This article appeared in the December 2004 Mobility Matters. By David Behrend.
The term Smart Growth has become a buzzword in recent years, yet many feel that a clear definition of the term remains elusiveand opinion remains divided about whether some aspects of the concept are in fact smart. In New Jersey, every Governor over the last two decades has made Smart Growth a key policy goal.
The opposite of Smart Growth is commonly defined as sprawl. It is characterized by low-rise buildings spread widely over the landscape. This suburban land use pattern not only consumes more open space than more compact forms of development but is seen as causing a host other negative impacts: burdening local governments with added costs for water, sewer and other infrastructure; forcing residents to depend on cars for reaching nearly every destination; compounding air pollution from greater auto use; worsening water pollution due to run-off from paved surfaces; eliminating wildlife habitat, etc.
The NJTPA has a role to play in dealing with sprawl and promoting growth management. The NJTPA's mission statement states that the agency: Links transportation planning with safety and security, economic growth, environmental protection, growth management, and quality of life goals for the region. Transportation and land-use necessarily affect each other. This article provides an overview of Smart Growth policies in New Jersey and beyond to provide insight on efforts to address growth management in the NJTPA region.
Smart Growth supports livable neighborhoods with a variey of housing types, price ranges and multi-modal forms of transportation.
The origins of the term Smart Growth are uncertain, but it has come to mean many things to different people in different places. In New Jersey, the state's Office of Smart Growth (a division of the Department of Community Affairs) has defined Smart Growth as follows:
Smart Growth is the term used to describe well-planned, well-managed growth that adds new homes and creates new jobs, while preserving open space, farmland, and environmental resources. Smart Growth supports livable neighborhoods with a variety of housing types, price ranges and multi-modal forms of transportation. Smart Growth is an approach to land-use planning that targets the State's resources and funding in ways that enhance the quality of life for residents in New Jersey.
The OSG has outlined several Smart Growth principles to work toward these goals (see sidebar: NJ Smart Growth Principles). The OSG was formed to update the State Development and Redevelopment Plan (SDRP) which was required under state law enacted in 1986 and modified over the years. OSG points to the following communities in the NJTPA region as examples where Smart Growth is being successfully implemented: Elizabeth, Jersey City, Red Bank, Hoboken, Chesterfield and Hope.
OSG also stresses that in New Jersey Smart Growth supports development and redevelopment in recognized centers with existing infrastructure, as outlined in the SDRP. Centers are defined as locations well situated with respect to present or anticipated public services and facilities. In other words, centers are communities either already fairly well-developed or designated for such development. These towns often have existing transportation facilities as well, such as an NJ Transit commuter rail station.
NJ Smart Growth Principles
Mixed land uses
Compact, clustered community design
Range of housing choice and opportunity
Distinctive, attractive communities offering a sense of place
Open space, farmland, and scenic resource preservation
Future development strengthened and directed to existing communities using existing infrastructure
Transportation option variety
Predictable, fair and cost-effective development decisions
Community and stakeholder collaboration in development decision-making
National Smart Growth Definition
The American Planning Associations definition of Smart Growth is very similar to that of New Jersey's Office of Smart Growth but with some added elements, such as expanding the range of employment choices for residents; putting an emphasis on long-range, regional considerations of sustainability over short term incremental geographically isolated actions; and promoting public health and healthy communities.
The APAs definition goes on to state: In contrast to prevalent development practices, Smart Growth refocuses a larger share of regional growth within central cities, urbanized areas, inner suburbs, and areas that are already served by infrastructure. Smart Growth reduces the share of growth that occurs on newly urbanizing land, existing farmlands, and in environmentally sensitive areas. In areas with intense growth pressure, development in newly urbanizing areas should be planned and developed according to Smart Growth principles.
New Jersey is not alone in struggling with Smart Growth and related growth management. Here is a quick look at how two areasa western metropolitan region and another mid-Atlantic statehave tried to implement these concepts.
Regional Approach: Portland
In many states, including New Jersey, towns and cities often approve sprawl-inducing development for budgetary reasons (the so-called ratables chase) with little or no consideration to the effects the development has on the region as a whole (such as additional traffic, land consumption, etc.).
Effective Smart Growth requires limiting such uses of home rule authority through a regional approach to planning. In its most far-reaching form, this can involve establishing a regional authority to control all development. A prime example is Portland, Oregon.
Under Oregon law, each city or metropolitan area in the state has an Urban Growth Boundary or UGB. The boundary controls urban expansion onto farm and forest lands. Inside the boundary, there are existing (or planned) roads, sewer systems and other infrastructure, thus allowing for development. Land outside the boundary remains preserved.
The Metro Council is a directly-elected regional body that serves as the area's Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), controls the urban growth boundary and performs a host of other regional services as well. The Metro Council has the authority to increase the amount of land within the boundary and has done so three dozen times since the late 1970s. With this authority and other powers, the Metro Council has far more control over land use and regional infrastructure investments than most MPOs. For example, by combining its authority in land-use and transportation planning, the Metro Council was able to use the city's light rail system as a key tool in controlling and planning for growth.
With the Metro Council calling the shots over land use, Portland has become the nation's Smart Growth laboratory, and the results of policies there have been examined in some detail. Not surprisingly, opinion is divided on whether Oregon's growth policies have served the region well. Proponents of the UGB say that it has contained sprawl, minimized public service costs and protected natural resources and open space. Opponents say it has led to housing price inflation and stifled growth.
