In 1950, only 30% of the world’s population was living in urban areas. By 2050 however, it is predicted that about 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. With the rapid increase in urbanizations, urban planners started to promote the idea of smart growth in the early 1970s. It is an urban planning concept that focuses on designing urban walkable neighborhoods to avoid urban sprawl and accommodate development (Daniels & Lapping, 2005). Smart growth neighborhoods exhibit compact community designs with higher densities, mixed land uses and walkable neighborhoods with an aim to minimize automobile use (Downs, 2005). The development of these neighborhoods was a policy goal in the 2014–2018 strategic plan of the US Environmental Protection Agency and a principle in the 2009 Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities with the US Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development (Gehrke & Clifton, 2017).
Over many years, urban sprawling has increased. That is, the expansion of human populations into low-density communities. However, urban sprawling has negatively impacted the environment, economy and social lives. Urban sprawl has many expenses including transportation, environmental, and social costs (The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, N.D.). Moreover, the implementation of smart growth polices may reduce the negative effects of urban sprawl and increase the quality of life. Smart growth theory consists of several principles: mix land uses, compact building design, range of housing opportunities, walkable neighborhoods, communities with a strong sense of place, preservation of critical environmental areas, different transportation choices, cost effective development decisions, and community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions (The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, N.D.). All the mentioned principles seek to not hinder development, but rather to direct it in a useful and efficient way.
The topic of smart growth is important because countries nowadays focus mainly on sustainable economic growth and development. It is also a topic of interest to households and communities because smart growth strategies help protect our health and natural environment. Moreover, smart growth policies make our communities more attractive economically and socially. Therefore, despite the challenges associated with smart growth, research shows that smart growth principles have an overall positive effect on countries.
A smart growth community is characterized with many features: compact building design, walkable neighborhoods, mix land use, and high population density. Compact building design allows the maximum amount of development and supporting infrastructure using the least amount of land (The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, N.D.). Many factors determine whether a neighborhood is walkable or not. Walkable neighborhoods have a center, affordable housing located near businesses, and streets that are designed for walking and cycling (Littman, 2014). Mixed land use enables residential, commercial, and industrial practices to co-exist in an integrated way that supports sustainable forms of development (The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, N.D.). High population density means that the number of people living in a unit area is high.
Walkable neighborhoods and compact cities may lead to an increase in children’s physical activity. Compact design allows neighborhoods to be closer, which promotes walking and cycling. An experiment was conducted on 121 children that had recently moved to smart growth communities. The results show that the physical activity of children in smart growth communities increased by 15% compared to 8% in non-smart communities (Dunton, Intille, Wolch ; Pentz, 2012). Moreover, another research conducted on a sample of 147 children showed that living in smart growth communities increases leisure time. Therefore, an increase in leisure time leads to an 46% increase in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity compared to conventional community residence (Jerrett et al., 2013). Research suggests that implementing smart growth policies may increase physical activity in children compared to conventionally designed communities. This increase in physical activity may lead to decrease in diseases and health risks.
The implementation of smart growth policies may overall benefit the environment. More specifically, smart growth policies that deal with transport intensity could lead to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Transport intensity is defined as individual passenger, vehicle or freight miles per capita. First, about 25–50% reductions in travel intensity were achieved through the use smart growth policies (Ewing et al., 2007). Second, one of the largest contributors to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is reductions in transport intensity. That is because employing policies aimed at reducing transport intensity resulted in about 30% decrease in carbon monoxide (CO) emission (Yang, McCollum, McCarthy, ; Leighty, 2009). Thus, the employment of smart growth policies will positively impact the environment because they result in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
Offering various modes of transportation is another smart growth principle that contributes to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. For example, mode-switching from private cars to public transport, which has the capacity to carry a large number of people at a given time will result in a lower contribution in greenhouse gas emissions (Ewing et al., 2007). Moreover, other studies have also shown a reduction in greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in communities that use public transport largely compared to communities that depends mostly on private cars (Yang, McCollum, McCarthy, ; Leighty, 2009). This research shows that changes modes of transportation is a valuable option in protecting the environment and also has the lowest energy resource requirements.
Smart growth may help with decreasing the effects of global warming. More specifically, smart growth policies help mitigate urban heat island effects. Urban heat island effect is a phenomenon that occurs when urban areas face a higher temperature compared to suburban areas. The consequences of urban heat island effect include contributions to global warming, initiation of storms, and increases in energy demands of cities (EPA, 2016). This is why the implementation of smart growth policies could be a solution to urban heat island effects. A research experiment was conducted in Brisbane to test the effect of smart growth policies on urban heat island effect. It was found that, on average, smart growth policies will potentially decrease urban heat effects in Brisbane by 2023 (Deilami ; Kamruzzaman, 2017). Thus, the implementation of smart growth policies will benefit the environment because it decreases global warming by minimizing urban heat island effects.
Smart growth policies including compact design could also lower the costs of energy. Countries nowadays are looking for ways to reduce energy and thus decrease energy costs. For example, smart growth policies could positively impact the water distribution industry by reducing the operational energy (Santana, Zhang, Nachabe, Xie, ; Mihelcic, 2017). An experiment was conducted in Tampa, Florida, which is considered to be relatively sprawled. The results of the experiment show that smart growth is responsible for a decrease in per-capita water usage by 6–10%. This decrease in water usage decreased energy usage by 0.5–6.2% (Santana, Zhang, Nachabe, Xie, ; Mihelcic, 2017). Therefore, it is suggested that compact city design will give water access to more people in a compact city. This smart growth policy allows water distribution systems to operate efficiently and cut down costs.
