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Where's the Research on Smart Growth?

Leonard Gilroy
February 14, 2006, 9:33am

UCLA Professor Randall Crane (who serves on Reason's Mobility Project advisory board) has launched an interesting urban planning research blog. This recent post on Smart Growth research caught my eye:
[S]mart growth has 3 distinct parts. One is comprehensive, integrated, forward looking planning. (Old news to us but a refreshing concept to laypeople who think the problem is its absence.) A second is a menu of compact development/new urbanist design features, such as mixed land uses, better pedestrian amenities and orientation, higher densities, etc. (This is the public face of smart growth, the basis of its appeal to antisprawl groups.) And the third leg of the smart growth stool is a somewhat different approach to land use governance, in that the environmental community in particular is invited to participate up front via negotiation and mitigation, rather than delaying or blocking things via litigation. I argue it is this last element that got the builders and developers on board -- a revised process -- rather than Seaside esthetics or function. On to research. One could start with the big framing questions, as Boarnet and I did in our book TBD: (1) will it work, (2) is it a good idea, and (3) is it feasible? As examples of the 1st, will compact development relieve traffic problems or will different rules and procedures for community participation facilitate project goals and timelines? Regarding the 2nd, who wins and loses and how are these tradeoffs managed? Finally, if the answers to (1) and (2) are yes, what obstacles to smart growth are found in the standard practice of urban development and planning? There are published treatments of all these, none particularly satisfactory. [...] The details of (2) and (3) especially are only barely documented, let alone explained. I say this partly to justify my wonder that smart growth is rarely questioned as means or goal, even in academia, when our scholarship is so thin that our confidence in any one of its constituent parts is shaky. Each of these larger questions contains a variety of more detailed hypotheses, where better data and methods would help move our understanding of things along. There is much yet to know about what does and doesn't happen and how and when and under what circumstances. We can agree on this even if we all want to grow smart. Researchers who raise such questions are often called skeptics, as though faith should be our guide on empirical questions. If we don't know the answer to basic questions, and have no axe to grind, aren't we merely curious?
Crane's articulates a frustration that a lot of us in the planning community have about smart growth. Smart growth is somewhat akin to the topic of global warming in a general sense: diehard advocates of global warming policy adhere strongly to their faith and mock those who come along to question it. And, similar to global warming policy, the evidence compiled on smart growth to date calls into question whether it can actually fulfill the lofty promises advocates routinely make. Kudos to Crane for bringing this subject to our attention. I hope the SG advocates are listening.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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