Smart Growth in a Changing World

- January 5, 2009

Smart Growth Large

Reprinted with permission from "Smart Growth in a Changing World", copyright 2007 by the American Planning Association

Chapter 1

The U.S. is in the midst of a growth crisis. It gets a little worse every day. Because it is a crisis created by our growing population, vibrant economy, high standard of living, rich natural resources, and abundant land, it is hard to perceive it as a problem. The danger is that we won't wake up to the true dimensions of what is happening until 15 or 20 years from now, when we will have wasted many of our national advantages, and when the costs of fixing our mistakes will far exceed the costs of anticipating and solving these problems today.

Our population is almost certain to grow by 50 percent between the U.S. Census in 2000 and the year 2050. There were 281 million people in the U.S. at the turn of the new century, and there are about 300 million today. By 2050 there will be between 419 million and 433 million. A 50 percent increase over 50 years does not sound so difficult to manage, and it wouldn't be if we could expect it to take place evenly across the whole country.

What is happening instead is that most of the growth is likely to be concentrated in nine multi-city regions, located in the Pacific Northwest, in coastal California around the Bay Area and between Los Angeles and San Diego, in the Intermountain West, in a triangular pattern in Texas, around Chicago, along the Northeast coast, across the Southeast from Raleigh through Atlanta to Birmingham, and in Florida. The population of Florida, a state that is almost all multi-city region, will double; and Southeast multi-city region will grow by 150 percent. Only the Northeast is likely to grow at something like the national average rate; the other multi-city regions will grow much faster.

These predictions are based on a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania in 2004, which projected the population of every county in the U.S., using a consistent methodology out to the year 2050. An explanation of the methodology and a tabulation of the most important statistics are provided in Chapter 2.

It is not a new discovery that cities and their adjacent metropolitan areas are growing together into multi-city regions, or that population growth is likely to be concentrated in such areas, nor is it necessarily a problem.

In 1915 Patrick Geddes in his book Cities in Evolution described how cities were growing together into what he called conurbations. He compared the spreading of London to the growth of a great coral reef, and discerned similar reef-like urban growths linking Manchester and Liverpool, and creating other groups of industrialized cities in England, Scotland, and Wales. He saw the Riviera in the south of France becoming a single urbanized resort, and he predicted that New York City would become linked to Philadelphia and Boston, forming "one vast city-line along the Atlantic Coast for five hundred miles."

Jean Gottmann verified Gedde's prediction in his study Megalopolis: The Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, published in 1961. In that book Gottmann described continuous urbanization from metropolitan Boston to metropolitan Washington, D.C. Some people today would say that the same pattern now extends to Portland, Maine, on the north and Richmond, Virginia, on the south.

Multi-city regional patterns can also be observed in northern Europe, in Japan, and in the Pearl River and Shanghai regions in China.


The scope of our crisis can be read not in the total population projections for the multi-city regions in the U.S., but in the population projections by county. These show the number of counties that will become urbanized by 2025 and 2050. In the multi-city regions the number of urbanized counties will go from 444 to 797 by 2050, which means that almost as great an area is projected to become urbanized in the next four decades as has been urbanized in the whole history of these regions up to now. This is much more conversion of forest and farm land to houses and businesses than is warranted by the population increase itself. The problem is not that metropolitan areas are growing together, or that their population is increasing rapidly. The problem is the low density of new development in the U.S.

Low-density urban sprawl is the nation's normal growth pattern. While people often talk about sprawl as unplanned, most of it has been facilitated by long-established federal highway funding policies, mortgage guarantees, and tax subsidies, and almost all development has to meet local zoning, subdivision, and other codes. New buildings require permits; code changes and exceptions for a new development require hearings and actions by official bodies. New highways and other public works also go through a budgetary and review procedure.

It is hard to call something unplanned when it has been subjected to an extensive official approval process. Reforming such a deeply embedded system will not be easy. There will have to be changes in federal and state policies. Planners, government officials, and consultants who are working with outmoded codes and procedures will have to become agents of change as well.

Smart growth has emerged as the consensus term for alternatives to the current system of urban development. Smart growth has three basic elements: conservation of natural resources, encouragement of compact commercial and mixed use development, and walkable residential neighborhoods. There has been less discussion about a smart outcome regionally and nationally. Extending smart growth to multi-city regions means understanding natural systems at a regional scale and making certain that regional transportation initiatives such as highways, training, and transit create a framework for compact development that is also planned with an understanding of regional ecology and sustainability.