Protection and preservation of open spaces is another reason countries should adopt smart growth policies. That is, protecting open spaces like parks and natural areas will have a positive economic impact in countries. First, preserved open spaces increase the value of property around it (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2006). Moreover, preserved natural areas are usually tourist attractions. Second, preserving open spaces implies that more farming land is available for locals (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2006). This will help support local economies and will provide more food for families. Therefore, smart growth policies that protect open spaces will result in an overall improved economy.
Compact city design and walkable neighborhoods lead to a decrease in environmental and economic transportation costs. More specifically, compact city design and walkable neighborhoods are characterized by closer destinations which results in a decrease in the dependence of automobiles. First, the reduction in dependence of automobiles may decrease environmental transportation costs. Studies have shown a reduction in greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in smart growth communities compared to urban sprawled areas (Yang, McCollum, McCarthy, Leighty, 2009). Second, a compact city will encourage people to walk since all facilities are close to each other and the need of a car is eliminated. Moreover, when a person needs to use transportation for short trips, they will use public transportation since everything is close and the use of a car would be pointless. That is, economic transportation costs are eliminated because less cars are being bought and less fuel is being consumed. Therefore, smart growth communities characterized with compactness and walkability will experience a reduction in environmental and economical transportation costs.
Critics argue that smart growth will lead to an increase in housing costs. That is, areas that are less dense and depend on automobiles tend to have lower costs per square foot. The critics argue that smart growth policies will make these houses less affordable. While this may be true, the argument does not take into account other economic factors. First, smart growth will lead to higher levels of wealth in the long run. That is, real estate properties tend to appreciate in value while automobiles tend to rapidly depreciate in value (Littman, 2016). Moreover, economic trends show that real estate values tend to appreciate must faster in urban areas than in suburbs. For example, in 2015, average urban home values grew by 11.3% compared with 6.7% in suburbs (Pan, 2016). Therefore, the higher housing costs in smart growth neighborhoods are more than offset by lower transport costs. Second, by choosing a house in a smart growth neighborhood, households will cut down on previously mentioned transportation costs. Therefore, contrary to critics’ arguments, smart growth allows households to save and have more net wealth by choosing more expensive homes that result in lower transportation costs.
Moreover, smart growth communities increase household affordability. More specifically, smart growth communities offer a wide range of home sizes and prices, which makes them places that many people can afford. There are apartments, townhouses and single-family houses for people with lower incomes. For example, The Stapleton neighborhood has a wide range of homes with different prices that accommodate everyone from a receptionist to a CEO (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2006). In addition, Middleton Hills, Wisconsin is a smart growth neighborhood that is home to retired couples, young couples, and new couples (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2006). Therefore, smart growth solves the problem of housing affordability by providing various houses that accommodate residents with different incomes.
Critics often argue that smart growth policies do not meet consumer demands. However, there is evidence that an increasing number of households now prefer to live in compact and walkable neighborhoods. Walkable and compact neighborhoods bring many destinations closer to households, which increase the demand for smart growth communities (Littman, 2016). Moreover, with all destinations within a close proximity, residents choose to walk instead of using other transportation methods because it is easier (Nielsen, 2017). Therefore, the implementation of smart growth policies meets consumer demands by developing walkable and compact neighborhoods.
Many argue that shareholders and developers have no incentive to redevelop old communities into new smart growth communities. However, there is evidence that developers who refurbish old neighborhoods into compact neighborhoods are receiving positive response from the public (Ewing et al., 2007). In 2003, the sales prices per square foot for urban area housing was higher than suburban areas (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2006). First, the real estate analysis firm Robert Charles Lesser & Co. conducted a consumer preference surveys in suburban and urban locations to help developers willing to start new smart growth projects. The surveys concluded that in every location around one-third of consumers preferred smart growth communities (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2006). Second, other studies conducted by the National Association of Homebuilders, the National Association of Realtors, the Fannie Mae Foundation, and high-production builders have found that around one-quarter of consumers showed preference to smart growth communities that offer shorter commutes (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2006). As such, many households would prefer to live in a smaller house for shorter commutes in return. Therefore, increased preference in smart growth housing leads to an increase in demand, which increases the value of properties. Shareholders and developers have an incentive to invest in re-developing old communities because of the high market demand, which will lead to high returns.
With the rapid increase in urbanization, smart growth policies can no longer be overlooked, and must be considered as a viable strategy to solving several planning and infrastructure issues faced by cities today. The implementation of smart growth policies into future planning or the refurbishing of existing cities will aid in the enhancement of societal, economic and environmental welfare, across all classes of society, by tackling the issues created by urban sprawling. The division of living spaces to accommodate different economic levels, as well as the decrease in transportation density and the severe reduction of automobile dependence will all support creating a complex and efficient community, overcoming various hurdles previously faced by metropolitan cities split into urban and suburban areas. Smart growth is currently disincentivized by government regulations that discourage building diverse and mixed housing structures, and that in return pushes developers further away from adapting smart growth policies. Governing bodies must reverse existing regulations and incentivize the adaptation of smart growth not only to reap the economic benefits of it, but also to further develop their communities and increase their living standards and welfare. Although change has proven to be difficult at first, it is an essential part of evolution and advancement, and the global recognition and wide spread implementation of smart growth policies is the change needed to enhance the way communities are built and the living standards of society across all its classes.
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