Smart Growth vs. New Urbanism: The Changing Face of U.S. Communities

bike denver The 17th Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) just concluded here in Denver, a city that boasts one of the largest new urbanist development projects in the United States at Stapleton. Fittingly, the Denver metro area also lies at the forefront of this somewhat controversial movement, with five similar communities and a commitment to public transportation and urban green spaces, all part of an emphasis on the broader scheme of smart growth theory.

First, a little background on new urbanism in the CNU’s own words:

“We stand for the restoration of existing urban centers and towns within coherent metropolitan regions, the reconfiguration of sprawling suburbs into communities of real neighborhoods and diverse districts, the conservation of natural environments, and the preservation of our built legacy.

We recognize that physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems, but neither can economic vitality, community stability, and environmental health be sustained without a coherent and supportive physical framework.

We advocate the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use and population; communities should be designed for the pedestrian and transit as well as the car; cities and towns should be shaped by physically defined and universally accessible public spaces and community institutions; urban places should be framed by architecture and landscape design that celebrate local history, climate, ecology, and building practice.” – Congress for New Urbanism

If you’ve read any articles at all on sustainable planning and anti-sprawl lately, you may be asking yourself A) just how does this definition differ from that of smart growth, and B) how could anyone possibly argue with these recommendations?

As far as the difference with smart growth goes, while both attempt to manage and reduce sprawl through compact, mixed-use development and incorporation of mass transportation, new urbanism has roots in architecture and design of greenfield sites. As a 2003 article states,

“New Urbanism generally focuses on the neighborhood or town scale, on new areas of development, and almost exclusively on physical design. Seaside and Celebration, Florida are examples of New Urbanist developments. These developments aim to produce compact, livable communities.” – Center for Land Use Education

Smart growth, on the other hand, stems from a policy base and relies on growth management tools to encourage sustainable communities, combat sprawl, and strengthen urban centers through existing infrastructure.

As for the controversy, Frank Gruber’s coverage of CNU 17 for the Huffington Post provides some insight. Gruber writes that, apart from being misunderstood, new urbanism is criticized by progressives within the architectural and planning communities who feel it concentrates too much on new development, making it pro and not anti-sprawl, and on an aesthetic of manufactured nostalgia.Seaside florida

Seaside, the 80-acre north Florida development that jumpstarted new urbanism in the 1980’s, embodies both these qualities. While its walkability, high density, small lots, and emphasis on community were revolutionary at the time of its construction, there’s no denying a master-planned town of traditional beach cottages far from any urban job center is not the most sustainable plan around. I used to live 70 miles away from Seaside along the Florida panhandle, and locals there view it as a stand-alone resort town. A beautiful and charming resort town, yes, but still a whimsical destination rather than a place to live. 

To be fair, though, there’s a reason why Seaside write-ups tend to appear in publications like Travel + Lesiure. It was designed as a vacation community and a model for urban planning from the start, and if real estate values there loom sky-high now, they didn’t at first.

And twenty years later, Forest City developers have applied new urbanist principles to the old Stapleton International Airport site in Denver. Rather than build on open land, they redeveloped this decommissioned landscape to create a 4,700-acre mixed-use neighborhood with 8,000 homes and 4,000 rentals just 15 minutes away from the jobs and amenities downtown.

On the other side of the criticism, some conservatives simply don’t want to give up a single-family home on a large lot in the suburbs, work commute and all. Statistics from CNU 17, though, show the near future won’t see nearly the demand for suburbs as in the past, since American demographics are changing:

“In another session on Friday, Laurie Volk, of Zimmerman/Volk Associates, a firm that performs market analysis for New Urbanist developers, presented data showing that because the largest generation in American history, the Baby Boomers, are beginning to retire, and the second largest, the Millennials, are just starting out in life, there will be much less demand for single-family houses over at least the next two decades. In fact, she said that America is overbuilt on single-family houses by at least one million.” – Huffington Post

New urbanist and other non-suburban developments within the framework of smart growth management policies seem to be working for Denver. In fact, it was in a part the CNU’s 1998 meeting in Denver that helped jumpstart this city’s system of compact, walkable neighborhoods connected by a light rail system. You can read more about the six major new urbanist developments in Denver – Prospect, Highlands’ Garden Village, Lowry, Stapleton, Belmar, and Bradburn Village – in Westword’s series.

Besides the low emissions associated with compact, walkable communities, neighborhoods like these are a result of holistic development rather than traditional, separate-use planning. As Gruber writes,

“[Conventional suburban development], with its various hierarchies, all kept separate: hierarchies of roads, from freeways to arterials to collectors, all the way down to cul-de-sacs; hierarchies of single-family residential districts based on size (and income); hierarchies of retail, from regional malls, to big box malls, to small strips; and hierarchies of job-centers, from office parks to industrial parks to warehouse districts.

CSD was the major event of the 20th century affecting land, yet it had no theory, no movement.” – Huffington Post

These master-planned new urbanist developments still sometimes invite comparisons to Disney World and movie sets – The Truman Show, famously, was actually filmed largely in Seaside. In Denver, though, they’re becoming a substantial feature of this plains-and-mountains landscape.

Other Cool Stuff on Celsias:

Green Roofs, Green Alleys, Green Cities - Oh My!

Smart Growth and Wide Open Spaces

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1 comment

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Charlie K (anonymous)

Reminds me of twenty years ago when two stereophiles were debating whether records or cassettes would be the music medium that would survive over the long-term. What becomes successful is what people want. And study after study has shown that people want a single-family house with some privacy, a porch, backyard and a bit of happiness. All the other baloney is what keeps consultants busy.

Written in March 2011

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  • Posted on June 22, 2009. Listed in:

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