Making “Smart Growth” Mainstream
Unless this is the first Crossroads article that you have read (in which case, welcome!), I assume that you’ve noticed a trend throughout many of our posts on smart growth: studies show that average people want it, local mayors and town boards aim for it, small businesses benefit from it, and neighborhoods thrive on it. We’ve written about studies that demonstrate how various principles of smart growth benefit the economy, the environment, and public and private health. Lately, we’ve been able to blog about how the nation is seeing more and more of it.
But all too often, the overwhelming evidence of local and nonpartisan support for smart growth feels a bit…lacking. Sure, a survey of 2,071 people from the United States shows that 77% of them support smart design programs. Yeah, an analysis of how local transportation money has been spent proves that complete streets are spreading both in major cities like New York and San Francisco and in small towns in Idaho. But what does that mean for us? These are local efforts, and while they demonstrate a trend, we have yet to feel that “woah…Smart Growth is awesome” moment for ourselves in the Lehigh Valley.
But let’s say that this is your first visit to Crossroads. Have you ever heard of “smart growth” before?
Even if you do not know the term, chances are pretty good that you are familiar with the principles it represents. You wish it was easier to use mass transit, you’ve heard of “urban revitalization,” and you’ve noticed at some point in your life that it feels safer to walk on a sidewalk than on a poorly lit street on which cars routinely try to shatter the sound barrier. You want to feel safe letting your kids ride their bikes to friends’ houses, and you wish you could walk around the corner when you need one or two things for dinner, instead of having to jump in the car.
The guiding phrase itself is far less important than the practices it stands for. While the common word is a useful way to connect with like-minded groups and succinctly refer to a varying collection of thoughts, to the average person “smart growth” changes nothing — but the installation of sidewalks does.
Using and spreading the obscure phrase will not help us promote “smart growth” among the average people (all of us) who stand to benefit from it. Only two things that can do that. One, as I mentioned before, is the “woah” moment. Imagine, after having lived in Allentown for the past 10, 20, or 30 years, leaving. Imagine returning five years later. Imagine coming back to find a thriving downtown. Fantastic, affordable, safe places to live, just blocks from restaurants, bars, and your office. Drastically less traffic on the streets. Unobtrusive bike racks on curbs, for you, your neighbors, and your coworkers. A healthy, vibrant, safe, happy community.
If we continue to move forward, that’s coming. But it might take a bit of time, and it will definitely take a bit of work.
Until that moment, we rely on the second thing to promote the movement: the making mainstream of principles included in “smart growth.” While we try to work towards that through Crossroads, Facebook, and Twitter, we are clearly biased. What we need is institutional acknowledgment of Smart Growth.
Fortunately, we have lately begun to see this on the federal level. The EPA supports sustainable development. The President and the Department of Transportation and the continue to push for mass transit and alternative transportation, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development sponsors many programs consistent with Smart Growth.
There’s also the Centers for Disease Control.
While economic and environmental benefits are frequently touted by the smart growth community, public health benefits are sometimes mentioned as an afterthought. They’re just as important, just as easy to prove, but somehow, they tend to take a backseat. RenewLV has made an effort over the past year or so to bring public health to the forefront of our push for smart growth in the Valley, both through the inevitable health benefits that come from other policies (such as walkability and mass transit), and through the establishment of a Regional Health Department (see here for more information about this campaign).
The federal government appears to see the health benefits of smart growth, as well. The CDC has a page dedicated to “community design.” It echos the public health arguments that RenewLV has made:
Community design refers to all the elements of a community that are human-made and form the physical characteristics of that community. It includes:
- buildings, such as schools, workplaces, and homes,
- parks and recreation areas,
- transportation systems, and
- places to buy food.
Well-designed communities can improve public health. The design and maintenance of our communities may be related to:
- chronic diseases,
- injury rates,
- mental health, and
- the effects of climate change.
Through design, communities can attempt to offer residents:
- opportunities to incorporate routine physical activity into our everyday lives,
- cleaner air,
- lower risk of injury from vehicle accidents, and
- decreased effects of climate change.
According to the page, the CDC actively tracks data on community design as it relates to public health concerns including “types of transportation to work, air quality (ozone and PM 2.5), childhood lead poisoning, and motor vehicle-related fatalities.”
The page is not promoting anything specific, nor does it represent the transformation of the CDC into a leading “smart growth” advocacy group. It simply represents an acknowledgment that Smart Growth has real effects: this is not some crazy scheme based on theory and fantasy. Smart Growth is real, it benefits everyone in many different ways, and it can be successful in any urban community.