The sound of traffic, the smell of exhaust, the sight of strip malls, gas stations and fast-food chains; your senses tell you that you’re standing at the busy intersection of a city suburb. But as you look out at the concrete scatter and toxic sprawl, what you might not so readily see is that you’re also standing at a metaphorical crossroads – where one road leads to more of the same, and the other toward the opportunity to transform the space around you.
A new tool from the Natural Resources Defense Council called Picturing Smart Growth is helping us to imagine what this transformation might look like. Step-by-step visioning allows users to watch the "before" "during" and "after" scenes unfold as actual American neighborhoods transition from bland suburban development to inviting, walkable streetscapes.
Smart Growth is a school of thought that challenges the avenue of thought that leads to more of the same, car-centric planning and development that engenders wasteful sprawl. Advocates of smart growth promote the idea of compact cities, a new urbanism that champions walkability, affordability, sustainable technology and density.
With the help of its partners at Urban Advantage, the NRDC presents a series of chronological images representing the Smart Growth transformations that could take place at 70 locations across the United States. Each set illustrates how local communities can implement solutions like public parks, bicycle networks, infill and mixed use development to help their cities become more sustainable, beautiful and useful.
The interactive webtool is designed to educate environmentalists, developers, planners and community members about what Smart Growth and development might look like. Kaid Benfield, director of the NRDC’s smart growth program, said that they created the site to inform but also to challenge conventional -- and sometimes misguided -- beliefs about development.
“People are fearful of development, instinctually suspicious,” Benfield said. “We wanted to raise the level of sophistication, to move to terms like "good" and "not-so-good" development, instead of development versus no development.”
Many environmentalists have opposed the idea of development altogether, rejecting it because of its encroachment upon natural or historic areas. Although their sentiments are understandable, Benfield said, it’s not responsible to say no to development because growth is happening. We need to take on that responsibility and make sustainable development decisions.
Benfield said that he hopes that Picturing Smart Growth can help visually communicate the pieces that make up a sustainable neighborhood: green buildings, transit-oriented development, affordable housing and walkable streets. The tool's creators hope that it will help developers and planners present new possibilities to their audiences, and provide citizens with information that they can take to their planning boards and elected officials, and raise their collective understanding of how Smart Growth projects can transform public spaces.
“Visual images communicate so much better than trying to describe mixed use or a what a certain amount of density looks like,” Benfield said. “It’s much easier to communicate with pictures. And by going step by step we can help people understand which particular features make places more sustainable. One step at a time you can see what the components of a sustainable neighborhood are.”
Although their sentiments are understandable, Benfield said, it’s not responsible to say no to development because growth is happening. We need to take on that responsibility and make sustainable development decisions.
He's right: growth is happening, and that growth (for the time being) should be accommodated in the best ways possible.
But the growth is happening because the growth is being pushed and pursued, not because "growth is inevitable," like we're told. Making smart decisions as far as growth is concerned is good, but it's important to see why that growth is being pursued so it can then be limited and eventually stopped.
From an article by Dr. Al Bartlett, someone I would consider an expert on the mathematics surrounding growth:
The arithmetic is clear. Steady growth produces impossibly large numbers in modest periods of time. SO GROWTH WILL STOP. Referring to Boulder, we have read the innumerate statement "So our choice is not whether we grow, but how we grow." The authors of this statement would like us to believe that the battle against growth is lost, so our only role is to be the best possible losers. They write that we should give up the efforts to achieve a quiet stability for our community, and in defeat, we should "embrace the principles of Smart Growth." We can understand this. That's the game in which they are the big winners.
We must remember that "Smart Growth" and "Dumb Growth" both destroy the environment, but "Smart Growth" destroys the environment with good taste. Frosty Woolridge quotes a writer who points out the stark truth, "Growth is not the answer; it's the problem."
The innumerate theme of the promoters is "The Front Range is going to grow whether we like it or not." If this is true, it is because so many Front Range leaders are active and successful in promoting growth. The Legislature and all manner of public and private regional and local "civic groups" are promoting "economic development" which is the "politically correct" name for "growth."