SMART GROWTH. IT'S A RELATIVELY NEW term, but one that is fast becoming a part of the popular lexicon. But what does smart growth mean these days? The answer, of course, depends on who you are and how you view the growth debate. For some, smart growth is synonymous with slow growth or even no growth. Others see smart growth as more efficient use of land and resources. Still others focus on walkability, sense of community, and other worthwhile goals.
Here's a definition that I like: Smart growth enables citizens to have the elements of home, community, and amenity in ways that preserve environmentally sensitive areas and promote economic development.
Whatever you call it, the desire to achieve smart growth has tempted some planners, elected officials, and others to impose top-down solutions to local growth-related challenges. This, in turn, has often led to overly prescriptive land-use policies and development regulations that inhibit the smart growth that they are intended to encourage.
It's basic supply and demand. If you limit the supply of land, then you raise the cost of land, and that increases the cost of housing.
Enlightened Approach The good news is that many local jurisdictions understand the importance of housing and recognize that their land development policies affect the cost and availability of housing. More and more, we are seeing forward-thinking local governments revise their zoning and land-use laws to make it easier for builders and developers to create the kinds of communities that everyone thinks of as smart growth.
The key is flexibility. While most people say the ideal community should look something like Alexandria, Va., or Charleston, S.C., the reality is that existing zoning laws in most places actively discourage the creation of such communities.
More and more, local governments are updating their land-use policies and working with builders and developers to encourage innovation and creativity.
Furthermore, big builders increasingly are exploring opportunities to redevelop land in our cities to create communities where people can live, work, and play.
Atlantic Station, a 138-acre mixed-use community in Midtown Atlanta, is a perfect example of an environmentally sensitive redevelopment of the former Atlantic Steel Mill, made possible by partnerships between members of both the private and public sectors at the federal, state, and local levels. Beazer Homes is building new townhomes, duplexes, and single-family homes at Atlantic Station to create an attractive mix of residential, commercial, and retail development that serves as a model for smart growth.
Where once separation of uses was the norm, now many communities recognize that multiuse development—such as Atlantic Station—can make a community more pedestrian friendly. Where once schools were sited on the far edge of neighborhoods, many local officials now recognize that schools are community assets that should be at the center of activity.
Amidst a raging growth debate, builders are finding that housing demand is strong and local governments are ready to be partners in finding solutions—not barriers standing in the way of new housing. Ultimately, big builders are demonstrating that they are part of the solution, not part of the problem. They are finding the land they need and using land more efficiently than ever. They are working closely with local governments and community leaders to plan new neighborhoods. They are becoming leaders in green building practices that increase energy efficiency and minimize impact on the environment. And as always, they are building much needed housing in an industry that is the backbone of our nation's economy.
Sounds like smart growth to me.
Editor's Note: This column is a forum provided to the CEOs of America's largest home builders in cooperation with the NAHB. Address responses to BIG BUILDER'S editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.