New Ways to Promote Smart Growth

Smart growth in California data / Calthorpe Associates
Data on smart growth in California / Calthorpe Associates

“Climate change is the one thing that clearly unifies the planet — every city in the world has to cope with these issues,” said Peter Calthorpe, principal of Calthorpe Associates, in his keynote address at the Louisiana Smart Growth Summit. At the two-day conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, climate change was a hot issue for many of the speakers, who discussed strategies for combating it with smart growth policies, not just in Louisiana, but across the country.

Calthorpe identified several new avenues for promoting smart growth, which concentrates urban development in walkable downtowns and connects regions:

Use Data to Show Smart Growth Is Low Cost

We need to talk about smart growth in terms of its cost-saving benefits. Policymakers, planners, and the public all increasingly desire quantifiable data on environmentally-sound policies. It’s not enough to harp on the health or environmental benefits of walkable downtowns — if the cost-saving benefits are not highlighted, smart growth policies will not be implemented.

As Calthrope said, “smart growth is fiscally the most responsible thing to do if you get the data on the table. A lot of conservative Republicans who don’t believe in smart growth or climate change were at least on board for the least-cost scenario.”

One way to help policymakers and the public understand the cost-saving benefits of smart growth is by presenting them with the costs of various scenarios. “People will say we can’t afford $94 billion for high speed rail in California but the reality is, if we don’t build it and we still have those same trips taking place, we’d have to expand airports and highways to accommodate them and that would cost $180 billion dollars.”

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Plan for the California high-speed rail system when completed / UC Davis and Esri

Though it might seem “geek-ish” to make a hard sell for design based on so much data, according to Calthorpe, presenting policymakers and the public with cost-benefit scenarios can can help them clear their minds of the rhetoric that “we should do nothing because we can’t afford anything.”

Christopher Leinberger, president of LOCUS, made a similar point in his presentation about the importance of selling the least-cost scenario.

“Why would you ever invest your limited capital dollars into roads and sewers when, if you put them into walkable urban development, you can bring in 6-12 times the revenue for the same cost per mile,” he said. Not everyone cares about the environment. Not everyone acknowledges climate change. But presenting thoughtful, environmentally-sensitive projects through an economic lens can provide a backdoor for implementation.

Use Autonomous Vehicles to Better Connect Regions

While Calthorpe argued that technology is not a “silver bullet” for creating better cities, he acknowledged that new technologies may help us change some of the behaviors that have contributed to sprawl. Innovation will come out of a transportation revolution centered on autonomous public transportation.

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Google’s prototype for a driver-less car / Google

While autonomous private vehicles companies like Google are prototyping have the potential to perpetuate the negative environmental impacts of regular vehicles — by encouraging sprawling development — there is a compelling case for autonomous public buses, Calthorpe said.

“If you take that same technology companies like Google are thinking about and apply it in place of large buses in dedicated right of ways, you’ll be able to create a transit system that is equitable and affordable without drivers,” he said. “Connecting communities at a regional scale is also crucial.”

Leinberger argued that new autonomous vehicle technologies, without a concurrent change in our lives or our cities, are not going to solve anything. But tailoring technology to inspire behavioral changes can provide a great tool for changing the underlying chemistry of broken systems.

Use Mixed-Income Developments to Build Resilience

Discussing the inevitable trade-offs involved in promoting smart growth, Calthorpe called gentrification “good news for the U.S,” because of the environmental and social benefits associated with its driving forces. For example, gentrification often occurs in mixed-use areas that are designed to be the most resilient to climate change.

“They call it gentrification, but I call it mixed income,” he said. “I believe many communities would love to have a broader mix of incomes, more services, better schools. Displacement is not nearly as draconian as it is portrayed to be.”

Policy makers, planners, and designers in every city are going to have decide the right balance of walkable mixed-use development given environmental and social constraints. Sometimes building walkable, healthy downtowns will lead to gentrification, but, as Calthorpe said, “there are trade-offs in everything.”

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