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Urban Smart Growth Principles for Development and Design

Posted by: Jim Normile, CRB, E.MBA, J.Y. Monk Real Estate Instructor
Updated: December 29, 2017 

Revitalizing our Hometowns Article Series: Part II—Smart Growth Principles; Development and Design

This is the third in a series of articles detailing a North Carolina real estate broker’s perspective on saving our towns, making a difference, and creating a profit.

Let’s continue our series by examining Urban Smart Growth Principles for Development and Design.

Urban Smart Growth Principles focused on Development and Design1

Make Development Decisions Predictable, Fair, and Cost Effective

For a community to be successful in implementing smart growth, the concept must be embraced by the private sector. Only private capital markets can supply the large amounts of money needed to meet the growing demand for smart growth developments. If investors, bankers, developers, builders, and others do not earn a profit, few smart growth projects will be built. Fortunately, government can help make smart growth more profitable for private investors and developers. Since the development industry is highly regulated, the value of property and the desirability of a place are affected by government investment in infrastructure and government regulation. Governments that make the right infrastructure and regulatory decisions will support fair, predictable, and cost-effective smart growth.

Despite regulatory and financial barriers, developers have created successful examples of smart growth. In many cases, doing so has required them to spend time and money getting variances to the codes. Expediting the approval process is especially helpful to developers, for whom "time is money." The longer it takes to get approvals, the longer the developer's capital remains tied up in land and not earning income. For smart growth to flourish, state and local governments need to make development decisions about urban smart growth more timely, cost-effective, and predictable for developers. By creating a supportive environment for development of innovative, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use projects, government can provide smart growth leadership for the private sector.

Take Advantage of Compact Building Design

Urban Smart Growth provides a means for communities to incorporate more-compact building design as an alternative to conventional, land-consumptive development. Compact building design suggests that communities be laid out in a way that preserves more open space, and that individual buildings make more efficient use of land and resources. For example, by encouraging buildings to grow vertically rather than horizontally, and by incorporating structured rather than surface parking, communities can reduce the footprint of new construction, and preserve more green space. This not only uses land efficiently, but it also protects more open land to absorb and filter rain water, reduce flooding and storm water drainage needs, and lower the amount of pollution washing into our streams, rivers, and lakes.

Compact building design is necessary to support wider transportation choices, and provides cost savings for localities. Communities seeking to encourage transit use to reduce air pollution and congestion recognize that minimum levels of density are required to make public transit networks viable. In addition, local governments find that, on a per-unit basis, it is cheaper to provide and maintain services like water, sewer, electricity, phone service, and other utilities in more-compact neighborhoods than in dispersed communities.

Research has shown that well-designed, compact New Urbanist communities that include a variety of house sizes and types command a higher market value on a per-square-foot basis than do those in adjacent conventional suburban developments. Increasing numbers of developments are successfully integrating compact design into community building efforts. This is happening despite current zoning practices that discourage compact design – such as those that require minimum lot sizes, or prohibit multi-family or attached housing – and other barriers, such as negative perceptions of "higher density" development.

Create a Range of Housing Opportunities and Choices

Providing quality housing for people of all income levels is an integral component in any smart growth strategy. Housing is a critical part of the way communities grow, because it constitutes a significant share of new construction and development. More importantly, however, housing availability is also a key factor in determining households' access to transportation, commuting patterns, access to services and education, and consumption of energy and other natural resources. By using urban smart growth approaches to create a wider range of housing choices, communities can mitigate the environmental costs of auto-dependent development, use their infrastructure resources more efficiently, ensure a better jobs-housing balance, and generate a strong foundation of support for neighborhood transit stops, commercial centers, and other services.

No single type of housing can serve the varied needs of today's diverse households. Smart growth represents an opportunity for local communities to increase housing choice not only by modifying land-use patterns on newly developed land, but also by increasing housing supply in existing neighborhoods and on land served by existing infrastructure. Integrating single- and multi-family structures in new housing developments can support a more diverse population and allow more equitable distribution of households of all income levels. The addition of units – through attached housing, accessory units, or conversion to multi-family dwellings – to existing neighborhoods creates opportunities for communities to slowly increase density without radically changing the landscape.

Adding housing can be an economic stimulus for commercial centers that are vibrant during the work day, but suffer from a lack of foot traffic and consumers during evenings or weekends. Most importantly, providing a range of housing choices allows all households to find their niche in an urban smart growth community – whether it is a garden apartment, a row house, or a traditional single-family home.

Additional Smart Growth Articles

Urban Smart Growth Principles for Community Enrichment

Urban Smart Growth Principles for Environmental Opportunities

Jim Normile has worked as a broker, sales manager, real estate instructor, and co-owner of two franchise offices. He has listed and/or sold over 4,000 homes. Jim holds a Bachelor of Science, Real Estate, Summa Cum Laude, and Executive Master of Business Administration diplomas. He has been recognized as a Realtor of the Year, featured in Top Agent Magazine, nationally ranked in The Wall Street Journal Top Agents in America, inducted into the RE/MAX Hall of Fame, and is the author of Responsible Influence in New Home Sales.


1Adopted from Revitalizing our Hometowns, J.Y. Monk Real Estate School – Jim Normile / Kaplan continuing education course; ©2015 Kaplan, Inc.