame NIMBYs for being resistant.  Yet we seldom push for models or incentives that ask for more. 

We are all, nearly every one of us, being too limited in our vision.

planned downtown, Greensburg, KS (by: BNIM Architects)We know that compact development patterns can reduce carbon emissions from transportation by 20-40 percent or even more if ideally located.  But, if Greensburg, Kansas can set a more ambitious goal of reducing its total carbon footprint by half through walkability and green technology, no environmentalist should aspire to less.  If my favorite developer can build project after project after project that includes not only great density and location but also green infrastructure, green building, and affordability, we should not advocate less.  I am not suggesting that the smart growth movement abandon or replace our current sprawl- and transportation-based advocacy.  But I am increasingly convinced that we must make our agenda more robust. 

What might this mean, you may legitimately ask?  To take the same examples of immediate advocacy I mentioned above, why shouldn't there be a sustainable communities title in the new transportation bill?  The research makes clear that inner-city revitalization and transit-oriented suburban development dramatically reduce automobile use and the need for new roads.  inclusive redevelopment in Old North St. Louis (courtesy of Old North Restoration Group)It would make perfect sense to develop a dedicated program to invest a portion of federal transportation funds not on transportation facilities per se but on attracting more development to these areas, conditioned on making the neighborhoods affordable, green, and mixed-use.  We could focus the benefits especially where there are currently vacant or underutilized properties, and require or provide bonuses for parks, green infrastructure, and inclusive planning that will attract residents and businesses to these locations that have been proven to reduce driving.

For the kind of metropolitan land-use planning that will be undertaken to reduce carbon emissions under SB 375 in California, or pursuant to comprehensive plans in municipalities, why not address not just where growth will occur, but also green building and infrastructure, parks, and affordability, in the same process?  Let's address a variety of issues at once, with the goal of reducing more emissions than would land planning alone while creating complete, cohesive, inclusive neighborhoods.  And, if you're fighting a sprawl-inducing highway or subdivision, don't just fight; propose the constructive alternative that meets the same needs without sprawl but in a greener, more appealing way.

These examples are just illustrative.  The key is to start advocating these elements together, in the same forums.  To close on a personal note, many of us who now work on smart growth were environmental advocates before we were smart growth advocates.  We must become that again.  And more.


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Alan CaronOct 22 2008 10:54 AM


I appreciate your thoughts, though I'm not sure they go far enough. Here in Maine we think of 'smart growth' as post-planning and post-land use, to even a greater extent than you outline. A few years ago we did a major report with Brookings called 'Charting Maine's Future', which focused on the need to build 'sustainable prosperity'. That concept, which integrates economic, environment, place, energy, climate, etc. into a more wholistic view, has been transformative, in our state. The report is widely considered the 'road map' for the state, from the Governor's office down.

The essential idea, there, is to focus on the efficient use of resources, in all dimensions. That includes not only land and existing infrastructure, but also public dollars, economic renewal resources, people, etc.

You might be interested in looking at this approach on our website at

Thanks for your good work.

Alan Caron
GrowSmart Maine

Susan Piedmont-PalladinoOct 22 2008 11:24 AM

As you know the Green Community exhibition, for which you provided such wonderful guidance, opens to the public tomorrow at the National Building Museum. I think it provides a kind of companion piece to your words here. Compact development and transit, including simple sidewalks, are required for admission to the green community; while necessary, they are not sufficient. Although it might seem counterintuitive at first, now, in the midst of this financial muck, is exactly the time to attend to our natural and built environments and the essential connections between them.

Susan Piedmont-Palladino
architect, professor and
curator, Green Community

Kaid @ NRDCOct 22 2008 01:50 PM

Alan, thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. Your work in Maine is impressive and, from what I read on your site, it looks like you recently had a great workshop on these subjects.

Susan, your work on the exhibition has been fabulous. The NBM has been an incredible resource on these issues in many ways, and this will only raise an already-high educational standard to a new level. It was an honor to have had some involvement with you on it.

Jessica MillmanOct 22 2008 02:39 PM

Bravo! Perhaps it is time to modify the 10 smart growth principles to better address green building and infrastructure.

Ben WelleOct 23 2008 04:00 PM

Great post. Unless the smart growth movement really embraces the elements you describe - I worry that too much of it will be looked on as "that bad way we built this development 30 years ago," as we do with much of past development today. Let's build smart growth that lasts.

Hope you can visit our new blog on city parks sometime. Thanks for the regular content.

Kaid @ NRDCOct 23 2008 05:36 PM

Ben, thank you so much. And, yes, Rachel in our office found your blog last week and pointed me to it - I look forward to reading it and exploring the synergies. Keep up the great work.

Michael ReplogleOct 24 2008 01:15 AM


I thoroughly agree with your blog post. We should focus on creating sustainable economic development that works economically, reduces its environmental footprint, increases equity, and enhances livability.

We need to focus a key part of our energy on ensuring the places we build and shape promote greater happiness for the people who live and work and play there. Enrique Penalosa, the former Mayor of Bogota, has passionately articulated and put into action this perspective. [e.g., ] Mayors like Delanoƫ in Paris and architects who plan successful public spaces and living streets are showing how it can be done across the world.

That said, we also need to address the large mass of car dependent places that have been built across the landscape of America and many other countries. We need smart technologies and pricing incentives, including bus rapid transit, pay-as-you-drive insurance, congestion pricing and new information systems to better operate transportation infrastructure. With those tools, we can accommodate and manage mobility demands while dramatically reducing the mobility system's environmental footprint. We should use these tools to expand space and options for transit, walking, biking, and playing in public spaces, while delivering efficiency and dependability for the many drivers who will be quite willing to pay for it.

Sprawl and forced car dependence won't fade away overnight. It's taken decades to build our current way of life and it will take time to create community and mobility systems where people have more travel choices, less need to consume mobility, and more opportunities to find happiness.

Thanks for your thoughtful blog.

Michael Replogle
Transportation Director, Environmental Defense Fund and
President and co-founder, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy

Kaid @ NRDCOct 24 2008 10:12 AM

Thanks, Michael. Your own leadership on tyransportation reform continues to be an inspiration.

Allen GreenbergOct 27 2008 06:00 PM


This is very thoughtful (especially your comment about how most of us started out as environmentalists). FYI, I was at my college reunion this weekend at Carnegie-Mellon, which has been pursuing some very impressive green building initiatives and claims to have the #1 green buildings education program in the country. Having just toured some of these building and attended related talks, I am posting this in a "green building state of mind."

I guess the reason some of us (like me!) haven't been advocating for green buildings is because we figure that someone else has that covered, and that our attention is more needed to focus on location factors. I think that that is OK if someone really does have the other side covered, but you're right that we shouldn't assume so (I sometimes do), and that if it isn't covered, we need to do so. Green buildings and green surroundings are too important from an environmental standpoint to leave to chance.

Regarding your suggestion for a sustainable communities title in the next transportation bill, it is worth advocating for. I've been told when considering this sort of thing before, though, that "diverting" transportation money to non-transportation purposes (e.g., housing construction near transit stations) is a political non-starter. I don't think that this should be too much of a problem, though, since there are many transportation related expenditures-- including sidewalk amenities, bicycle facilities, transit accomodations, etc.--for which transportation funds can be targeted in eligible (perhaps LEED-ND certified) communities.

Allen Greenberg

Comments are closed for this post.


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