Some people assert that sprawl is part of the American way, the price we pay for competition and freedom of choice. It is true that right now we are still paying for sprawl, but we won't be able to keep on paying indefinitely. Kaid Benfield explores the consequences of the runaway American Dream in Chapter 3. He makes clear that current development patterns are already unsustainable and unaffordable; it is hard to imagine what the energy consumption, traffic congestion, air pollution, and erosion of the natural environment will be like in the multi-city regions if low-density urbanization, supported only by roads and highways, keeps on rolling across the landscape for several more decades. The statistical projections of urbanization for the multi-city regions are clearly unsustainable if they continue for the next 40 years. Long before they reach the projected extent, a compensating reaction will take place. The question is how far down the road to unsustainability we have to go.


Sprawling growth patterns are hardly the right way to foster completion and freedom of choice. Inefficient urbanization imposes costs on living and doing business: fuel costs, travel delays, water shortages, unhealthy pollution, destruction of the natural ecology, overextended infrastructure. We now live in a global economy. If we wish to remain competitive, we need to keep an eye on how our competitors are dealing with comparable problems. The big difference, as discussed by Shelley Poticha in Chapter 4, is that other countries with multi-city regions have balanced transportation systems that include high-speed rail connecting urban centers, plus local transit systems. It is not that these countries lack highways and airports; rather, they have a transportation system that allows people to select the mode of transportation most suited to the trip they want to make.

In congested urban centers, it is better to use transit for short trips than to sit in traffic on highways and local streets—and then to hunt for a parking space. However, the transit has to be frequent and provide comfortable accommodations. For trips of less than 400 or 500 miles between urban centers, high-speed train can produce better door-to-door travel times than either highways or airplanes, but it has to be a reliable service, and it has to average at least 75 miles per hour and preferably a lot more.

Chapter 4 begins with a round-up of current plans for high-speed rail in the U.S. The map of high-speed rail routes promoted by the Federal Railway Administration corresponds closely to the multi-city regions. The nation is too large for rail to be the sole mode of choice from one multi-city region to another. But rail may often be the best way to travel within the multi-city regions, even at the relatively low average speeds being planned for U.S. railroads, which except in California, are expected to be far slower than the trains already in operation in Europe and Japan.

Skeptics in the U.S. keep saying that we are never going to get Americans to give up their cars. But a balanced transportation system does not mean giving up automobiles. People are riding the new light-rail systems around the country in unexpectedly large numbers. As Shelley Poticha points out, an important impetus for high-speed rail is not getting people out of their cars but giving them an alternative to airplanes. Close to half the airline flights at major airports are for shorter trips that could be made more efficiently by high-speed rail. Some of the money set aside for costly and controversial new runways could be used for rail improvements instead.


Chapter 5 is a case study demonstrating the potential positive results of regional balanced transportation and environmental conservation in the seven-county Orlando region in Florida. The study, done at the University of Pennsylvania, made population projections to 2050 and then, using computer programs, showed how the projected population is likely to be translated into land development following current policies and densities.

Then an alternative was prepared using the same projections and computer programs, but with new assumptions about stronger environmental protection measures and a balanced transportation system. It turns out that the alternative is both better and cheaper. Much more of the natural environment is preserved, and the costs of land acquisition for preservation—and for high-speed rail and transit—are more than offset by not spending for infrastructure that would support more sprawl. Nor does this alternative mean a big change in lifestyle for people who like the way things are now. Despite increased density near rail and transit stops, much of region would continue as it is today.

Chapter 6 is a case study, also prepared by the University of Pennsylvania, which looks at trends and alternatives for the Northeast Megalopolis. Again, computer programs were used to map that damaging effect of translating population increase into further sprawl. Unlike the Orlando area, some parts of the Northeast are growing far more than others. The study estimates that no new urbanization would be needed in the region at all if the new population could be accommodated using vacant or underused land in the region's older, bypassed communities.


Chapter 7 examines the concerns highlighted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Climate change is making hurricanes and other storm events more severe and appears to be changing rainfall patterns in ways that threaten the water resources of some major cities. Rising sea levels mean that development in low-lying areas along coasts needs to be protected from storm surges. Development in some shoreline locations will become increasingly impractical. Wildfires seem to be increasing as well, possibly as the result of earlier spring thaws and longer dry seasons. Increasing urbanization makes the potential disasters from hurricanes, floods, and fires more severe.

There is also potential disaster from earthquakes, a problem well understood on the West Coast, but less familiar to people in the Salt Lake City, Memphis, Boston, and Charleston regions, which may be equally at risk. These issues all have to be considered in planning for future growth.

Even with strong regional growth policies in place, most of the decisions about development will still be made by local governments, the guardians not just of planning policy but of effective urban design. Chapter 8 describes how local smart-growth and urban design policies can operate within the larger multi-regional context, particularly in conserving the natural landscape, promoting walkability in special districts and residential neighborhoods, and transforming cities and regions into designed environments.


The concluding chapter, by Paul Farmer, the Executive Director and CEO of the American Planning Association, discusses the need for federal smart growth policies and the role that planners need to play in devising and implementing them.