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Smart Growth: How Far We Are

Tom Condon

March 07, 2010

The term "smart growth," or the variation "responsible growth," has worked its way into Connecticut policy debates and into state law in the past few years, but we still aren't really doing it walking the walk, growing smartly. This became painfully clear as I read Andres Duany's new book, "The Smart Growth Manual."

Duany, the Miami-based architect, planner and New Urbanist, and fellow planners Jeff Speck and Mike Lydon, have written a remarkably concise set of planning principles aimed at stopping urban disinvestment and wasteful suburban sprawl. There's great wisdom here; every mayor and planner ought to read the book, and give copies to city council members.

What they'll find are a lot of things the state either isn't doing, or has barely started. Here are some:

"Government should be organized to correspond with the physical structure of settlement." Not even close.

"For regional planning to be truly effective, property taxes should be shared among the municipalities." Inter-town revenue sharing is now allowed by state statute, but no one, as far as I know, is actually doing it.

"Allocate property tax revenue equitably across the region." Ditto.

"Coordinate transportation and land-use planning." The immediate application here would be the planning of development on the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield commuter rail line and the Hartford- New Britain busway. There are spurts of activity in some towns, but no coordinated planning along the entire corridors that I'm aware of.

All new growth should be in the pedestrian sheds of existing or planned transit. This is the essence of smart growth, increasing density in town centers and transit corridors. We are still building car-only subdivisions, usually for those over 55.

"Avoid dumb growth locations for government buildings." This would included not putting government buildings in suburban plazas along I-91, as we've done, but in town centers. It means leaving post offices in the centers of towns.

"The great failure of American planning can be found at the periphery of every American city and town, where roads built for unimpeded long-range transportation have become choked with local traffic. Where roads pass through the countryside, development must be discouraged." There are still a few places where we can save green space and vistas along highways; I know of no one actually trying to do it.

"Require every area to accommodate subsidized dwellings." In other words, putting all the low-income housing in Hartford is a bad idea. Unfortunately, it is what we've been doing.

"Do not prioritize the car above other modes." There goes 60 years of state policy down the drain.

"Make transit easy to use." See last item. Better, shovel the snow at bus stops.

"Design parking to transition to more productive uses." In other words, sacrificing our cities for surface parking was a really catastrophic idea.

"Replace policies that threaten older schools." They are often sturdy buildings, within walking distance of places where children live.

"Use form-based zoning." The old zoning codes often encourage sprawl and don't allow smart-growth policies. Alack! A single Connecticut town, Hamden, has adopted a hybrid code based on the form of buildings rather than the use of them.

You get the idea. If we want to achieve the smart-growth goals of clean air, less dependence on foreign oil, protecting farms and forests and reviving cities, we need to use smart -rowth policies. It would be worth our while. Duany et al. also say, with great insight, "Build only where water is plentiful."

You might think that would be obvious, but it isn't people have been building across the arid Southwest and water-short South for decades. We have water. Some intelligent building here might just pay off.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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