Across the country, Americans have become frustrated with the way their communities are growing. People are troubled by increasing gridlock, vanishing farmland and open space, and a loss of a sense of community. In response, many planners and policies are promoting “smart growth” – growth and development that is more fiscally sound, environmentally responsible, human oriented, and efficient than our current sprawling patterns of development.
Smart growth is picking up steam at the local, state and national levels. Governors and state legislatures are examining land use, environmental, and community investment policies. A recent report of the Northeast Midwest Institute lists 23 different smart growth initiatives by governors from Delaware to California. Local municipalities are passing growth management plans and revising outdated land use practices. The Clinton-Gore administration’s Livable Communities Taskforce recently released its updated Building Livable Communities report, which includes a package of smart growth-related policy actions and strategies for federal agencies.
One question that remains is how low-income communities are going to fare under smart growth strategies.
As attention turns away from the exurban fringe, smart growth presents significant opportunities for revitalizing low-income urban and rural communities. However, the benefits of smart growth are much less likely to reach these neighborhoods if their needs are not explicitly addressed and if community groups and leaders are not part of the process of planning for regional growth. Higher density development with a mix of residential and commercial spaces and good public transportation may achieve some of the goals of smart growth, but if existing residents are not included in planning for that development, they may find themselves priced out of their own neighborhood. Or they may find that the public transportation does not connect well to where jobs are located.
To promote an equitable and inclusive vision of smart growth, the National Neighborhood Coalition, an umbrella organization of neighborhood, community and faith-based networks, has created a set of principles that can be used as guidelines in ensuring that smart growth specifically addresses the needs and interests of low-income communities.
All neighborhoods and communities should have a fair share of the benefits as well as responsibilities of growth. For the most part, central cities and older, inner-ring suburbs have not shared in the growth boom that suburbs have experienced over the last fifty years. Rather, they have borne the burden of growth, receiving a disproportionate share of industrial polluters and highway interchanges while losing high quality schools, jobs, and services.
Growth should meet the economic, environmental, and social needs of low-income and other communities. Smart growth strategies that focus on meeting existing community needs can strengthen neighborhoods rather than simply “urban renewing” them.
Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color should have a strong voice in decisions about growth. Regional growth strategies cannot adequately address the concerns of low-income and minority communities without the active participation of these populations. Citizens need access to information about regional issues and support in establishing collaborative networks.
Growth should not displace low-income residents or people of color in urban or rural areas from their homes, livelihoods, or communities. Growth can bring new investment and increased wealth needed to catalyze renewal in low-income communities. However, unmanaged gentrification can raise housing prices and drive out indigenous businesses and populations. Reinvestment strategies should include provisions for fair and affordable housing and historic and cultural preservation.
Growth strategies should promote racial, economic and ethnic integration. Race relations have played a dominant role in shaping our metropolitan areas. Smarter growth strategies offer an opportunity to address racial and economic segregation and injustice by providing better, more equitable access to a variety of housing and transportation options, as well as a healthy environment and access to employment, education and services.
Growth strategies should make use of the human, economic and physical assets within communities. New growth should connect and build upon existing resources in a community. The most obvious example of wasted resources is the spatial mismatch between an urban workforce and suburban jobs, but communities also possess important natural and physical resources that should not be overlooked.
Who Should Use the Principles?
- Community-based organizations can adopt the principles as a guide for investment and development projects, or in considering the benefits and drawbacks of proposed developments or local planning policies.
- Local policy makers can adopt the principles as a guide to community development and planning policies. Reinvestment alone is not enough; development policies must consider what is appropriate and needed in a particular area.
- Funders can use them as a screen. Does a proposed project promote these principles? Will it contribute to a more equitable region?
- Planners can use the principles to inform their decisions about what livable neighborhoods and regions should look like.
- Educators can use the principles in classrooms to discuss more equitable and inclusive planning.
- Federal and state government officials can use the principles to improve and evaluate smart growth legislation.
NNC approved these principles for one year and will consider revising them based on feedback received during the course of the year. Comments should be submitted directly to NNC.