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Urban Smart Growth Principles for Environmental Opportunities

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; Environmental Opportunities

This is the fourth 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 Environmental Opportunities.

Urban Smart Growth Principles for Environmental Opportunities1

Preserve Open Space, Farmland, Natural Beauty, and Critical Environmental Areas

"Open space" refers to natural areas that provide important community space, habitat for plants and animals, and recreational opportunities, as well as farm and ranch land (working lands), places of natural beauty, and critical environmental areas (e.g., wetlands). Open space preservation supports smart growth goals by bolstering local economies, preserving critical environmental areas, improving community quality of life, and guiding new growth into existing communities.

There is growing political will to save the "open spaces" that Americans treasure. In recent elections, voters have overwhelmingly approved ballot measures to fund open space protection efforts. Protection of open space provides many fiscal benefits, including increasing local property value (thereby increasing property tax bases), providing tourism dollars, and preventing local tax increases (due to the savings from avoided construction of new infrastructure). Supplies of high quality open space also ensure that prime farm and ranch lands are available, prevent flood damage, and contribute to clean drinking water.

Open space also provides significant environmental quality and health benefits. Open space protects animal and plant habitat, places of natural beauty, and working lands by removing development pressure and redirecting new growth to existing communities. Additionally, preservation of open space benefits the environment by combating air pollution, attenuating noise, controlling wind, providing erosion control, and moderating temperatures. Open space also protects surface- and ground-water resources by filtering trash, debris, and chemical pollutants before they enter a water system.

Provide a Variety of Transportation Choices

Providing people with more choices in housing, shopping, communities, and transportation is a key aim of urban smart growth. Communities are seeking a wider range of transportation options in an effort to improve beleaguered current systems. Traffic congestion is worsening across the country. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, the amount of delay endured by the average commuter in 2010 was 34 hours, up from 14 hours in 1982.

In response, communities are beginning to implement new approaches to transportation planning, such as better coordinating land use and transportation; increasing the availability of high-quality transit service; creating redundancy, resiliency, and connectivity within their road networks; and ensuring connectivity between pedestrian, bike, transit, and road facilities. In short, they are coupling a multi-modal approach to transportation with supportive development patterns, to create a variety of transportation options.

Mix Land Uses

Smart growth supports mixed land uses as a critical component of achieving better places to live. By putting residential, commercial, and recreational uses in close proximity to one another, alternatives to driving, such as walking or biking, become viable. Mixed land uses also provide a more diverse and sizable population and commercial base for supporting viable public transit. Mixed use can enhance the vitality and perceived security of an area by increasing the number and activity of people on the street. It attracts pedestrians and helps revitalize community life by making streets, public spaces, and pedestrian-oriented retail become places where people meet.

Mixed land uses can contribute economic benefits. For example, siting commercial areas close to residential areas can raise property values, helping increase local tax receipts. Meanwhile, businesses recognize the benefits associated with locations that attract more people, increasing economic activity.

In today's service economy, communities find that by mixing land uses, they make neighborhoods attractive to workers who are considering quality-of-life-criteria as well as salary to determine where they will settle. Urban Smart Growth provides a means and a basis for communities to alter existing planning structures that don't allow mixed land uses.

Create Walkable Neighborhoods

Walkable communities that are desirable places to live, work, learn, worship, and play are a key component of smart growth. Their desirability comes from two factors. First, goods (such as housing, offices, and retail) and services (such as transportation, schools, and libraries) are located within an easy and safe walk. Second, walkable communities make pedestrian activity possible, thus expanding transportation options, and creating a streetscape for a range of users – pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, and drivers. To foster walkability, communities must mix land uses and build compactly, as well as ensure safe and inviting pedestrian corridors.

Walkable communities are nothing new. Communities worldwide have created neighborhoods, communities, towns, and cities based on pedestrian access. However, within the last fifty years public and private actions have often created obstacles to walkable communities. For example, regulation that prohibits mixed land uses results in longer trips and makes walking a less-viable option. This regulatory bias against mixed-use development is reinforced by private financing policies that consider mixed-use development riskier than single-use development. In addition, communities that are dispersed and largely auto-dependent employ street and development design practices that reduce pedestrian activity.

As the personal and societal benefits of pedestrian-friendly communities are realized – benefits that include lower transportation costs, greater social interaction, improved personal and environmental health, and expanded consumer choice – many are calling upon the public and private sectors to facilitate development of walkable places. Land use and community design play a pivotal role in encouraging pedestrian environments. By building places with multiple destinations within close proximity, where the streets and sidewalks balance multiple forms of transportation, communities have the basic framework for walkability.

Additional Smart Growth Articles

Urban Smart Growth Principles for Community Enrichment

Urban Smart Growth Principles for Development and Design

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.