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Stop Sprawl
What is Smart Growth?

by Eric Parfrey


It seems that every other newspaper or magazine you pick up has something about "smart growth." Articles about population growth, suburban sprawl, loss of farmland, and "neo-traditional" planning seem to be part of the latest fad.

Part of the reason that "smart growth" has become such as high profile issue is because all levels of government have jumped on the band wagon. In California, following every population growth cycle we inevitably see a reaction from people in fast growing cities, who clamor for growth management or growth control. We are seeing this phenomenon play out in places like Ventura County in southern California, whose voters adopted a set of growth boundaries last year, and in the Central Valley, where even Fresno County has adopted new guidelines to limit sprawl and increase densities of new development. In Sacramento Governor Gray Davis is under pressure to address suburban sprawl, loss of farmland in the Central Valley, and fiscal policies which cause cities to compete for "big box" retailers and auto sales lots because of the favorable sale tax revenues, while discouraging other types of economic development. And at the federal level, Vice President Al Gore is clearly pushing "smart growth" as a key issue in his run for the presidency next year.

What is "smart growth"? John Hopkins of the Institute of Ecological Health, a small non-profit organization in Davis, is one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of grassroots activists in California who are trying to define and implement smart growth strategies. In his latest newsletter, Linkages, John has outlined some solutions to growth problems. (The InstituteŪs Web page is: thecity.sfsu.edu/users/IEH. John can be contacted at 530/756-6455 or by e-mail at ieh@mail.mother.com.) The following are some of the most important concepts that "smart growth" advocates are espousing, as outlined in John's article:

Livable communities, designed for people rather than for automobiles. This requires changing the layout of many new developments, as promoted by the žneo-traditionalÓ planners and New Urbanists. At the neighborhood scale, livable communities have shops, restaurants, other amenities, and offices within walking or biking distance for most residents. The designs for these new livable communities include narrower streets and no cul-de-sacs, shops that front directly onto sidewalks instead of onto parking lots, as well as office, apartment and condominiums above the shops. This scheme is a far cry from the typical walled-off suburban subdivisions that are connected to shopping centers and strip malls by a few crowded arterial roads. Livable communities also include a true žtown center,Ó which is a compact area with civic buildings - a church, library, post office, community center - contained in a plaza or other auto-free open space, with a mix of private businesses.

Closeness to nature and permanent conservation of important lands. A closeness to natural areas is vital for many people, and this is not antithetical to compact development. Greenways, such as corridors of native vegetation along streams, and small nature preserves make nature accessible to suburban and city dwellers. Productive agricultural areas, wildlife habitats, and key open space should also be permanently protected by fee acquisition and easements that buy development rights.

Viable public transit at the city and metropolitan area scale is needed to support compact forms of development. Subdivisions at low densities of four houses per acre (typical for suburban places like Fairfield and Tracy), as well as shopping centers or business parks centered around huge parking lots, all stymie public transit since these low density development patterns make transit very costly to provide.

Revitalization of older suburbs and downtowns, and rundown commercial areas. Infill development and redevelopment of older districts and contaminated žbrownfieldÓ industrial sites can help to counter suburban sprawl and revitalize inner cities, by providing housing near existing jobs and shopping areas.

Urban growth boundaries are a key solution to contain continuous sprawl development. Growth boundaries or žurban limit linesÓ draw a line around cities and allow for 20 or 30 years of growth, and they often can be changed only with a community vote. But such boundaries will only work over time if they are accompanied by changes in community design, infill development and the other steps mentioned above.

Long term visions for communities and regions. Unless citizens decide what they want their communities to look like in 50 years, and unless we address land conservation needs, and growth/transportation dynamics at regional scales, we invite a continuation of suburban sprawl. Regions and subregions must achieve a jobs/housing balance to minimize long distance commuting and preserve resources such as air and water quality, and prime farmland.


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