Smart Growth – A Personal Perspective


Smart growth is an urban planning and transportation theory that concentrates growth in compact walkable urban centers to avoid sprawl.

Some Background:

I actually devised Smart Growth independently (my form of it) around the summer of last year while the General Plan Amendment (GPA) was undergoing scrutiny around the summer of 2014 (see My Vision of a Future Biking Community put online in Nov. 2014 with Red highlighting Smart Growth elements).  I had by then determined that car traffic would limit Cupertino’s ability to sustain growth for long and was trying to solve this problem.  It became clear that replacing cars with bicycles was the right path so I developed a long range Vision of what Cupertino would look like without cars.  I felt the General Plan (GP) and GPA outdated for the dynamic growth our region was undergoing (remind me to elaborate later).  This Vision has been undergoing revisions in my mind ever since.

It wasn’t until about 6 mo. ago that I first heard the term Smart Growth mentioned several times on  Not being familiar with it I Googled it and was delighted that what I had modeled fit reasonably well with the more formal definition of Smart Growth.  I did some more reading on it to familiarize myself with it.  It did not agree with the posts on using of it.  So I merged the two concepts together into something that was coherent to me and relevant to urban sprawl in Cupertino.  More Sustained Growth for Cupertino with Smart Growth represents my latest thinking about it.  The formal Smart Growth principles for me are simply a path to what I call Optimum Smart Growth where no large motorized vehicles exist in town 75 years from now which is the ideal case.  Mass Transit of some kind may exist to take people to more distant locations but will play almost no role in in-city transportation for a town our size.  In-city commuting will be by walking and biking.  I also assumed that Global Warming would have advanced considerably making energy conservation far more critical (zero greenhouse gases).  This necessitates that all the essence of living need be located within walking and maybe as far as biking distance from home.  Small mixed use community centers would be scattered in hundreds of locations throughout an urban sprawl community such as Cupertino.  Bicycle paths would interconnect these communities in case there are some thing not available in any given community.  Why bicycles instead of some other form so transportation?  Read Benefits Of Biking.  In fact many things like shopping, working, and going to school would have changed dramatically and not resemble what it is today.  But I don’t go into this here.  Such ideas are discussed in another of my blogs.


Let me give Examples of Optimum Smart Growth ‘Element Goals‘ for a city with urban sprawl like Cupertino:

  1. Walking and biking would be the primary means of transportation around town with mass transit to further out of town destinations.  Roads would be narrow enough for bicycles but wide enough for emergency vehicles (motorized 3 wheel bikes);
  2. Most necessities of living will be within preferably walking and secondarily biking distance from home;
  3. Small somewhat self-contained neighborhood communities would consist of mixed-use developments of high density housing, job centers, goods and services, etc.  They would be located primarily within walking distance of one another and a few within bicycle riding distance;
  4. New developments would have no significant impact upon the natural surroundings and wherever possible enhance it;
  5. All construction would be Green and energy efficiency with zero greenhouse gas emissions and zero pollution.

Other non-Goal related considerations:

  1. To make sure that resources and infrastructure such as roads, schools, and utilities keep pace with growth;
  2. To make sure that the impacts of growth are balances such as to have minimum negative impact upon the quality of life of the community.

What is the overall Objective of the Optimum Smart Growth Elements?

To achieve a long and sustained healthy rate of growth with objectives towards achieving these Optimum Growth Elements resulting in Cupertino being a city that is in harmony with its infrastructure, highly efficient in its layout for optimum commutes by walking and biking to all essential needs and services, a safe and healthy place to live, energy efficient, and environmentally sustainable by no further intrusions into undeveloped land and pollution.

So what is the purpose of having Element Goals?

