Politics

Getting Smarter

The smart-growth movement isn't making much noise these days, but it's learning how to win.
by | August 2005
 

For all the attention it received in the 1990s, "smart growth" can't claim to have slowed down sprawl. Many metro areas are building far- flung subdivisions at almost the same pace they were a decade ago. States that were major centers of promotion for the smart-growth concept, including Oregon and Maryland, have retrenched in the past couple of years. Yet it's way too soon to declare smart growth a dead idea. Quite the contrary. Although no longer fashionable for elected officials to talk about, smart growth is coming into its own across the country as a force in public policy.

If smart-growth advocates are quieter, they're also smarter, switching much of their emphasis from sticks to carrots. There's less talk of states imposing regulatory restrictions on developers in hopes of fencing off open space. Instead, state, local and regional policy makers are learning to direct their capital dollars according to growth patterns they believe the private sector will follow. The smart-growth movement, says Keith Schneider of the Michigan Land Use Institute, has become much savvier about framing its pitch as part of an economic competitiveness strategy.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Massachusetts, where Governor Mitt Romney has linked the state's transportation, environmental and housing agencies together within a new Office for Commonwealth Development. "The whole concept of that was to end silos and create a more cohesive policy agenda" on issues such as housing affordability and transit, says department head Douglas Foy. "In our view, that is by definition smart growth."

Massachusetts now devotes a $5 billion capital budget--along with $500 million worth of annual grants to localities--to projects that follow smart-growth principles, such as more compact development around existing transit and downtowns. Such principles have informed major planning and investment efforts in places that are growing slowly, such as Grand Rapids, Michigan, and others that are growing rapidly, such as Denver, where area voters last fall approved a massive new transit system.

Melanie Worley, a county commissioner in neighboring Douglas County, Colorado--one of the nation's fastest-growing jurisdictions--says voters in her area now understand, despite their continued love for cars, that planning for growth doesn't have to impinge on property rights. "We have kept 85 percent of the growth on 13 percent of the land," she says, "which becomes smart growth, as far as I'm concerned."

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