What is ‘smart growth’?

    One in a series explaining key terms and concepts of Pennsylvania government.

    Seeking a better understanding of Pennsylvania’s issues and proposed solutions? Sometimes, complicated jargon and concepts can get in the way. That’s why we started Explainers, a series that tries to lay out key facts, clarify concepts and demystify jargon. Today’s topic is smart growth.

    Picture this: You step outside your door, and within ten minutes, you can walk to a grocery store, the gym, your kids’ school, work or church. You can bike there even faster, and in a dedicated bike lane.

    That’s the goal of “smart growth,” a policy new Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has said he embraces.

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    What is smart growth?

    It’s a planning approach that favors walkable and bikeable communities over suburban sprawl. 


    Advocates say communities that embrace smart growth offer a higher quality of life, because residents have shorter commutes, walk around more, and presumably breathe cleaner, less polluted air.

    They also say smart growth helps the local economy, because it makes it easier for people who can’t afford cars to get (and keep) jobs.

    Local officials say smart growth isn’t just about quality of life; it’s also “fiscally prudent.” That’s according to an interview Smart Growth America did with Derry Township Supervisor Sandy Ballard. Ballard noted that “when you allow huge developments to be built far from downtown, you have to spend thousands of dollars more on roads, sewers, police, school buses and other utilities, and the tax returns per acre don’t pay out.” 

    What are some smart growth policies?

    Mixed-use development, where a neighborhood or a building is zoned for multiple uses, including residential, commercial, cultural and industrial. The idea is that if your job, the grocery store and home are all near each other, it’s easier to ditch your car and walk or take public transit instead.
    Creating more transit connections and facilities for biking.
    Fixing existing infrastructure, like roads and sewer systems, rather than building new systems in far-flung areas.
    Developing abandoned industrial sites, or brownfields, rather than paving over farmland or other greenfields. 
    Creating urban growth boundaries, basically drawing a line where the city will build dense, urban communities on one side and low-density rural farmland on the other. (This is controversial, because it can boost property values within the boundary while land just outside plummets in value.)
    Inclusionary zoning: changing regulations or giving incentives to developers so they’ll build a certain amount of mixed-income housing. That ideally would mean everyone who works in a community could also live there.

    Are these policies new?

    Not really. The “smart growth” idea has been around since the late 1990s, and many urban planners believe in it, says Karin Morris, manager of the Smart Growth office at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. Morris says smart growth policies have been incorporated into many cities across Pennsylvania, and even into federal planning legislation.

    To Morris, smart growth “just means you’re doing good, integrated planning,” she says.

    But the approach does have critics.

    What do the critics say?

    One of their biggest concerns is that smart growth can cause concentrated poverty. 

    The argument is that because some smart growth policies restrict land use, they can also drive up housing prices and push minorities and poor people out of their communities. That’s laid out in a 2002 study by the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank.

    DVRPC’s Morris says the concern isn’t unfounded. Smart growth policies would ideally make urban land and inner-ring suburban land more valuable. “So yes, it can drive up land costs because we’re making cities and places near cities more desirable,” she says. “But what is the alternative? Success means that more people will want to live there and thus the land is more valuable.”

    Morris says inclusionary zoning is one way to deal with the effects of rising property values. That means requiring landlords to create a certain percentage of affordable housing units. And it has become one of the central tenets of smart growth.

    Other critics say smart growth policies don’t work well. Studies on the topic are mixed; some found that building denser cities doesn’t decrease automobile use, but others refuted those findings.

    Which Pennsylvania municipalities are embracing smart growth?

    The Environmental Protection Agency gives out awards every year to a few cities that are leading the way on smart growth. Lancaster got the 2009 award for “overall excellence.”

    The EPA has also recognized East Liberty in Pittsburgh for its growth policies.

    Smart Growth America also highlights municipalities that are incorporating smart growth into their planning. Among them are Lower Macungie Township, Dauphin County, Hershey and Pittsburgh.

    The DVRPC maps out which counties have adopted smart growth policies, like changing their ordinances to encourage transit-oriented development. As you can see from the map, Philadelphia and Chester have done this, but many surrounding counties haven’t.

    What does Governor Wolf mean when he talks about smart growth?

    On the campaign trail, Governor Wolf talked about how he would encourage smart growth in Pennsylvania’s cities and suburbs. He said he would adopt a “fix it first” approach to development, making use of existing infrastructure, buildings, and land. He also said he would use a mix of public and private dollars for mixed-use, mixed-income developments that set aside 10 percent of homes for low-income residents. And he would create a state planning office devoted to smart growth. 


    Did this explainer answer your questions about “smart growth”? If not, you can reach Marielle Segarra via email at msegarra@whyy.org or through social media @MarielleSegarra. Have a topic on which you’d like us to do an Explainer? Let us know in the comment section below, or on Twitter @PaCrossroads.


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