In this age of planning emphasis on “smart growth,” “new urbanism,” “transit oriented development,” “infill development” and so on, density and proximity to transit corridors sometimes overshadow all other considerations. Zoning and Community plans years in the making, with wide participation, are now being viewed by some property owners and city officials as obsolete and vulnerable. Local residents are increasingly resentful as they experience frontal assaults to the scale and character of their neighborhoods – the essence of how they identify with their neighborhoods.
They are dismissively derided as NIMBYs by both planners and developers. Under these circumstances, smart growth risks a backlash across a broad political spectrum. Suburban liberals are increasingly allied with Tea Party liberatarians, and even Agenda 21 conspiracy theorists in opposing smart growth as it is being applied. However, this application of “smart growth,” is based on a false premise: that maximizing density along transit corridors is always good. This overly simplistic application of smart growth threatens its success. However, people gravitate to simplified and paramont messages. Therefore, in order to ensure its survival and propel its success, perhaps smart growth should adopt a new paramount principal: Work with existing community-adopted neighborhood identities. The following three reasons make the affirmative case (as opposed to the aforementioned negative case) for the role of neighborhood identity in smart growth.
1) High density urban living is not for everyone. No matter how popular it becomes to live in multifamily buildings in dense urban neighborhoods, there will always be a demand for low density suburban neighborhoods or rural homes. Downtown urban neighborhoods, in varying degrees, are still particularly unattractive to families with children. Municipal and regional governments must become adept at accommodating housing demand in a way that incorporates smart growth principles without trampling the very things that people most value about their neighborhoods.
2) Some suburban “low density” neighborhoods already achieve smart growth goals and some high density urban cores do not. Older suburban neighborhoods typically incorporate better smart growth principles than the newer suburban neighborhoods because they received their basic form when reliance on feet and rail were more prevalent. In contrast, new mid to high rise urban neighborhoods are being built to match auto oriented suburbs for driving convenience, with strict parking minimums requirements and wide roads. A quick survey of your own city will likely reveal that the older neighborhoods also often have the strongest senses of character, scale, and identity. Yet most conspicuously large infill projects get inserted into these neighborhoods.
3) Incongruous “smart growth” can be counter productive. Buildings constituting quantum leaps in density crammed into existing low density neighborhoods are like a bear’s snout in a beehive. The bees will attack it and if that doesn’t work, they will abandon the hive to build a new hive elsewhere. In other words, hard fought entitlement processes, litigation, and financing problems slow down development, while displacing more readily achievable infill development. Loss of neighborhood character and pride, can cause some residents to move to more remote suburbs and can trigger a transitional period marked by property under-utilization and blight.
As I opined in an earlier article, smart growth works best by increasing density incrementally, while respecting neighborhood identity as embodied in it’s character, scale, and the community’s planning process.