Smart Growth and Sprawl

The legacy of sprawl
Smart Growth principles
Some key solutions for the 21st Century
Benefits of infill development
Articles in our periodical Linkages
IEH Reports
Books and guides

The Legacy of Sprawl

Since the late 1940's our cities and metropolitan areas have grown by development focused on conversion of rural lands, converting them to separated housing subdivisions, shopping centers and business parks. This style of land use consumes vast amounts of land and creates a wide variety of problems, from declining older communities to more and more homes in hazardous locations, to traffic congestion and air pollution.

In California, the trends include lengthy daily commutes from the Inland Empire of Riverside and San Bernardino counties to Los Angeles and Orange Counties, while to the north more and more workers commute from the Central Valley to the San Francisco Bay Area. The Central Valley could lose millions of acres of high quality farmland to development in the coming decades. More and more species of plants and animals become endangered as their habitat gives way to sprawling development.

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Smart Growth Principles

This pattern of sprawl is beginning to change as support grows among local jurisdictions, business interests and citizens organizations for development based on Smart Growth principles.

• Mix land uses, especially vertically (eg: apartments over stores and cafes)
• Take advantage of compact building design
• Create a range of housing opportunities and choices
• Create walkable neighborhoods
• Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place
• Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty and critical environmental areas
• Strengthen and direct development toward existing communities
• Provide a variety of transportation choices
• Make development decisions predictable, fair and cost-effective
• Encourage citizen and stakeholder participation in development decisions

source: The Smart Growth Network

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Some Key Solutions for the 21st Century

Livable Communities
These are designed for people rather than automobiles, which requires changing the layout of many new developments, as promoted by the New Urbanists and others. At the neighborhood scale, livable communities have shops, restaurants, other amenities, and offices within walking or bicycling distance for most residents. They have people-friendly streets and greenbelts that invite walking and bicycling for a variety of errands. Designs include narrow residential streets, shops that front directly onto sidewalks instead of onto parking lots, as well as offices, apartments and condominiums above stores. The result is relatively compact suburban and urban villages, with less infrastructure per person and a real sense of community- a far cry from walled-off subdivisions connected to shopping centers and strip commercial areas by a few crowded arterial roads.

Designing developments so that people are not forced to use cars for every errand will not only reduce local traffic, but also improve air quality, as demonstrated by the California Air Resources Board. Most auto trips are not commutes, but travel to shops, schools, and other needs. The trips are usually short, and often with a cold engine where the pollution controls do not work efficiently.

Another essential design feature is to include public places and spaces. There is a new trend to call shopping centers, with an array of stores surrounded by acres of asphalt, “town centers”. A real town or village center is a compact area with civic buildings - church, library, post office, community center - a plaza or other auto-free open space, and a mix of businesses.

Urban and Suburban Villages
These designs greatly reduce a metro area’s land consumption. The village core is an attractive center of mixed use multistory buildings and open areas such as plazas. The buildings provide a mix of shops, offices, restaurants, apartments and condominiums. The core should have a site for a transit stop. Around the core is a ring of higher density housing, including apartments, then single family housing with progressively lower densities. Many of the single family lots will have second units. While 70% of the population will live in single family homes, land consumption is greatly reduced.

A Closeness to Nature.
This is very important for many people, and is not antithetical to compact development. Greenways, such as corridors of native vegetation along streams, and small natural reserves make nature accessible to suburb and city dwellers. Larger natural areas close to cities and dotted through metropolitan regions provide a wide variety of benefits.

Viable Public Transit
Public transit needs more compact development in order to be economically feasible. Subdivisions at four houses per acre, shopping centers or business parks centered on huge parking lots, and strip commercial areas stymie public transit. In areas where there is little or no public transit, we have to think ahead and build for future transit viability, as the Fresno Business Council and others state in their forward-looking report (get name and add link).

Revitalization of Older Suburbs, Downtowns and Aging Commercial Areas
Infill development and major redevelopment projects help counter sprawl, provide housing near existing jobs and shopping areas, and revitalize urban areas. Downtown Plaza in Sacramento and Horton Plaza in San Diego are great assets to their urban cores and attract people beyond the 9-5 office day. The thriving main streets and squares of some smaller towns, such as Grass Valley in the Sierra Foothills and San Luis Obispo in the Central Coast, are vivid testimony to the importance and validity of a real downtown.

Urban Growth Boundaries
Boundaries that provide for 20 or 30 years of growth and can only be changed by community vote, are a key solution. But they will only work over time if accompanied by changes in community design, infill development and other steps.

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Benefits of Infill Development

Infill development is the construction of buildings on vacant or disused pieces of land within an existing community. Many metropolitan areas have small to large patches of weedy land that were “left behind” as development spread across the landscape. Also older shopping centers and strip commercial areas that have failed provide an opportunity for land recycling.

Infill development “contributes to a healthy mix of uses that provides added vitality and convenience for residents” (Municipal Research & Services Center, State of Washington.) It is essential for accommodating growth while minimizing sprawl development and maintaining urban boundaries.

There is increasing interest and support for infill development, particularly as successful projects demonstrate its feasibility and overcome real and perceived barriers. More and more infill projects are under way in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Sacramento and other locations.

Here are some of the benefits of infill

Reduce the Shortage of Housing Near Jobs.
Long commutes and a severe jobs/hosing imbalance are an increasing problem in metropolitan areas. In the last issue of Linkages we saw how a business organization, the building industry and environmentalists banded together to promote infill development projects in the Silicon Valley. The lack of affordable housing in Silicon Valley results in people buying homes as far away as Modesto, then spending several hours commuting each day. Housing tracts spread across the Inland Empire of Riverside and San Bernardino County, because of insufficient affordable housing for the jobs in Los Angeles and Orange Counties (The Housing Crunch, Los Angeles Times, August 30th, 1998). Infill housing developments can partially solve the problem.

