These days, U.S. city planning exudes an audacious air. The suburban sprawl that has dominated U.S. development since the Second World War is under assault from a multitude of policy makers and activists bent on protecting the environment and revitalizing city life. Rallying to varied watchwords—smart growth, new urbanism, sustainable development, green development, livable communities, traditional neighborhood development—the insurgent urbanists share key goals: mixing land uses, raising density, and ramping up public transit. In place of auto-centric, single-use districts reached only via traffic-choked roads, they put housing, shops, and offices close to each other and to ample transit options. Given such options, they contend, people readily abandon their cars and walk or bike to and from work or to the bus, train, trolley, ferry, or light or heavy rail that will carry them to and from work. Only “densification” and “infill”—building at higher densities, preferably in already settled areas—can provide mass transit with the substantial number of riders it needs to be financially feasible. The widespread realization of this scenario, say its proponents, will not only revive urban America; it will benefit the environment at large. By drawing people out of their private vehicles, compact, transit-oriented development will reduce traffic congestion, cut down air pollution, and diminish global warming; by concentrating new construction in city centers, it will protect farmland and open space from being further devoured by suburbia.
Of all the constituencies embracing this vision, smart growth has the highest visibility, the broadest agenda, the farthest institutional reach, and the greatest political leverage. Since 1996, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Urban Economic Development Division has funded the Smart Growth Network. The network’s nearly forty partners include environmental groups; historic preservation organizations; professional associations; developers; real estate interests; and local, state, and government entities. One partner, Smart Growth America, is itself a coalition of more than one hundred national, state, and local organizations, including the Sierra Club, the Congress for the New Urbanism, the American Farmland Trust, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the American Planning Association. Working both together and independently, these groups sponsor numerous conferences, tours, expositions, focus groups, forums, publications, and research projects. They vigorously lobby every level of government. A copious literature ranging from books to blogs disseminates smart growth’s principles, showcases its success stories, critiques its opponents, and publicizes its latest undertakings. Smart growth is now a curricular staple at the nation’s best planning schools. Most important, in the past two decades thousands of development projects that meet smart growth specifications hav...
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