Goals permit long ranged plans to be made towards specific Targets by allowing one to have an idea of what the distant Future will look like.  Metrics can thus be set for each goal such as estimated completion dates, budgets, etc. Goals should also have other metrics to measure progress such as the percentage complete, the amount spent over time, etc.  Initially these Goals can be somewhat vague with rough target dates.  But the closer to the Goals one gets the more detailed each metric should be and the more important it is to have an accurate target date.  They can also be weighted as to importance.  All Growth Elements are interrelated so weights and priorities should be set to keep them in synchronization.  Metrics are useful for setting priorities based upon importance and how close to the target the metrics are.  These tools enable long term planning to be systematically done step by step towards achieving each Element Goal.  It must be noted that nothing is an island unto itself.  All Element Goals are interrelated so it is important to factor this into the weighing system so that Growth is properly prioritized and synchronized.  This should be part of the General Plan Smart Growth process.

Goals can determine which kinds of projects are needed and which are less important.  A General Plan that does not have long term goals or metrics is a random plan with no road map of how it will impact the city in the distant undefined future.  Such piecemeal planning as now exist are problematic because no expectations are set allowing open ended and spurious plans to be made by the developers and arbitrarily approved by the city.  It also does not give the city guidance or metrics upon which to judge a development as an asset or burden to the city’s further growth.  This is exactly what is happening now at Vallco.  Each new development will have to go through the same aggravating debates and uncertainties with no direction, priorities, or goals.  Progress cannot be measured because of the lack of metrics by which to judge and measure progress.

So having Goals and Metrics are powerful tools for keeping projects coherent towards long term growth and make incremental planning far more systematic and easier with far fewer nebulous decisions to make.  This is an efficient way to plan out projects and to reduce errors. It is not perfect but it is far better than what now exists.

How about dealing with Inevitable Changes along the way?

Nothing is cast in concrete including long term Goals. The Goals may need to be periodically adjusted due to technological advances, better goals, or other unforeseen factors.  Periodic review will be needed to adjust moving Goals and target parameters.  This must be part of the General Plan process.  But such a process for systematic reviews will be far easier than having to restructure the General Plan every 10-15 years.  It only need to be tweaked and adjusted incrementally where needed along the way, not redone for the next 10-15 year.

Changing times require Changing Methods:

These are changing time and the old ways of city planning are no longer adequate to deal with the rapidly changing times.  A new far more systematic and dynamic rule and metric based process is needed to simplify decision making and to check for interrelated factors that might be inadvertently affected otherwise.  This is true whither it is a Smart Growth process or something else.

The Essence of Smart Growth:

In summary there are 3 components/stages of Smart Growth’s Evolution within a small city like Cupertino:

  1. Goal (also called Optimum, Target) – This is the final stage of Smart Growth’s evolution where all the necessities of life are within walking and secondarily biking distance from high density homes where there are no longer any large motorized vehicles.  For an urban sprawl community like Cupertino hundreds of such self-contained community neighborhood centers would be scattered throughout the city.  This would necessitate mixed use dwellings;
  2. Smart Growth Developments – This is an interim evolutionary step toward the Goal.  The development of high density housing along major public transportation corridors that contain shopping areas and jobs that are accessible via public transportation that people would take is part of this.  Cars would still exist for those unable or unwilling to live in such housing but traffic would have been reduced or at least mitigated;
  3. The Process – Planning growth using the Development strategies, Goals, Metrics, Guidelines and procedures integrated into the General Plan as well as in the design of each development.  This is the key to making Smart Growth work.

The Virtues of The Process:

Keep in mind that Smart Growth is mostly a process.  Smart Growth should be applied to individual projects and developments as in the City General Plan since they will need to stay within the guidelines and align with the Metrics of the General Plan which embodies the Optimum Smart Growth Goals and processes.  Since expectations are now set it will be far easier for the developer to design a development which meet the predefined need of the city’s long term Goals with consideration to the quality of life of citizens.  It will be far more difficult for developers to violate rules because such rules will coherently tie into one another revealing the impacts of such violations.  The review process can be far more automatic and unambiguous, far simpler all the way around because expectation are clearly set and decisions minimized and more easily made.

