What Is Smart Growth?
The San Francisco Bay Area can grow sustainably—and we must. By 2035, the region will grow from 7 million people to 9 million. If we change how the Bay Area grows, we can make our region more climate-friendly, affordable, and economically competitive, while protecting our farms, forests, and watersheds.
In the past, poorly planned growth has contributed to unaffordable homes, traffic, lost farms and ranches, and climate change. It’s time to use land in a better way. So what is smart growth? Smart growth is planned economic and community development that attempts to curb sprawl development and worsening environmental conditions. It aims to better serve the economic, environmental, and social needs of communities.
10 Principles of Smart Growth from the US EPA
Mixed land use puts residential, commercial and recreational uses close together within a neighborhood. By designing neighborhoods this way, cities allow for a more diverse and sizable population and commercial base for supporting public transit. In addition, alternatives to driving, such as walking or biking, become more accessible. Mixed use increases the commercial and social activity of people in the neighborhood, which can aid in making the area more attractive and safe for future residents. These areas then become revitalized communities, with lively streets that attract pedestrians and build communities around public spaces and walkable streets. – adapted from SmartGrowth.org
Compact building design utilizes individual buildings the make more efficient use of land and resources in order to create communities that preserve more open space. By promoting encouraging developers to build vertically rather than horizontally, and by incorporating structured rather than surface parking, communities can reduce the footprint of new construction, and preserve more green space. This not only uses land efficiently, but it also protects more open land to absorb and filter rain water, reduce flooding and stormwater drainage needs, and lower the amount of pollution washing into our streams, rivers and lakes. – adapted from SmartGrowth.org
Providing quality and affordable housing for people of all income levels is an important part of any smart growth strategy. Housing growth is critical to community growth because it tends to make up the majority of new construction and development. Additional benefits include using infrastructure resources more efficiently, ensuring a more even balance between available jobs and housing, and generating support for neighborhood transit stops, commercial centers, and other services. Integrating single- and multi-family structures in new housing developments can support a more diverse population and allow for residents of all income levels to thrive within a neighborhood. Utilizing different forms of housing within neighborhoods, such as attached housing, accessory units, or multi-family dwellings, creates opportunities for communities to slowly increase density without radically changing the landscape. – adapted from SmartGrowth.org
Walkable communities that are desirable places to live, work, learn, and play are key factors of smart growth. Their desirability comes primarily from two factors: accessibility of goods and services, and access to transportation. Goods (such as housing, offices, and retail) and services (such as transportation, schools, libraries) must be located within an easy and safe walk. Walkable communities make pedestrian activity possible, thus expanding transportation options, and creating a streetscape for a range of users – pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, and drivers. To foster walkability, communities must mix land uses and build compactly, as well as ensure safe and inviting pedestrian corridors. – adapted from SmartGrowth.org
Smart growth encourages communities to create a vision for a neighborhood and set standards for development that respect community values, as well as expand choices in housing and transportation. Smart growth promotes development that uses natural and man-made boundaries and landmarks to define neighborhoods, towns, and regions. It encourages the construction and preservation of buildings that are assets to a community over time, not only because of the services provided within, but because of the unique contribution they make to the look and feel of a city. By creating high-quality communities with architectural and natural elements that reflect the interests of all residents, there is a greater likelihood that buildings and neighborhoods will retain their economic vitality over time. In the rapidly expanding and changing neighborhoods of the Bay Area, this value is especially important to maintaining the unique qualities and desirability of the cities we live in. – adapted from SmartGrowth.org
“Open space” refers to natural areas that provide important community space, habitat for plants and animals, and recreational opportunities, as well as farm and ranch land (working lands), places of natural beauty, and critical environmental areas (e.g. wetlands). Protection of open space provides many economic benefits, including increasing local property value (thereby increasing property tax bases), providing tourism dollars, and preventing local tax increases associated with construction of new infrastructure.
