Cityview: Built In Advantages

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The unplanned, unregulated, and market- and media-driven suburbanization of our cities has spawned a litany of problems almost as long as the resulting traffic jams we sit through each morning. Pollution, global warming and squandered natural resources are just some of the environmental consequences; the list of social, cultural and economic impacts is even bigger.

Enter “smart growth,” a nationwide phenomenon of state government initiatives to bring development under control. They range from Oregon’s urban growth boundaries–which corral development within fixed geographic limits–to incentive-driven programs that reward developers who build to higher densities. But in New York, a legislative proposal to create a statewide smart growth strategy has so far failed to move forward. Now a working group I’m part of is looking at what smart growth should look like here.

It’s a task we have to consider carefully. Public initiatives that aim to end the urban sprawl that consumes our undeveloped areas–our “greenfields”–are highly attractive. But the policies need to be thought through. Smart growth cannot ignore the needs of inner-city communities or avoid the issues of social and economic equity. If new policies fail on these crucial counts, they are neither smart nor desirable.

By its very nature, smart growth redirects development and creates new competition for limited land resources. If we protect our greenfields, we will redirect growth to brownfields–often polluted urban areas that are underutilized and well served by existing infrastructure. Investment, of course, is essential for the fragile economies of the inner-city neighborhoods that house many of New York’s brownfields. But too much of a good thing can be fatal. The very neighborhoods that could benefit from reinvestment may end up drowning in unfettered speculation that displaces residents and businesses.

Without appropriate precautions, smart growth could be the next episode in the sorry history of discrimination that has determined the pattern of growth around New York and much of the country for generations. Cycles of disinvestment and displacement have devastated many working-class, African-American, Latino and immigrant households and communities. Countless families lost their jobs, their businesses and their homes when banks and government redlined their communities in the 1960s and ’70s. Yet when reinvestment came to some neighborhoods, it led to speculative gentrification, resulting in unemployment and homelessness.

Residents victimized in turn by declining and then revitalizing economies have become rightfully leery of quick-fix public policy initiatives. Smart growth strategies must be more than a “new urbanism” that borrows the form of cities without concern for the content and the diversity that brings life to those forms.

Recent research shows that an entire region gains when its inner city is given the attention it needs. Metropolitan areas with smaller income gaps between urban and suburban residents typically have faster economic growth, and efforts to fight inner-city poverty have been found to improve the economic health of surrounding metropolitan areas as well.

The smart growth agenda has to provide opportunities for current urban residents or it simply won’t work. Quality education, meaningful and well-paid jobs, affordable housing, protection against displacement, access to inexpensive capital, healthy environments in which to work, reside and recreate: these issues have to be part of the planning that goes into smart growth.

In New York City, we should reassess planning and redevelopment policies that encourage the suburbanization of the city, which foster densities too low to sustain either the neighborhoods’ social, economic and physical fabric or existing infrastructure such as transit lines. Policies that favor auto-dependent, publicly underwritten, big-box corporate development must be replaced by ones, like low-interest loans for small businesses, that encourage the revitalization of our pedestrian-oriented neighborhood shopping strips.

With accessible, inexpensive public transit coupled with financial incentives, inner-city stores can provide competitively priced and high-quality products, giving local residents viable options for their spending. That’s smart growth. So are policies that favor the preservation of buildings and that improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods, such as planting trees and protecting and developing community gardens. We should also explore replacing roads that go nowhere with greenways that replenish our environment.

“Smart growth” starts with smart planning–and smart planning needs the input, creativity, advice and engagement of everyone in a community. The primary beneficiaries of a smart growth policy must be communities that for too long have been ignored. If they are, we all win.

Ron Shiffman is director of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development.