Situations like what is happening at Vallco will be far less likely to happen and everyone far happier.  That is not to say there will be no problems.  The process will Evolve and be improved over time with mistakes mitigated along the way.  But it is a systematic way of city planning that keeps pace with changing times and is a living process that can be adjusted and adapted periodically to the social, economic, politic, and environmental requirements of the times.

The process is as important if not more so than the Smart Growth principles themselves.  We need Goals, and Metrics, and Rules, and Expectations, and a Process that ties all these elements together in an organized and coherent procedure that eliminates ambiguities.  The General Plan should be more like a Constitution for Cupertino growth rather than specific unrelated developments with arbitrary rules and guidelines.  But it can contain specific developments as will.  There should be checks and balances between the needs of the Developers, the City, and especially the Community.  All three elements are interrelated and essential for a growing community.  Each has its rolls and their self-interests.  So balance is needed.  There must be a clear need and purpose for developments for such things as the city needing more revenues from more developments unrelated to the Goals of Smart Growth.

The need for a better way to Deal with Change:

I believe that Smart Growth as I have laid out will be most beneficial to the continued growth of our city.  But if there is another better idea that follows a systematic process with goals and metrics I’m willing to listen and learn.  But overall this is the best I have seen so far.  It is centered around minimal environmental impact, efficient city layout, efficiency in mobility, and convenient living for citizens.  It is gaining wider acceptance and will evolve and improve as we learn from mistakes along the way.  Developments and city plans are very complex and the outcomes difficult to predict.  But over time improvement will be made.  It is unfair to throw out a new idea simply because there are failures.  If a concept makes a lot of sense it must be given a chance to develop and evolve or the airplane and car and computer and all the things we take so much for granted today would have never happened.

I have laid out the essence of the concepts I have in mind for Smart Growth and a rough outline of what need to be done to create a coherent and living General Plan.  But the devil is always in the details. It will take much time, planning, and effort to change the way we deal with growth.  Growth is happening at lightning speed compare to past decades and continues to accelerate so it needs to be far more quickly adaptive and far less labored and decision intense.  These are rapidly accelerating and changing times where the old ways are no longer adequate to deal with them effectively.  Change is inevitable and changes are needed on how we deal with it if we are to keep our heads above water and avert disasters.  Even the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) may not be adequate to predict future impacts with any accuracy and their recommendation for mitigating problems are often outdated, superficial, and ineffectual.  Maybe my suggestions are not the best.  They are the best I have been able to develop and discover.  But something better is urgently needed for city planning and the General Plan.

Keeping an Open Mind:

This blog is as much about growth and ways of mitigating its consequences as it is about biking in Cupertino which can help mitigate the consequences of traffic.  This article on Smart Growth is just another way of mitigating the consequences of growth.  The concepts that I have laid our are incomplete and possibly flawed.  They are meant more as illustrations of what Smart Growth could evolve into for our City.

For me personally I am a problem solver more than I am a critic.  I try not to let personal feelings against individuals and developers blind me of the facts and open minded ideas such as biking in our city.  We are not always right and others completely wrong.  There is truth in just about everything.  It is a matter of separating the truth from the untruth.  I am aware that we ALL have our self-interests which often blinds us to the needs of others.  I try my best to remove these biases, though I frequently fail, because they get in the way of my objectivity and inhibit me from learning from others, especially from those whom I disagree.  Creativity is in the minds of babes because of their uninhibited need to learn and all the endless possibilities.  I enjoy developing solutions and coming up with ideas, not all being that popular because I tend to be quite progressive since I try not to let biases or social norms get in my way such as expressed on this blog.

About Frank Geefay

Sustainable Bicycle and Smart Growth Advocate
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6 Responses to Smart Growth – A Personal Perspective

  1. Pingback: More Sustained Growth for Cupertino with Smart Growth | Biking Cupertino

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