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Could ‘smart growth’ ever take off in the UK?

January 07th, 2019
topics:Nature, Economy
by:Robin Whitlock
located in:USA, United Kingdom, Canada
tags:Canada, climate-change, environment, smart growth, social housing, UK, USA

The American’s and Canadians call it ‘dumb growth’ – car dependent patterns of urban sprawl caused by low-density development resulting in the decline of inner cities and the waste of valuable resources.

This is the cycle that the UK is still gripped by, driven by a developmental mentality that according to Jon Reeds of Smart Growth UK favours the individual over community and destroys precious countryside. In America, badly planned cities used to be infamous for urban squalor and gang warfare, but over there things are starting to change, thanks to the smart growth movement.

In 2015, the Canadian NGO Environmental Defence produced a report entitled ‘From Dumb Growth to Smart Growth: Actions to strengthen the Greenbelt and the Growth Plan’. The report described the legacy of the car culture, from the 1950s onwards, as urban sprawl that has caused huge municipal and infrastructure problems, degraded personal health and destroyed farmland and forests. In contrast, the report says that development can consist of a walkable, ‘transit friendly’ model that is better for the environment, personal health and the economy, the aim being to promote smarter and more efficient towns and cities with mid-rise developments and rapid transit. The report emphasises mixed use development and the reuse of spaces such as industrial areas and parking lots in order to make development more compact. Other elements of the Smart Growth concept include efficient growth, targets for intensification, a price on carbon, a 10-year freeze on urban expansion, expansion of the Greenbelt and more efficient transport planning with prioritised investment in public transport systems, rail and existing road networks.

The drive to implement smart growth as a regulatory framework for urban development began in America with the American Planning Association, which in 1997 implemented a project called ‘Growing Smart’ accompanied by a guidebook to the smart growth concept.

In the US, an urban design movement was established by architects Peter Calthorpe and Andrés Duany  called the Congress for the New Urbanism. This promoted the idea of urban villages relying on public transport, cycling and walking rather than cars. Urban villages first appeared in Britain in the late 1980s with the Urban Villages Group (UVG). The concept was supported by HRH Prince Charles The Prince of Wales who brought together a small group of developers, investors, architects and planners, thus forming the UVG. The group was also endorsed, at least initially, by the British Government. Prince Charles was inspired by architecture that promoted human values and community and it was this that drove his interest. He led a widely publicised call for development based on aesthetics and an appreciation of good design.

The Urban Villages concept was never properly defined, as it seemed to rely mostly on discussion between particular individuals, such as the Prince of Wales, and wider social structures. It drew on a number of ideas, many of which were somewhat traditionalist, perhaps even elitist, in nature. The definition of the concept therefore remains somewhat ambiguous.

Peter Calthorpe developed the concept of Transit Orientated Development (TOD) in the 1990s and the ‘Pedestrian Pocket’ in 1989. The Pedestrian Pocket was a pedestrian-friendly mixed-use urban area based around a park at its centre and connected with surrounding areas by public transport systems. New Urbanism remains popular and the Congress for the New Urbanism remains its fundamental organising body. Andrés Duany established the firm Duany Plater Zyberk & Company (DPZ) in 1980, which was subsequently recognised for its design of the communities of Seaside, Florida and Kentlands in Maryland. It has also developed designs and planning codes for over three hundred new towns and inner city revitalisation projects.

In California, the dialogue around smart growth is being led by the annual New Partners for Smart Growth conference, presented by the Local Government Commission, based in Sacramento. This organisation adopted a set of principles known as the Ahwahnee Principles in 1991, emphasising sustainable urban planning practices. It has been organising smart growth conferences in the US since 1997. However, the major driving force behind smart growth in the US is Smart Growth America, founded in 2002, which has led a national coalition of organisations in smart growth related conversations since its foundation. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also developed a smart growth programme, which it launched in 1995.

The most widely-used policy instrument for advancing smart growth in the US is modification of local zoning legislation. This aims to increase the density of development and redevelopment permitted in or near established towns and cities while also restricting new development in outlying areas. Related measures include the use of Urban Growth Boundaries (UGBs) which are used by some US cities to contain high density development in particular areas. The first UGB was implemented in 1958 in Kentucky. They subsequently appeared in Oregon in the 1970s and Florida in the 1980s.

