The Beginning of the End of “Smart Growth”?


By. Neil Williamson, President

California planner, and blogger Bill Fulton suggested one of his take aways from last week’s American Planning Association (APA) annual meeting was the concept that Smart Growth at least as a planning term is on its way out:

“We are truly at the cusp of the next big thing,” said presenter Tim Chapin, a planning professor at Florida State. “We are living in a time when planners and economic development are much more together than they have been in, gosh, decades.” [emphasis added-nw]

20071018-garden_city_detailHold the presses – at a meeting of 5,000 planners, someone admitted that smart growth does not adequately address economic development!  AND they admit that planners and economic developers have been at odds for decades!!!

But wait, Fulton also heard from the Federal government at this conference

Shelley Poticha, head of the Office of Sustainable Communities at the Department of Housing & Urban Development, agreed that economic development is a vital part of the emerging new trend. “We need to turn this around to a place-based ED strategy that is very multi-layered,” Poticha said. “Many communities we are working with had economies based on one or two strong sectors and one or both crashed. And so they don’t have much to stand on.” At the same time, she said, place-based strategies can strengthen downtowns and neighborhoods in a way that reinforces local businesses and allows wealth to stay and circulate in a community rather than leaving town.[emphasis added-nw]

Now we are seeing the new lexicon come in “Place Based ED Strategy that is multi-layered”.  Haven’t we seen this move before?

Dr. Chapin, one of the lead presenters at the APA Conference identified three historic eras in growth management:

  • The “growth control” era (1950-75) where growth was viewed as a problem – a cancer to be restricted and boxed in.
  • The “growth management” era (1975-99) where growth was considered a fiscal problem – permissible so long as it paid for itself.
  • The “smart growth” era (1999- ) where growth has been viewed as “an opportunity for achieving desirable development patterns,” Chapin said.

For all this discussion, I do not see a significant difference in the regulatory environments each of these philosophical positions suggest.  In each and every case, growth (and economic development) are being steered into a limited area with little or no concern for the chilling aspects of such regulations on business formation, location and relocation.

Tim_Chapin_mediumBut now that Dr. Chapin sees Economic Development and Planning working in concert surely it will be different; perhaps rather than looking at prescriptive zoning categories that restrict flexibility and limit opportunity, the planners could consider objective performance based standards that protect the citizens and the environment by dealing directly with the impacts of the building uses.

No, that’s not really what the planners had in mind.  According to Fulton’s report, a true philosophical review of planning was not what Dr. Chapin had in mind at all:

…. Chapin added, it may be time for a rebranding. “There’s some sense out there that this concept of SG is a bit stale – that it has lost its resonance with the public and political leaders.” He suggested that the next era of growth management will include a focus on jobs, regionalism, and other factors. He called this new era – admitting that he doesn’t particularly like this term – the era of “sustainable growth”.

Not only does the Free Enterprise Forum not like the moniker “Sustainable Growth” we do not believe the planning community is ready for the shift needed to rip off the regulatory tourniquet that is clearly restricting economic development in many communities across the nation.

The APA needs MUCH more than a rebranding, they need to refocus their energy on their mission statements that includes the creation of vibrant communities.

OpportunityKnocksRather than sustainable growth, perhaps a better philosophical banner would be ‘Rising Tide – Empowering Opportunity’.  Under this mantra, applications and plans would be considered under a much more flexible criteria that permits appropriate mitigation but also gives significant credits for economic impact of a proposal.

Alternatively, perhaps by simply reducing or eliminating the regulatory burdens that have been constructed to prevent economic expansion would have an even better impact.

In 2009, Emily Washington of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University wrote a great post regarding smart growth’s potential for cities:

Again, it is easy to explain hypothetical, ideal zoning practices, and to imagine flawless outcomes, but the idea such policy would come out precisely as theorists imagine is reflective of nirvana fallacy. When zoning came into practice in the early 20th century, it was touted as a way to protect citizens from living near the dangers of industrial land uses. However, zoning has an ugly history of being abused by policy makers and community activists to oppress groups of residents based on income or race.

In short, policy makers can easily verbalize how their imagined programs could be an improvement upon development realities, but unfortunately history demonstrates that government action often takes urbanities further away from their imagined ideal.  There is no reason to believe that policies in vogue today will have greater success, even if they are championed as “smart growth.” [Emphasis added-nw]

While the Free Enterprise Forum applauds many of the goals of the Smart Growth movement the tactics being used to achieve these goals often undermine their original intent. 

In our world view, communities should have the ability to organically develop (and redevelop) into a tapestry of diverse homes and businesses that to support citizens lives and their livelihoods.  It is not the proper role of government to dictate the specific shape, speed or direction of these neighborhoods.

In their promotional materials, the APA highlights that planning is about choices.   Too often the choices the planners make (and localities approve), restrict (or eliminate) the viable options available to landowners.

If the end of Smart Growth is near, it will not be because planners have grown tired of the name it will be because as communities we can’t afford for it to continue.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson


20070731williamson Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.  For more information visit the website

Photo Credit: Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Florida State University,, Charlottesville Tomorrow


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