Interest in smart growth varies by state and region, but many communities located in disparate parts of the country, whether or not they are growing rapidly, want to implement at least some aspects of smart growth. And far from being a tool only used to stem or redirect growth, smart growth is seen in the East as a way to stimulate redevelopment of existing towns.
Those are early conclusions that can be drawn from Solimar Research Group’s work on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-funded project.
Earlier this year, Solimar, Smart Growth America, the University of Southern California’s Community Development and Design Forum, and the University of Colorado’s Real Estate Center signed a contract with EPA to provide technical assistance to a small number of localities over the next three years. These are communities that have a commitment to smart growth but that are struggling with building broad-based support, implementation, and other issues. The eventual goal is to create a set of “smart growth implementation tools.”
Late in September, our group solicited applications. We had no preconceived notions about how many we would receive or from where they would come. We were gratified by the results: 105 applications flooded in from 37 states.
It is clear from the applications (see map) that smart growth is not an issue only in fast-growing states, and localized conditions can make smart growth a pressing issue. While Sunbelt states appear to be smart growth hotspots, the Rust Belt states of Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Michigan and Illinois also generated numerous applications. The only region not represented was the Northern Plains. About 45% of applications came from states growing slower than average — including one from West Virginia, which is hardly growing at all. California led the nation with 18 applications. Alaska and Hawaii each had one application.
In our solicitation, we gave localities the opportunity to define the problems with which they need help. In the resulting applications, planners, elected officials, and citizens’ groups cumulatively listed 301 requests, which we then grouped into eight categories (see table). While these are not strictly survey results, they are an indication of smart growth implementation difficulties that practitioners face. Problems with zoning codes figured prominently at nearly 25% of the requests; growth management followed closely at 19%.
Growth management was not the biggest issue in California, which has a statewide growth rate slightly more than the average of all applicants. Help with growth management issues (mainly sprawl, infill and farmland preservation) was frequently requested in states with relatively low 1990-2000 growth rates. Communities in West Virginia (0.8% growth rate), Pennsylvania (3.4%), Connecticut (3.6%), and Ohio (4.7%) all sought growth management advice. But localities in the fastest growing states – Arizona (40%), Colorado (36.6%) and Idaho (28.5%) — did not request any assistance with growth management.
Several applications from slower growing parts of the county mirrored California concerns. The pressure of localized growth on infrastructure or the threat of being enveloped by expanding urban development from a neighboring community prompted a substantial number of requests for assistance.
Interestingly, smart growth is not only seen as a way to stem growth, but to induce it. Some older communities in the Rust Belt seek to implement smart growth policies to make redevelopment of their aged areas more attractive to investors and residents. The development patterns dictated by most existing zoning ordinances prohibit the kind of places identified by researcher Richard Florida as being attractive to the sought-after “creative class.”
In general, the Golden State generated much less than its share of requests for assistance in economic development and redevelopment, community consensus, and code implementation. Except for applications from one community each in California, Idaho, Kansas and Texas, economic revitalization and redevelopment requests were an East-of-the-Mississippi phenomenon. Illinois and Maryland had several each.
Of 17 requests for help with public education, only one came from California, perhaps reflecting the state’s reliance on the California Environmental Quality Act process for public outreach. Requests from other states — regardless of whether the applicant locality is currently experiencing population loss or rapid growth — cited the public’s mistrust of density as a roadblock to adopting or implementing smart growth policies. A related theme repeated in many applications was that, while the public accepts smart growth in theory, the public is not so sure it wants to put the theory into practice on the lot next door.
Mixed-use development apparently has stouter legs in California than elsewhere; our state generated nearly 40% of requests for assistance with mixed use. And true to stereotype, California proved to be more image-conscious: more than one-fifth of all requests for design assistance originated here.
Susan Weaver and Christopher Williamson are researchers for Solimar Research Group, the parent company of CP&DR. Solimar may be found at www.solimar.org