Smart Growth 101: A Beginners' Guide


To explain what we mean by Smart Growth for Working Families and why we believe it is so important, we first define sprawl and smart growth.

“Sprawl” is a contested concept. Most commonly, it refers to development patterns that have low density and a lack of mixed use (combining residential and commercial) projects; auto dependency (forcing everyone to drive to work, to shop, etc.); strict separation of residential from nonresidential property; and job growth in newer suburbs with job decline in core areas (including older suburbs).

Sprawling development patterns result in increased dependence on automobiles and longer commuting times, deteriorating air quality, and rapid consumption of open space in outlying areas. They also cause disinvestment in central-city infrastructure and services. They strain city budgets at the core (by depleting the tax base) and in the suburbs (by causing overly rapid and thin, inefficient growth at the edge).

The decentralization of entry-level jobs in manufacturing, wholesale, and retail means that work is farther from concentrations of low-skilled, unemployed workers. Since the suburbs lack affordable housing and public transit fails to reach many suburban jobs, sprawl effectively cuts off central city residents from regional labor markets. That means greater concentrations of poverty in core areas.

Land use policy is the way state and local governments regulate our built environment. It includes zoning laws, transportation planning, environmental reviews, and other ways civil society seeks to physically integrate and harmonize workplaces, housing, commercial activity and public spaces.

Smart growth is a form of land use planning that helps local communities make choices together for the future and combat unplanned or poorly designed growth. The term Smart Growth has evolved to mean an approach to economic development that often accomplishes the following:

  • protects natural resources and open space
  • revitalizes and rebuilds existing communities
  • coordinates development with existing infrastructure to improve tax-base efficiency and reduce future taxpayer costs
  • clusters activity centers, workplaces and housing so that buildings and neighborhoods are mixed-use
  • supports walking, cycling, and transit as alternatives to driving
  • uses incentives to promote sensible growth
  • strengthens economic competitiveness through smarter use of infrastructure investments

Smart growth benefits working families in a variety of ways. Consider these:

  • Smart growth helps to keep factory jobs in the core area, where they are more likely to be unionized.
  • Smart growth defends the market share of unionized grocery store chains by helping sustain and restore population density in core areas.
  • Smart growth shores up the tax base of older areas (where most union members live), and thereby deters service cuts, privatization and concessions against teachers and other public employees.
  • Smart growth helps to keep hospitality work in the downtown or by the airport, where it is far more likely to be unionized.
  • Smart growth creates billions of dollars in publicly-funded construction work expanding transit systems, which helps transit workers, Building Trades workers who construct and maintain the systems, and manufacturing workers who build transit vehicles.
  • Smart growth improves air quality and thereby reduces asthma and other respiratory diseases among urban families.
  • Smart growth creates massive amounts of publicly-funded infrastructure construction work rehabilitating roads, sewers and other public systems.
  • Smart growth-driven infrastructure improvements in turn promote private redevelopment construction activity in core areas, where it is most likely to be union.
  • Smart growth helps to keep office buildings in core areas, where they are more likely to be cleaned and maintained by union janitors and stationary engineers.
  • Smart growth gives more commuters a choice about how to get around, and built environments with more transportation choice have been found to be healthier (lower rates of obesity and diabetes).