Smart Growth is intended to address the adverse impacts of sprawling urban environments. Its fundamental aim is to instigate step changes that will provide people with sustainable and relevant lifestyle choices. While I can’t definitively imagine what that looks like, I certainly agree with this approach.
Most urban frameworks in the last 10 to 15 years adopted some version of a growth boundary, compact design and/or transitoriented development as part of their spatial vision for strategically managing growth. This is a comparatively short period of time when one considers the cultural changes to professional practice, organisational management and human behaviour required to fully realise policy objectives on the ground.
Successful first-generation projects have sought to change the quality of places by fundamentally changing how places are delivered. The Circle in my hometown of Normal, Illinois is a great example of achieving multiple, meaningful outcomes by changing how professional disciplines engage with one another. This roundabout simultaneously manages vehicle, cycle and pedestrian traffic in a location adjacent to a regional rail halt. It also captures, filters and re-distributes stormwater, and provides a focus for social and commercial exchange. The Circle’s biggest drawback is that the deceptively simple design belies the concerted 10-year journey to streamline various engineering solutions to produce a beloved multi-functional space.
Undermined intended outcomes
For other projects, ongoing economic and political momenta have often undermined intended outcomes. Critics also point to Smart Growth-based policies as contributing to increased congestion, localised air and noise pollution and artificially inflated land and property values. Yet, these failed or unintended outcomes may ultimately provide the acute, localised conflict necessary to instigate a wider paradigm shift by mobilising communities and creating a market for more sustainable lifestyle products.
For example, the acute pressures of the national housing shortage in Kuwait means that residential projects in the western metropolitan area will be delivered at least 15 years before its Metro infrastructure. These are already delivering plots in excess of 600sqm for Kuwaiti villas. At current household sizes, the resulting form would not support appropriate transit accessibility. However, the physical characteristics of the villas would allow them to accommodate much higher population densities in proximity to transit stops. This will require changes to existing land ownership and tenancy rights and would be best supported through early improvements to streetscape designs.
The challenge for the next generation of projects will be to appropriately direct local and multi-sector momentum through wider regulatory systems. One to watch is the Central Scotland Green Network. This national planning designation intends to enhance land and infrastructure multi-functionality. Its approach is to connect local community and practice networks to deliver a connected physical network. The diversity of projects coming forward under this designation makes it almost impossible to establish a tangible vision of what the Network will ultimately become. Though, if successful over time, these collective efforts may truly embody the fundamental aim of Smart Growth by providing accessible and adaptable processes within which people can create their own choices.