Open space ensures the continued protection of animal and plant habitat, places of natural beauty, and working lands by removing development pressure and redirecting new growth to existing communities. Preservation of open space benefits the environment by combating air pollution, mitigating noise, controlling wind, providing erosion control, and moderating temperatures. It also protects surface- and ground-water resources by filtering trash, debris, and chemical pollutants before they enter a water system. – adapted from SmartGrowth.org
Smart growth directs development towards existing communities already served by infrastructure, seeking to utilize the resources that existing neighborhoods offer, and conserve open space and irreplaceable natural resources on the urban fringe. Development in existing neighborhoods also represents an approach to growth that can be more cost-effective, and improves quality of life. By encouraging development in existing communities, communities benefit from a stronger tax base, closer proximity of a range of jobs and services, increased efficiency of already-developed land and infrastructure, and reduced development pressure in edge areas (preserving more open space). There have been increasing demographic shifts and a growing awareness of the economic, environmental, and social costs of urban fringe development. – adapted from Smartgrowth.org
Smart growth aims to provide people with more choices in housing, shopping, communities, and transportation. City planners are seeking new transportation options in an effort to improve declining current systems, as traffic congestion continues to worsen across the country. Communities are now focusing on coordinating land use and transportation; increasing the availability of high-quality transit service; creating redundancy, resiliency, and connectivity within their road networks; and ensuring connectivity between pedestrian, bike, transit, and road facilities. Decision-makers are realizing the benefits of coupling a multi-modal approach to transportation with supportive development patterns, to create a variety of transportation options for their residents. – adapted from Smartgrowth.org
In order to successfully implement smart growth, the private sector must be on board with the process. Only private capital markets can supply the large amounts of money needed to meet the growing demand for smart growth developments. Since the development industry is highly regulated, the value of property and the desirability of a place are affected by government investment in infrastructure and regulation. Governments that make the right infrastructure and regulatory decisions will support fair, predictable and cost-effective smart growth. Expediting the approval process is especially helpful to developers, as the longer it takes to get approvals, the longer the developer’s capital remains tied up in land and not earning income. In order for smart growth to flourish, state and local governments need to make development decisions about smart growth more timely, cost-effective, and predictable for developers.
Growth can create great places to live, work and play—if it responds to a community’s own sense of how and where it wants to grow. Communities have different needs and will emphasize some smart growth principles over others: those with robust economic growth may need to improve housing choices; others that have suffered from disinvestment may emphasize infill development; newer communities with separated uses may be looking for the sense of place provided by mixed-use town centers; and still others with poor air quality may seek relief by offering transportation choices. The common thread, however, is that the needs of every community and the programs to address them are best defined by the people who live and work there.
Encouraging community and stakeholder collaboration can lead to creative, speedy resolution of development issues and greater community understanding of the importance of good planning and investment. Smart growth plans and policies developed without strong citizen involvement will lack staying power. Involving the community early and often in the planning process vastly improves public support for smart growth and often leads to innovative strategies that fit the unique needs of a particular community. – adapted from Smartgrowth.org
Why Smart Growth?
When communities choose smart growth strategies, they can create new neighborhoods and maintain existing ones that are attractive, convenient, safe, and healthy. Smart growth neighborhoods preserve the best of their past while creating a well-designed future for generations to come.
Bay Area cities and towns have room for enough new homes and jobs for everyone. We can focus all of the region’s needed new development in existing urban areas, especially in downtowns and around transportation hubs. We can use land now wasted on vacant lots, parking lots, and other under-used urban properties to build the homes people need within existing neighborhoods. Greenbelt Alliance is ensuring that the Bay Area grows smart. We envision a Bay Area where our natural and agricultural lands are protected and where everyone can live in a thriving neighborhood that they are proud to call home.
Smart Growth Examples
This rendering of San Pablo Avenue in Oakland shows how transforming vacant lots and underused spaces into homes, shops, and jobs close to transportation can provide quality homes for people of all income levels. Slide left and right to see the transformation.
And watch as this San Leandro, CA street transforms into a welcoming, walkable neighborhood with homes and shops using the principles of smart growth.
GIF by Urban Advantage
Smart Growth Resources
- Download the San Jose Urban Village Toolkit for a guide on how to engage in your local neighborhood plan
- Learn more about Plan Bay Area, our region’s blueprint for growth
- Read about how smart growth can help fight against the drought (San Jose Mercury News)
- Learn more about how urban growth boundaries promote smart growth
- Learn more about sprawl development
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Photo: Clint Sharp via Flickr