Civilized Clash of Views Marks Smart Growth Symposium
Parris N. Glendening, Governor of Maryland was the keynote speaker at MIT's spring symposium, Smart Growth: What's Behind the Rhetoric, at the Seaport Hotel in May. The Governor, who made smart growth his top priority during his term as chairman of the National Governor's Council, was emphatic that "time is not on our side with regard to controlling sprawl and revitalizing existing communities. We have to act aggressively." He went on to describe Maryland's Smart Growth program which is widely regarded as an exemplar. The program is based on targeting growth to established areas through a series of special incentives rather than state mandates. It has three main goals: to enhance existing communities; to preserve natural resources and to save taxpayers the cost of new infrastructure resulting from sprawl. "Sprawl is fiscally irresponsible," said Glendening, who regards growth management as an essentially conservative activity. In Maryland, state spending is focused on existing communities or locally designated, state-approved growth areas. "We are using the state budget to change growth patterns," he explained. "The state simply will not pay for sprawl." Through a variety of programs involving transportation funds, community revitalization funds, small business loans and brownfields and historic preservation tax credits, Maryland tries to make sure it is "cheaper to build, to buy and to renovate in established areas." A state office of Smart Growth provides a one-stop clearing house for information and assures that all state programs are consistent with the program. The governor, who quoted several times from Lend Lease's Emerging Trends in Real Estate to emphasize the alignment of goals between thoughtful real estate developers and smart growth advocates, got a warm reception from the crowd of MIT members, alumni and friends.
The program the following morning included many well-known advocates and critics of growth management. Stuart Meck, lead author for the American Planning Association's "Growing Smart Project," explained that unlike previous plans the APA's just published initiative is flexible in structure with many modules that can be substituted for each other depending on a community's needs. "The plan provides both narrow and broad alternatives-there are no right answers," he explained. For developers, the beauty of the plan is that there are time limits for permit issuance, so an answer will be forthcoming.
Jonathan Rose, president of Jonathan Rose & Companies, LLC, presented the New Urbanist perspective which intersects at many points with the smart growth agenda. The four principles defining their work are increasing diversity within the community; environmental responsibility; integrating economic activities and interdependence. Increasing density is part of the program. "Density can be popular if it's designed properly," said Rose, echoing Governor Glendening the night before. He discussed at some length the challenges of financing urban mixed-use projects. "Wall Street increased capital flow but limits our ability to be flexible and creative," he said. "Real estate is part of a place. It may take time to create value." More than the 5 to 7 years capital markets expect, in any case.
Andrew Cotugno, the Planning Director for Metro in Portland Oregon described how the 23-year old urban growth boundary has affected development. The compact growth boundary encourages redevelopment and infill development and emphasizes mixed-use building in a series of higher density city sub-centers connected by light rail transit. A couple of years ago as the regional economy was booming, there was a lot of concern about congestion and rising housing prices, but the turn in the business cycle has knocked both way back down. The plan has been reviewed periodically since it was put in place and voters have always confirmed it (most recently two weeks ago), so despite the issues, it is working.
Myron Orfield, a state senator from Minnesota and president of a planning consulting firm, Ameregis, focused on challenges in saving old inner-ring suburb from continuing decline. He pointed out that schools are "a powerful indicator of a community's health and a predictor of its future." Middle class families choose to live in the "least-poor" school district they can afford. If they can, they leave a community with deteriorating schools. His research shows that 40% of Americans live in such suburbs which are characterized by rapid change and low fiscal capacity (they can't raise enough tax dollars to fund their needs). Another 25% live in developing bedroom communities. Only 7% live in affluent "job center" suburbs, the home of growth moratoria. Regional cooperation is one answer and it should be politically possible.
Sam Staley, Director of the Urban Futures Program at The Reason Public Policy Institute provided a more critical view of smart growth. One of his key values was preserving housing choice. "Smart growth expands the political sphere in housing choice and decreases the economic sphere," he pointed out. He fears a "minimizing of the market and a movement towards the prescriptive," a tendency to impose a static notion on a dynamic process. He is not a believer in laissez-faire though. "We should look at the actual impacts and real costs of infrastructure and pay those. Like Orfield, he believes regional planning is called for in order to have government structures that can deal with regional issues.
The final speaker in the morning program was Robert Lang, a professor and Director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. He referred to himself with a smile as a "troublemaker" within the smart growth movement who has three basic "gripes". The first is their misreading of urban history to define pre-war development as good and post-war development as bad, and particularly to define the car as "bad". His second gripe is that metropolitan models used by smart growth advocates are outdated. Cities have evolved in "subtle and complicated ways;" eastern cities are very different from western cities. Each city needs something different. Finally, he wondered about their criticism of "monster" houses built as infill in wealthy suburbs. After all, they increase density. Is a part of the movement aesthetic? Is it against rich people with bad taste?
The final speaker of the day was Marianne Lamont Horinko, the Assistant Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, who celebrated her birthday by giving attendees a quick review of proposed federal brownfields legislation that will promote infill development.