New Partners for Smart Growth Conference Begins Tomorrow

Feb 1, 2012, 3:49 PM, Posted by

Anderson Geoffrey Anderson, Smart Growth America

The eleventh annual New Partners for Smart Growth Conference begins tomorrow in San Diego. The conference is a national, multi-disciplinary smart growth gathering presented by the Local Government Commission. The conference draws experts including local elected officials, city and county staff, developers and builders, planners, transportation professionals, public health professionals, architects, bankers, realtors, urban designers, parks and recreation professionals, advocates for social and environmental equity, school superintendents, board members and facilities staff, advocates for older adults and youth, bicycle and pedestrian advocates, environmentalists, crime prevention professionals and many others committed to building safer, healthier and more livable communities everywhere.

In advance of the conference, NewPublicHealth spoke with several presenters about the conference and the growing efforts to use smart growth to help improve the lives of all Americans.

Geoffrey Anderson is the President and CEO of Smart Growth America and previously ran the Smart Growth Program at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. At the Smart Growth conference, he will be presenting in the training session, "Achieving the Prosperity Benefits of Transit and Smart Growth."

NewPublicHealth: What does smart growth mean and what are the strategies for making it happen?

Geoffrey Anderson: It really means building urban, rural and suburban communities with transportation and housing choices near jobs, shops and schools. So it’s about building complete neighborhoods so that you can get most of what you need to do on a day-to-day basis done nearby and have a high quality of life.

NPH: What is it that’s kept that from happening?

Geoffrey Anderson: In some ways it’s a new concept, in some ways it’s quite old. It really is how we built human settlements for the majority of time. But in the post-Second World War era in the United States, we started building housing separate from schools, far away from offices and places of business and separating places of worship. There were a variety of reasons for that. Some of it was that that was what the market seemed to want, but a lot of it was local government regulations that said you couldn’t actually build a corner store in a neighborhood. You had to separate commercial from residential uses.

It looked nice on planning templates to have all of your housing over in one place and your entire commercial near the strip corridor of traffic and your office park over in another place. So some of it was planned intentionally and zoned intentionally that way. Some of it was the way we funded transportation and water and sewer and subsidized patterns of development that sort of went out further and further from existing communities. There were a variety of reasons, each interacting in different ways to produce the development patterns we ended up with.

NPH: And smart growth, as we know it now, how and when did it become a movement?

Geoffrey Anderson: I think it really started to become a movement in the early 1990s and I think the new urbanism put a lot of the ideas out there in terms of critiquing how we were building our communities and neighborhoods, and then a variety of other people picked up on that and started to say, maybe we can do better and maybe we can get more out of the new development that comes.

NPH: Who are some of the critical partners behind the smart growth movement?

Geoffrey Anderson: It’s been really broad. There have been architects, environmental organizations, advocates for affordable housing, private sector business, local officials, journalists, politicians, Republicans, Democrats. You have a pretty wide variety of folks, people interested in having a broader set of transportation choices, for example. And, in some ways, whether they know it or not, the millennial generation is one of the biggest advocates for smart growth just because of what they’re asking for in the market now.

NPH: Your organization released a report last year saying that even in this economic environment there’s public and bipartisan support for smart growth. Why is that, do you think?

Geoffrey Anderson: I think it is because of the economy, in fact. When money is tight, you no longer can afford to do stupid things and what people are finding is that smart growth is cheaper from a public sector perspective in terms of the cost of infrastructure. And people are finding out from individual levels that they’re looking for cheaper ways to get around. We’re seeing use of public transportation at historically high levels despite the fact that we’ve been cutting service and raising fares for the last year. So it really is about the money in a lot of ways and trying to get the most return on the money that you’re spending, whether it’s public money or whether it’s your own in your household.

NPH: What are the major barriers to smart growth?

Geoffrey Anderson: We still have a lot of regulatory barriers. A lot of people are asking for more walkable neighborhoods, whether they’re in urban downtowns or suburban town centers or small towns in rural areas, they want to be able to walk, they want stuff close by. So the market is headed in this direction, but what we’re seeing is that a lot of the policies from zoning ordinances, to road design standards, to the way we do financing of mortgages at the federal level, all of those are basically set up to promote the old system, and so in some ways our government and our regulations have to catch up with where the economy is going.

I’m hoping that people will leave the Smart Growth conference this week feeling empowered to take action. We’re identifying a lot of the things that are barriers to smart growth. We need people to get out there and take action to make change.

>>NewPublicHealth will be on the ground at the New Partners For Smart Growth Conference all this week, featuring conversations with some of the key speakers and attendees. Follow the coverage here and on Twitter.


This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.