Reduce the Need for New Development at the Urban Fringe.
Cities like Fresno have large vacant tracts, filled with weeds and surrounded by recent development. Compact infill projects on these sites will reduce the extent of sprawl development, conserving farmland and wildlife habitat.

Increase the Viability of Transit Lines.
Viable public transportation requires higher densities of housing or commercial buildings around transit stops. People will only use transit when it is convenient - meaning frequent service, routes that take them where they want to go, and no need to walk far. The light rail systems in cities like Sacramento and San Diego are popular, but need compact development around the transit stops to increase ridership. A frequent bus service also needs fairly dense development. The California Air Resources Board estimates that residential development needs to be at least 4 to 6 units/acre to support one bus an hour. A half hourly bus service needs at least 7-8 units/acre, light rail with feeder buses at least 9 units/acre But many housing subdivisions are 4 or less units to the acre.

Infill projects often provide the opportunity to increase residential or commercial density around existing or potential transit stops. “The most successful rail systems in the world (Stockholm, Toronto, Singapore) are those in which houses, offices and meeting places have grown up around the rail stations,” said Michael Bernick and Ed McSpedon. “Land development has followed transit alignments and stations, and people are able to walk to and from the stations.” [Sacramento Bee, August 1998]

Increase the Livability of Urban and Suburban Areas.
Infill development that puts more people near shops, restaurants and other amenities increases the liveliness of an area and the economic viability of the businesses. Moderate and high-density housing projects like Metro Square in Sacramento fill this need well, as do projects that include stores and cafes. Recent developments are often a sea of homes with scattered shopping centers occupied by chain stores, lacking a sense of community, of a real neighborhood. Infill projects can provide neighborhood centers with a Main Street flavor, including the presence of civic building and public places.

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Articles in our Periodical Linkages

Infill Development


Role of Infill Development
Design and Location : Making Infill Happen
Restoring Main Street

Livable Communities


Building Livable Communities
Barriers to Livable Communities Hasten Urban Sprawl

Smart Growth


Smart Growth Movement
Overcoming Obstacles to Smart Growth
Grappling with Growth, Solutions for the 21st Century
Regional City :Planning for the End of Sprawl (review)

Urban Villages


Case for Urban Villages

Local Area Formation Commissions (LAFCOs)


Role of LAFCOs in California’s Growth
Reinventing LAFCO’s

Planning and Political Issues


Local Plans - can they Effectively Govern Land Use?
Smart Growth Caucus
Time to Fix the Local Government Fiscal Crisis
Shifting Attitudes to Sprawl
California’s Growth and Air Quality Challenge

Special Tools


Transfer of Development Rights
Renaissance for Mixed Use Development
Investment and Quality of Life
Designing New Neighborhoods & Assessing Impacts (software)


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IEH Reports

Ecological Principles and Urban Village Design (2000)

Jointly by IEH and Community Design and Planning Services, University of California, Davis. Focus on California’s Central Valley but general applicability. Includes chapters on Landscape and Conservation Essentials, Urban Ecology in the Central Valley, Natural Systems and Urban Village Relationships, and Conserving Central Valley Ecology by Urban Village Design.

Download pdf file (1.6 MB)

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Smart Growth Network A collaborative project of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, other government entities and non-profit organizations. Includes a wide variety of useful reports

Encouraging Smart Growth U.S. Environmental Protection Agency site. A variety of information and links, including The Smart Growth Index (SGI) - a GIS sketch model for simulating alternative land use and transportation

Sprawl Watch Clearinghouse Information on a variety of books, reports, web sites and organizations

Sprawl Guide: Strategies for Dealing with Sprawl  Planners Web, a site of the Planning Commissioners’ Journal. Articles on a variety of topics

CNU: Congress for the New Urbanism Urban design for walkable, livable communities.


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Books and Guides

Building Livable Communities: A Policymaker’s Guide to Infill Development. (2001) Bragado, N (2001) Local Government Commission. Sacramento, CA.

Building Livable Communities: A Policymaker’s Guide to Transit-oriented Development (1999). Corbett, J and Zykofsky, P. Local Government Commission. Sacramento, CA.

Confronting Suburban Decline: Strategic Planning for Metropolitan Renewal (2000)
William Lucy and David Phillips. Island Press.

Ecology of Place: Planning for Environment, Economy and Community (1997) Beatley, T and Manning, K Island Press.

Guide to Local Growth Control Initiatives (2002) de la Vergne, M Planning and Conservation League Foundation, Sacramento, CA.

Land Use in America. (1996) Eds: Diamond, H and Noonan, P Island Press.

Managing Growth in America’s Communities (1997) Douglas Porter. Island Press.

Next American Metropolis: Ecology, Community and the American Dream (1993). Peter Calthorpe. Princeton Architectural Press.

Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl (2001) Calthorpe R and Fulton W. Island Press.

Saved by Development: Preserving Environmental Areas, Farmland and Historic Landmarks with Transfer of Development Rights (1997) Rick Preutz. (Arje Press)

Smart Infill: Creating More Livable Communities in the Bay Area. (2002) Wheeler, S. (2002) Greenbelt Alliance, San Francisco, CA.

Solving Sprawl: Models of Smart Growth in Communities Across America. (2001) Benfield, F K. et. al. Natural Resources Defense Council.

Theory in Action: Smart Growth Case Studies (2000) Association of Bay Area Governments, Oakland, CA

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