An integral part of smart growth programmes is the provision of social infrastructure, such as schools, libraries and sports and community facilities. A requirement for developers to perform Environmental Impact Assessments is also supportive of smart growth in that they often indicate how significant development impacts can be mitigated.

Cities in the US actively implementing smart growth as a concept include Arlington, Minneapolis and Denver, which have all been recognised by the EPA for their respective achievements in this area. However, opponents of smart growth claim that the car reduction effects claimed by smart growth supporters are actually fairly weak. This has led to critics proposing a concept called the ‘Paradox of Intensification’ which argues that urban intensification that increases population density, while it reduces per capita car use, also increases concentrations of motor traffic in certain areas, thereby worsening the local environment in those areas. However, some cities, such as Freiburg im Breisgau in Germany, have managed to counter this effect by implementing a number of anti-congestion measures at citywide level.

In the UK, the discourse around smart growth was carried forward by Colin Buchanan and Stephen Plowden. However, British smart growth conversations are now mostly conducted by Smart Growth UK.

According to Jon Reeds, British interest in smart growth began with a plan for a conference. This didn’t actually happen but it did inspire some interest in the concept across the country. However, the reaction from the established planning and property sectors was dismissive, even though the concept had taken root in America, Canada and Australia.

“When we set up this conference, three of us took it to some of the National NGOs, like CPRE, CBT, the old Civil Trust and a range of others, and they agreed to set up an initiative” said Jon. “The plan for a stand-alone initiative foundered on the economic crisis the following year, but they’ve certainly been very supportive ever since and we’ve published a number of reports which are on our website and agreed sets of principles. We’ve worked on various things ever since. Last year we did a report on the Government’s garden towns and villages programme, with content from the groups that were opposing them locally. Civic Voice supported that and Griff Rhys Jones wrote the preface to it, so we are still getting support, but it’s patchy, there are people in the planning profession and in academia who recognise it and are supportive, but the problem is that central government is very anti”.

Jon Reeds says that back in the 1990s there was a group programme called the Urban Renaissance which reflected some of the approaches that John Selwyn Gummer MP (now Lord Deben, the chair of the Committee on Climate Change – CCC) had undertaken. However, in the early ‘noughties’, the Treasury decided that the way to cure the effects of housing market fluctuations was to build lots of new houses on greenfield sites. The Treasury has continued this policy since, pressurising other departments to support this approach and changing planning policy, which was continued through the New Labour period, taken up by the Coalition government and carried on by the present Conservative government. In effect, planning policy is dictated by Central Government and all too often local authorities just have to toe the line.

“Some local authorities are very good and they do their best” says Jon. “Others like to call themselves ‘pro-growth authorities’ because they know if they agree plans for urban sprawl over and above the government’s existing demands they’ll get money out of government. I think it’s an unwise approach because in the end the cost of the sprawl will be far more than they ever get out of the government, but they are so desperate for money at the moment that they tend to take what’s on offer. There are very good people in local authorities and in local transport, but the whole national policy is against them”.

In addition to dealing with environmental problems, Jon believes that smart growth can help poorer communities through the provision of a range of housing needs, particularly with regard to social housing.

“Social housing is the thing that virtually everyone is saying now that we need a lot more of” Jon says. “Not everyone will own their own home and quite frankly not everyone, in parts of the country, can afford to rent privately. Social housing is an important part of the mix. The other thing is, you look at what the government says about household creation, a number of the figures they propose for the housing they say we need are based on household growth projections. 74 percent of the increase will be over-65s. We’re not building houses for over-65s, we’re building them for young adults with 2 or 3 car families to buy. Remote locations in which they will have to commute long distances by car, and will create a lot of greenhouse gases, congestion and accidents in the process”.

Article written by:
Robin Whitlock
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In America, badly planned cities used to be infamous for urban squalor and gang warfare, but over there things are starting to change, thanks to the smart growth movement.
A report described the legacy of the car culture, from the 1950s onwards, as urban sprawl that has caused huge municipal and infrastructure problems.
The drive to implement smart growth as a regulatory framework for urban development began in America with the American Planning Association, which in 1997 implemented a project called ‘Growing Smart’ accompanied by a guidebook to the smart growth concept.
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