Walk to work, the grocery store, the park, and restaurants. Cut your gasoline costs or maybe even pitch the car altogether, along with the insurance bills and parking hassles. Those are some of the promises "smart growth" makes for the average Joe.
It goes on and on, really: Because you're walking more, you'll meet your neighbors. You'll be healthier. You'll get more fresh air and sunshine. You'll be happier. You might even feel compelled to get involved in neighborhood affairs.
It sure beats what's happened in most of the United States, with suburbs expanding toward the horizon as workers' commutes grow to miserable lengths.
Smart growth, also known as the new urbanism or transit-oriented development, is about building sustainable community into the fabric of a new place. Done well, it clusters homes and the businesses people need close to rail lines or other affordable mass transit. Residents can travel downtown, around town or even to larger cities without using a car. (See principles at SmartGrowth.org).
Proponents cite studies showing that people living in places where they walk more are healthier and, presumably, happier. It also can foster a more distinctive sense of place, instead of everyone living in the Blob That Ate America. Development is compact. Land uses are mixed you might live above a pizza place, for example. Wouldn't THAT smell good?
Remember, though, that for this concept to work, your community's zoning department must restrict development in outlying geographical areas which has been easier said than done.
Critics say "smart growth" by definition means forcing high-density housing into some areas, while severely restricting development elsewhere. The more libertarian-minded among them deride a "centralized, one-size-fits-all" approach to growth.
But some thoughtful critics also come in a greener hue. For example, Donovan Rypkema of PlaceEconomics, a consulting firm in Washington, D.C., specializing in real estate and economic development, points out that one of the greenest ways to achieve smart growth is to preserve old buildings.
Said Rypkema: "If a community did nothing but protect its downtown and historic neighborhoods it will have advanced every Smart Growth principle. Historic preservation and downtown revitalization are Smart Growth. . . . A Smart Growth approach that does not include downtown revitalization high on the agenda is stupid growth, period."
He points out that most historic structures are made of brick, plaster, concrete and timber, while most new buildings are made of much-more-resource-intensive plastic, steel, vinyl and aluminum.
Says Rypkema: "You're a fool or a fraud if you say you are an environmentally conscious builder and yet are throwing away historic buildings, and their components." (See: www.nationaltrust.org/advocacy/case/Rypkema_Speech_on_Sustainability_in_Portland.pdf).
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