Smart growth must become more demanding, more community-oriented, and greener (literally)

Friendship Heights, Chevy Chase, MD

Is it any wonder that neighbors continue to oppose density (oops, I meant "compact development") when what we have been giving them is lousy? We smart growth advocates have gotten lazy. The issue has evolved in the last decade but, for the most part, we haven't. We're stuck in a mindset from the 1990s when it was such a monumental achievement to get density built near transit that we were happy even when it was mediocre density. Unfortunately, more often than not, that's what we've been getting.

Things are different now. There are still too many places where we face monumental challenges (I'm not that naïve). But, by and large, jurisdictions across the country get it today. It seems like almost everywhere, at least the planners are pushing for more urbanism, particularly around transit. It's happening all over DC, where I live. My goodness, it's happening even in places like Charlotte, Nashville, and Dallas. If that doesn't convince you that the dynamics have changed, I don't know what will.

We haven't been as successful in persuading jurisdictions to take a firm stand against suburban sprawl, but to an extent the market is coming around on that one. Sprawl is being devalued in the marketplace; demographics (watch for another post on that topic soon) and energy prices point in the direction of stronger demand for urban environments; central cities are growing again. We've made tremendous progress.

But, my god, look at the top photo, showing the type of development that is being built and has been built recently around Metro stations in DC's suburbs. Is this the best we can do? I don't have anything against high-rises per se, in the right contexts. But TOD in my region comprises a sameness and sterility - always emphasizing building mass over architectural variety and community amenities - that, in my opinion, is soul-deadening.

We in the smart growth movement need to become much more discriminating in what we support and what we don't. In particular, we must stop applauding density per se and start advocating what my friend David Crossley, president and founder of the great organization Houston Tomorrow, calls the right kind of density - a built landscape that respects and improves upon its neighborhood instead of overpowering it.

In fact, I would go further and argue that we should also insist on affordable housing, green building, green infrastructure, and useable public park space as part of any large-scale development.

We also should insist that not all new development be large-scale. We don't need high density everywhere, though it is appropriate in some places, especially downtowns. But in many others, moderate density would be an awesome upgrade for the environment and much more respectful of the existing community. Remember that transportation research shows that we get the largest improvements in reducing per capita driving and emissions as we move from low density to moderate density, and much less improvement as we move from moderate to high.

Why in the world should we settle for the same old massive boxes that we got in the 1980s and the 1990s when it is now the twenty-first century? We can do better (see bottom photo).

I elaborate on these notions in an essay I posted this morning on my NRDC blog, along with 26 illustrative photos and images. If I have piqued your interest, please take a look. Thanks.


Kaid, I really enjoyed the

Kaid, I really enjoyed the essay and especially the photographic examples on the NRDC version of the page. New Urbanists have sometimes been accused of focusing too much on design and neglecting necessary density; your post makes it clear that opposite imbalance can be just as disastrous. I might point to NU development Columbia Heights as a good balance of both... you did a video on it earlier this year:

Great Green Places: Columbia Heights from National Building Museum on Vimeo.

On a similar note, the London Evening Standard published a letter today by Hank Dittmar from the Prince's Foundation on the Built Environment. In discussing the Chelsea Barracks and One New Change developments, he makes some of the same points you do... namely that monolithic high rises aren't necessary for fruitful density and the importance of buildings that cater to and respect the existing community.


Write your comments in the box below and share on your Facebook!