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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Smart growth principles for the 21st century

Kaid Benfield

Posted December 13, 2010

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  Capitol Hill, DC (by: Shelly Hazle for Smart Growth America)

Last week, I posited that it was time to update "smart growth" - the shared vision that knits together most advocacy undertaken under the banner.  New concerns have emerged since, for example, the well-known “ten principles” of smart growth were formulated and adopted by the Smart Growth Network (including NRDC) in 1997.  I think we should build on that foundation, but not be confined by it.  In addition, the practice of smart growth has already advanced beyond those principles; because of their immense educational value, it is important that they catch up.

We had a lively discussion on this topic both here on this blog and in a Smart Growth America board meeting at the end of last week.  At the SGA meeting, participants seemed especially interested in articulating that, although our objectives may be grounded in the built environment, groundbreaking for senior housing, Brooklyn (via HUD)we also need to stress that they serve people.  As my friend and fellow SGA board member David Crossley puts it, why we advocate needs to be expressed as much as what we advocate. 

(I mentioned David last week, too.  He and I have been emailing each other back and forth about this for a year.)

Among the things we discussed at that meeting was a focus on great neighborhoods – communities that support businesses and jobs, have good schools, provide more options for getting around, and make it more affordable to live near work and the grocery store.  All that was more richly fleshed out, of course.

I heartily agree, but personally I’m not going to leave it as solely about people, at least not solely about currently living generations.  I work for an environmental group, after all, and I believe that conserving environmental resources and reducing impacts caused by our growth patterns and development are pretty important, too.

  16th St, Denver (courtesy of EPA Smart Growth)  Baldwin Park, Orlando FL (by: EPA Smart Growth)

I don't think it is necessary to expound further here about the rationale, because the discussion in last week's post, together with your lively comments, already have formed a robust underpinning and menu of possibilities for moving forward.  So let's get to it:  with all of these things in mind, I humbly offer a revised set of principles to define smart growth, based on today’s context, rather than yesterday's:  

  1. Foster neighborhoods hospitable to residents with a range of incomes, ages and abilities.
  2. I'On, Mount Pleasant SC (by: I'On Village)Enhance, create and maintain communities that encourage healthy living.
  3. Provide walkable access to shops, amenities, and services, including good schools, healthy food, and parks.
  4. Accommodate and provide a variety of convenient, safe, affordable and efficient transportation choices.
  5. Respect nature, integrating natural areas and systems into regional planning and neighborhood design.
  6. Identify, respect and enhance the strengths and character of existing communities.
  7. Keep regional footprints small and discernible, limiting the encroachment of new development onto natural and rural land.
  8. WHigh Point Hope VI housing, Seattle (by: Michael Wolcott, creative commons license)hen constructing new development, use land efficiently, with design appropriate to the context.
  9. Encourage collaboration in planning and development that leads to predictable, fair decisions that benefit all stakeholders.
  10. Take advantage of resource-efficient design, development and management practices.

I considered offering a few thoughts about each but, on reflection, I decided that basic principles are better left in relatively simple form, as starters rather than fully elaborated directives.  This will inevitably lead to different interpretations about the details, but that is probably more healthy than not.  What do you think?  Let’s improve them together.

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 

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David CrossleyDec 13 2010 10:52 AM

Kaid said: "I believe that conserving environmental resources and reducing impacts caused by our growth patterns and development are pretty important, too."

But the point of saying it's all about people, about making it totally selfish for human beings, is that human beings can't be healthy, happy, and prosperous without a health environment for all the reasons of the "web of life" as well as the spiritual and physical benefits of wilderness and rich diversity of creatures. I realize one would be an advocate for "the environment" on its own merits, but the environment, from my point of view, is everything that surrounds (and inhabits) humans and the better it is the better off the humans are.

Kaid @ NRDCDec 13 2010 11:12 AM

David, if we include future generations in our definition of "people," you and I aren't far apart. It's been a pleasure to think through this with you.

David CrossleyDec 13 2010 01:55 PM

Yes, all people, now and forever, especially future generations and more especially my grandson, Harrison.

And the pleasure has been and remains all mine. That was a great conversation at the SGA meeting. Thanks for getting it started.

DanielDec 13 2010 02:14 PM

I like this a lot.

Although I'm not comparing apples to apples, I think this is an improvement upon the feds' Livability Principles.

One quick thought: Number 8 seems to be a little redundant to me. Efficient use of land is covered in 7, and existing context is covered in 6. I suppose the idea for 8 could be to make sure some of the other principles are applied at the site level for new construction.

Kaid @ NRDCDec 13 2010 02:45 PM

Daniel, you're right about overlap. I thought that the regional footprint was important enough to deserve its own point, and then #8 became about neighborhood-scale planning and design. I had "neighborhood scale" in an earlier version of the wording for #8, but replaced it to stress increments of building.

The differences between 6, 7 & 8 are definitely slippery and subtle, but they are somewhat distinct in my mind.

Zoe AntonDec 14 2010 06:38 AM

I think these are a big step in the right direction. I am wondering if there should be an addition of policy and governance frameworks that make the principles long lasting and sustainable over time. Without strong social institutions as well as financial mechanisms, even the best plans will not be sustainable.
We can't focus everything on people, after all it is the natural environment that supports life, but people and communities are what will make growth in any form (even no growth at all) successful.

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