Smart Growth was originally developed to help cities undergoing rapid growth to do it in a more sustained manner with sensitivity to its impact on the environment. This started as a European concept but was easier because they had relatively limited urban sprawl. It is like a suitcase in which you need to pack your belonging more efficiently into a fixed container as you buy more souvenirs along the way.
Smart growth is an urban planning tool that concentrates growth in compact walkable, bikeable urban centers to counter urban sprawl such as exists in Cupertino. The practice of Smart Growth has often been criticized for encouraging further growth by accommodating it more efficiently but it is only a tool, a methodology for planning a city, with no other purpose. Some use it that way but it is more appropriate to use is to aid our city grow more systematically and efficiently. It is simply a set of guidelines for packaging city growth so that is does not further spread into surrounding undeveloped lands and is efficient in accommodating more people with minimal environmental impacts and use of energy, space, and other resources. Because of its emphasis upon minimizing environmental and natural resource impacts it is the EPA’s preferred method of urban planning and development. It does not result in sustainable growth but far greater sustained rate of growth if properly applied.
Transportation is a major concern because urban sprawl necessitates the need for driving cars. Cars not only take up much roads and parking space but consume large amounts of energy, need a huge and costly infrastructure, have major environmental and pollution impacts, and take a huge toll in human lives: 33,000 fatalities per year nationwide. And they are very expensive to own and operate in relation to the time spent in them. Smart Growth ideally develops cities into many walkable and bikeable self-contained neighborhoods with no intrusions into the surrounding undeveloped environment. This necessitates neighborhoods which are compact and encourages many mixed use development centers where people live, work, shop, and recreate within walking and biking distance.
A less optimum but often hybridized form of Smart Growth is locating high density housing along major transportation corridors such as Stevens Creek Blvd. with good public transportation so that people can take it to work, shop, and recreation along the same corridor. But this is not ideal Smart Growth, only a stepping stone towards its evolutionary end. It will evolve over many decades from a properly designed General Plan encompassing Smart Growth principles.
Our areas have grown to the point that available land is becoming increasingly scarce resulting in a shortage of houses driving housing prices out of the roof making housing unaffordable to most. Thus for Silicon Valley with its high job demands housing has not been able to keep pace with its demand. Land to build housing has become increasingly scarce and further growth problematic as streets become increasingly congested with everyone clamors to drive to work at the same time. Smart Growth deals well with such restricted urbanized areas as Cupertino. The primary problem with urbanized growth is traffic. Even if high density housing eventually replaced single houses traffic will be a limiting factor for growth.
Smart Growth is smart because it sets up guidelines that addresses the consequences of growth such as traffic and housing shortages and optimizes urban planing. It does not address the root causes of growth, being population growth and the increasing demand for job. Limiting population and jobs growth requires political and social solutions, not urban planning.
Smart Growth suggests an iteal city some time into the distant future which is not allowed to expand more than its current size where no motorized vehicles existed and asks how would you design it? One scenario would be to build high density mixed use community centers where everything would be within walking distance of most of one’s needs such as housing, work, schools, shopping, etc. If there were many of these mixed use centers spaces close together where roads would be narrow because there would no longer be any need for cars and people simply did most of their business within a few blocks of where they lived such a city could grow for some time before it would become saturated.
Now if one adds cars into the equation one can easily see why our city would very quickly run out of space for people and be in perpetual traffic gridlock. Cars only work if there is plenty of space to spread out. So the next question is how do we get from where we are to the optimum Smart Growth City. Public transportation is only an interim phase between today’s poorly planned urban sprawl cities and the optimum Smart Growth community. It allows concentrations of high density housing along major transportation corridors with shopping and work centers some distance away along the same corridors. But it doesn’t address how to convert our urban sprawl areas away from public transportation into Smart Growth community centers. Only mixed use communities will and that takes decades of smart urban planning to convert low density housing to many small self-contained high density mixed used centers.
But it is always wisest to pace growth such that it can be sustained at a near constant rate over a longer period, perhaps by many decades. Spurts of large multi-developmental growth are Always highly risky and can result in grave unintended impacts so should always be avoided. There are so many variables when doing an especially large development such as the Apple 2 Campus so it should be allowed a few years to settle down to sort out and better understand various impacts such as traffic that can have compounding effects in conjunction with other major developments such as Vallco. Smaller developments such as Target and Marina, because of their lesser impacts, can be done without a full understanding of their impacts. But many developments clustered in time such as Main Street, The Oaks, Target, Cupertino Square, and Marina can be problematic if done within a short period of time due to their cumulative and interactive impacts.
See my letter to the City regarding the EIR Scoping of The Hills at Vallco: The Hills at Vallco EIR Scoping Public Comment to see what I propose for Vallco based upon Smart Growth principles. As far as I know this would be the most Smart Growth development of its kind in the United States if implemented and an example for others to follow.
[Also see Smart Growth – A Personal Perspective]