There’s no shortage of elected officials betting their legacies on smart growth. Cities are increasingly embracing it as a way to curb sprawl, reduce greenhouse emissions, and build healthier communities. But the big question most have failed to address is how to turn the grand vision into a reality that has both momentum and traction. For answers, BUILDER caught up with urban planner Andres Duany, co-author of the recently released primer, The Smart Growth Manual.


BUILDER: Are smart growth and New Urbanism the same thing?

DUANY: They are pretty much identical but for their genesis. When people started asking the developer of Seaside, “How did you do it?” the process of answering those questions eventually became the framework for the New Urbanism, which tends to be market-oriented and private sector focused. Smart growth came from Maryland Governor Parris Glendening about ten years later, and is more government and policy driven. Both are highly compatible; they just come from different ends. What you see in The Smart Growth Manual is a collation of new urbanism, smart growth policy, and straight environmentalism

BUILDER: What is the biggest impediment to smart growth?

DUANY: Citizen participation in the planning process is probably the biggest roadblock. If you ask people what they want, they don’t want density. They don’t want mixed use. They don’t want transit. They don’t even want a bike path in their back yard. They don’t want a grid that connects, they want cul-de-sacs. They can’t see the long term benefits of walkable neighborhoods with a greater diversity of housing types. This book is a quick read and is dedicated explicitly to them. It’s for the people, not for planning professionals.

BUILDER: Proponents say that smart growth can’t happen effectively without regional-scale planning because so much of it is about connectivity. How do you reconcile citizens’ rights to have a say in their communities with the need for big-picture thinking and decision-making?

DUANY: There is a theory of subsidiarity that considers at what level a decision is properly made. Most of today’s planning decisions--large and small--are made at the wrong level. Take transit. You do not ask the neighbor next to a 16-mile bikeway whether they want a bikeway in their back yard because they will say no. That’s a decision that needs to be made at the regional level. Conversely, let’s say you want to have free-range chickens to provide eggs for you and your neighbors. Right now that’s controlled by municipal ordinance. City zoning codes say no chickens, when really this is a decision that should be made at the block level, because chickens affect the block, not the whole city. Then you have municipalities enforcing rules about what color you can paint your house, which is ridiculous. That’s the wrong level of decision making.

BUILDER: It’s been 10 years since the passage of Governor Glendening’s landmark smart growth legislation, and a new study out of the University of Maryland suggests that it has largely failed to prevent sprawl. Is that a casualty of decision making at the wrong level?

DUANY: In this case the problem is follow-through. State governments set a broad vision, but they never come to bat when the neighbors come out to protest. What happens is that the state continually defaults to local government. The state only manipulates a couple levers, such as highways, but if there is no highway in the formula, the state will not come out and make a case for smart growth where the rubber hits the road. That leaves the developer hanging.

BUILDER: Can smart growth gain traction if it is merely a choice, or must it be mandated?

DUANY: It has to be a choice. When you make smart growth mandatory, it crashes. Studies show that 70% of people want smart growth, which is great. But there are still the 30% who are really happy with their cul-de-sacs and McMansions and long commutes. And because one-third of Americans explicitly like things the way they are, you cannot eliminate that option. Reform doesn’t work when you try to exterminate conventional suburbia. To be more effective, all you need to do is level the playing field and then let the market operate.

BUILDER: In that case, how do you level the playing field, considering the zoning necessary for smart growth is illegal in some places?

DUANY: This is so important. Most places have smart growth guidelines in place, but they don’t have specific codes and standards in place. The comprehensive plan may call for smart growth, but when it comes down to it, the schools are still huge (which presumes that a bunch of parents will be driving their kids to get there), and the neighborhoods are still mapped out according to a system of privileges where all of the houses in a given area are similar in size and price. There is a lack of mixed use, and everything has parking lots out front. You can say what you want in a comprehensive plan and a statement of intent, but if the technical documents are not there for implementing smart growth, the ball is dropped.

BUILDER: Whose job is it to draw up the necessary technical documentation?

DUANY: Implementing a whole new regime of codes and standards is expensive. If you’re a big city like Miami (which is switching to form-based codes, with the passage of the Miami 21 initiative) you can do it. However, little and even medium-sized towns can’t do this because 95% of them can’t generate their own documents. What needs to happen is for states to adopt model smart codes (not just guidelines but actual replacement documents) and to make those standards available to local jurisdictions. Then tell municipalities that unless they make the smart growth choice available as an option, they won’t be receiving any flow-through money. My firm, DPZ, has been designing freeware smart codes as blueprints for smart growth implementation. Anyone can download them.

BUILDER: Who or what will drive the impetus for smart growth going forward?

DUANY: The impetus for everything will come from the environmental movement, as it is embodied in young people. We now have a generation in their twenties and thirties who have grown up with the story of environmental stewardship. They are not buying real estate yet, but they will be. We also can’t ignore the fact that we are experiencing three overlaid crashes right now. You have the real estate crash, and the economic crash of over-consumption, and then the environmental crash, which is psychic. Together, these crises will change the marketplace. Developers have to know that in three to five years, this is going to be the new reality of the buyer. It will be as uncool to have a McMansion or a Hummer as it is right now to smoke cigarettes, which are no longer glamorous.

BUILDER: What will happen to all those uncool McMansions?

DUANY: Some can be retrofitted, depending on the design. We just did a study for AARP and the Atlanta Regional Council on how to retrofit the suburbs for an aging population. McMansions were one of the building types we looked at. We identified, for example, one developer who had a four-bedroom, 4½-bath plan that we could easily turn into an 11-bedroom, 11-bath boarding house for senior citizens, all in the same envelope. We are writing this up in a book called Suburban Retrofits.

BUILDER: Is the era of greenfield development over?

DUANY: No. It will still happen, but on the basis of agriculture. Ag is the new golf. There is still a lifestyle that’s involved with larger lots, longer views, and socializing around an activity. We’re proposing that agriculture allows a certain degree food self-sufficiency, but on a highly organized basis, much like the golf community model. In agricultural urbanism, people can have their own gardens, but there are also larger community farms. The same crews that would ordinarily maintain the ornamental landscape in a golf community are instead assigned to do the heavy work of the agriculture. We have designed several communities in accordance with this model.

BUILDER: So the local food movement is here to stay?

DUANY: I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the local food movement is not just a side show. When we finally determine that we are going to lose the war on global warming and a tipping point is reached, our focus will shift from global mitigation to local adaptation. That means not only generating enough energy to bridge a brownout and ensuring our water supply, but also augmenting some of our food supply in case there are hiccups. Besides, there is no downside to growing your own food. It’s a popular thing to do and is very social. We are now designing town squares as market squares in many of our communities. There is a whole proposition that people gather in public on the basis of consumption, but it’s not just about consumption. You can also gather to grow, process, organize, and cook food. And eat very well.

Jenny Sullivan is a senior editor for BUILDER covering architecture, design, and community planning.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Atlanta, GA.