A recent study in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Spring 2004) concluded that Portland's approach has led to significant changes at the neighborhood level, with denser, more walkable neighborhoods arising during the 1990s. However, land-use in the region is still more fragmented than Smart Growth proponents have envisioned. That is, residential, commercial and other zones remain relatively isolated from each other, rather than co-existing in fairly close proximity as envisioned by planners.
Statewide Approach: Maryland
Some states (including New Jersey) have attempted to steer growth rather than comprehensively control growth as in Portland through the work of a statewide office dedicated to growth management or Smart Growth. New Jersey has implemented an approach quite similar to that of Maryland. Both of these models seek to coordinate decision making between various state departments, including those focused on transportation and the environment, and foster cooperation by local governments.
Maryland's Smart Growth program, initiated in 1997 includes many of the same principles and approaches adopted by New Jersey channeling state spending to urban areas and designated centers; limiting expansions to road capacity in favor of public transit; protecting scenic and rural lands; and promoting urban revitalization. Governor Ehrlich elected in 2002, has continued these approaches and instituted a new Priority Places program to focus state funding and assistance on accomplishing key projects in urban areas.
The results in Maryland have been mixed. As with the Portland region, growth management policies have successfully protected natural areas and agricultural lands from development. However, according to a recent report (November 2003) from the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education, the state has not had similar success in assuring a steady, supply of affordable housing. Local governments... appear to have little incentive to address this problem. The State, the report recommends, should require local governments to include housing elements in their comprehensive plans, [and] provide periodic estimates of housing and employment capacity.
Recently, the Governor has moved in this direction by appointing a state task force to work with county and local governments to assemble an inventory of land available for residential construction. This would provide a basis for encouraging housing development in locations meeting Smart Growth principles. Yet according to the Washington Post (September 19, 2004) county officials in Maryland remain reluctant to take direction from the state and are concerned that the work required will amount to another unfunded mandate. The Ehrlich administration, in turn, seems unwilling either to order the counties to do the analysis or to pay the bill.
Here, then, is an example of the essential dilemma for Smart Growth: without strong regional government and comprehensive growth control measures (as implemented in Portland) state and local policies and decision-making can fail to mesh, leaving many problems unaddressed.
New Jersey's Progress
New Jersey, with its strong Home Rule tradition has, like Maryland, experienced a tug-of-war between state and local interests over Smart Growth policies. Since the first attempt to create a New Jersey State Development and Redevelopment Plan, a cross-acceptance process has been used to try to foster agreement over how state level policies will be implemented on a local level. This process includes public meetings and negotiations to find common ground on future growth in each locality.
Currently the State Office of Smart Growth is overseeing another round of cross-acceptance as part of its efforts to update the State Plan. Smart Future Planning Grants are being provided to county and local governments to underwrite the costs of cross acceptance and related planning. OSG hopes to have an updated plan prepared by Summer 2005.
In a few limited areas, New Jersey has taken a lesson from Portland, implementing strong land use controls. The Pinelands Commission, the Hackensack-Meadowlands Commission and the newly created Highlands Commissions have authority to control development in their respective regions.
Yet much remains to be accomplished. As the most densely populated state in the nation and with its population still growing and sprawl still expanding the stakes are greater than ever to make Smart Growth work. A Rutgers University study estimated that in recent decades the daily urban growth rate in New Jersey was equivalent to adding 41 football fields worth of new urban land every day while losing 20 football fields of farmland, 9 football fields of forest and 6 football fields of wetlands.
Transportation & Smart Growth
Public officials have grown increasingly aware that some transportation investments particularly, new roads or widened highwayscan fuel sprawl, bringing uncontrolled development to pristine areas. At the same time, other types of transportation investment like new transit services and facilities and downtown road improvementscan promote more efficient and environmentally-sound land uses and reduce the pressure for development in open spaces elsewhere in the region.
The NJTPA and other transportation planning agencies face a difficult balancing act. They must make investments in transportation needed to sustain economically vital land uses by reducing congestion and promoting mobility. At the same time, they must guard against investments that will induce sprawl.
It's an uphill battle. An analysis of the 1990 and 2000 Census by the NJTPA, found a trend toward longer commutes [that] reflects the general dispersion of workplaces and residences throughout the regionthat is, more sprawl.
Still, land use in northern New Jersey is smarter than in many other regions of the country. Much of the region was settled long before the advent of the automobile age. Towns and factories were built up in clusters along railroads, waterways and street car lines. This has given the region numerous downtown business districts with rail stations at their core as well as residential areas built at densities that can readily support bus services. In the region's many older towns, walking for many trips is a real option, the length of car trips is minimized and housing opportunities are provided for a range of income levels.
The states Transit Oriented Development initiatives seek to locate new development and redevelopment in areas that have existing transportation assets, such as these older downtown areas near train stations. Other transportation projects have helped steer commercial and residential redevelopment and growth into urban areas, notably the Hudson Bergen Light Rail in Jersey City and Bayonne.
The NJTPA, for its part, is using its transportation funding and decision-making to help the region take advantage of its assets and rein in the worst aspects of growth. Among the tools at its disposal (see Sidebar: NJTPA Growth Management Tools) are: a long-range transportation plan that can set a vision and funding agenda for a Smart Growth future; a project prioritization process that can give projects fulfilling Smart Growth principles a leg-up in the competition for scarce funding over the short term; and grant programs for studying growth management needs and opportunities around the region.
The ability of an MPO such as the NJTPA to steer and manage growth may be limited, when compared to regional authorities or state governments. Nevertheless, by applying certain planning principles to its day-to-day work an MPO can help guide growth and development through well-placed transportation investments.