Mother Jones: Can you give me a brief description of your organization, Smart Growth America (SGA), and list of some of your members for our readers?
David Goldberg: We are a coalition of national, state, and local advocacy groups. It’s a diverse set of interests ranging from affordable housing to some of your top-line environmental groups (NRDC and that sort of thing) and public health. And then we have state and regional organizations that are promoting and planning conservation and better urban development.
MJ: And some government agencies too, like mayors’ offices, right?
DG: They’re usually nonprofit organizations. So it would be like the Greenbelt Alliance. They’re one of our members. The 1,000 Friends organizations that a lot of states have. Some of those groups. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is one of our national members.
MJ: What do you actually do for these organizations?
DG: Well, that’s kind of evolved over the last several years. When we got started in 2000, a lot of what we were focusing on was analyzing what was going on with the growth trends. In the 1990s our cities tended to sprawl faster than they had ever sprawled before. We were consuming land at a rate three times population growth. And the amount that we were driving was rising at about the same rate. So a lot of what we were doing was just figuring this out. There’s some really disturbing trends here: We’re having a difficult time revitalizing places that are being abandoned, while we go out to these greenfields and build these new places, wasting a lot of money on extending infrastructure all over the place, and we’re consigning people to life in a car and now high gas prices.
So what do we do about that? We did a lot of work trying to develop policies that we thought would help in raising awareness about the issues, getting the policies out there, figuring out who was trying something interesting, and then circulating the information and building a network of people who understood the issues were interested in trying to make change. And I think more recently—it’s kind of amazing in the last year how things have aligned to make our work much more urgent. We in our organizations are busier than we have ever been because it’s now beginning to be understood (and we played a role in this) that our concerns about global warming, about oil dependence, and now about dealing with these high gas prices, about a housing slump that really has been a collapse of values on the exurban fringe of metro areas, that all these interrelated trends come back to the way that we have built our cities, and what that says about how we can get around in them, and how healthy they are.
MJ: Have you seen an increase in smart growth plans for cities recently?
DG: We’ve seen more activity happening at every level. We’ve seen a lot more projects being proposed that are mixed-use, mixed-housing types, that are more of a walkable form. And we’ve seen a lot more local governments adopting more plans and zoning ordinances that call for that kind of development. We’ve got a program to offer technical assistance to local governments to do some of this work for which we had much more applications than we could do. And I think the EPA has had a similar experience. They have a smart growth division that has done some of that too.
MJ: What are some projects that you’re really excited about that SGA had a hand in?
DG: There’s a few things going on in Atlanta we wouldn’t take direct credit for as an organization, although we and people who are involved with our organization had a lot to do with kind of getting the concepts out there and laying the groundwork. The Atlantic Station project in the city of Atlanta is the redevelopment of a 138-acre former steel mill, so it was an industrial brownfield that is in the middle of Atlanta on the other side of the interstate from the midtown district which has become the big, hot urban living district—Atlanta’s first kind of downtown, in-town, urban living area. But there were some issues with it because the site had to get access off the interstate. At the time you couldn’t do it in Atlanta; they were out of compliance with air-quality rules and they weren’t allowed to spend money on road projects until they got back into compliance. So what this project had to demonstrate was that compared to a similar amount of development and the form that it would take in a location outside the center of the city, a typical suburban location, that it actually was a net environmental benefit. So they did all this analysis, and the EPA actually did all this analysis, and came up with a plan for the steel site that involved a lot of apartments, condos, offices, shopping district, a big park, all in this one place. It showed that if you took this same amount of development and did it in typical suburban density, typical format, which is completely automobile dependent, you would have significantly more emissions and car travel. So this thing actually has been built, or pieces of it are still being built, but it’s a pretty amazing transformation and very different from what would have happened before the smart-growth concepts started to be developed and promoted. And now the city is considering a beltline—an old freight corridor that looped around the center of the city and connects former industrial areas. They’re planning to build a streetcar in that loop, but the streetcar would run within a greenway trail system and network of new parks with kind of intensive new neighborhoods developed around, along, that corridor. They’ve already been meeting with neighborhoods, and doing the planning, and developers are already showing interest in the corridor—they’ve bought a couple of sites for new parks, and passed a funding initiative for doing some of the infrastructure work and support affordable housing in the corridor. And what’s really cool about that concept is that everybody gets it. They get it that the land use, you need the higher density neighborhoods to make the most of what can happen here, and that the transit supports that and that the parks and the greenway trail, they all connect up together to make high-quality new neighborhoods that will accommodate a good portion of the city’s development instead of seeing it go off into the hinterlands.
MJ: Can you tell me a little bit about the main challenges that SGA, and others, face when trying to get smart growth initiatives off the ground?
DG: It’s interesting, because the challenges have evolved. When we started out there were a number of barriers. There were local government barriers, zoning codes as if handed from on high that outlawed the very kind of traditional neighborhoods that people found most appealing. The pre-World War II neighborhoods that were walkable, that had a commercial district you could walk to, that had street trees, sidewalks, and a mix of housing types. That all disappeared after World War II when this uniformed zoning swept the nation and it was very much automobile oriented—every single use separated from every other so that you had to have your school separated from your neighborhood, separated from your shopping district, separated from where you work so that the only way to get around was cars. And this was very much institutionalized. Raising the awareness that these codes were the DNA of sprawl that made it impossible to build the kind of neighborhoods that people said they wanted. That was one big barrier.
The other big barrier was that the whole development industry had grown up in this system so that everybody was very specialized. A developer would say, “I do subdivisions from the 250s to the 500s, that’s what I do, that’s what I know. To ask me to mix in some smaller houses, some apartments, and god forbid some retail, I don’t know what to do with that.” And the financial sector, they were used to projects where there were like 19 standard real estate product types that could be commoditized and bought and sold on Wall Street. That was a very standardized development system that had grown up. All of those things were things we had to deal with. And then there was the perception that in our culture, the single-family, detached house, with a three-car garage, filled to the gills with vehicles, was the dream to which everyone aspired. And I think one by one, many of these have been chipped away at and have fallen. As I said at the outset, we now have just a lot, I couldn’t give you a number, but literally hundreds of local communities that have reexamined their comprehensive plans and their zoning codes and begun to adopt a different approach. We now have seen dozens and dozens of successful mixed-use projects. We’ve now seen a lot of urban redevelopment happen; urban living has become popular in a lot of places. And the demographic changes that we predicted and we were telling people back in the late 1990s and 2000 that were coming and that were changing the Ozzie and Harriet era, the post-World War II era—50 percent of the households had kids. Now, last year the share of single-person households edged past the share of households with kids and two parents. A major, major shift in the market. At the same time we’re seeing this senior tsunami of people; every year the number of people turning 65 is rising and is projected to rise up until about 2030. So that is a difference. That creates a different demand. That’s a big change.
The tipping point in my view is being reached as we speak. The housing collapse has really been in many ways an exurban phenomenon. The places that are suffering the most are many of them the most car dependent. They got this double whammy. The developers overbuilt. We had this “Drive ’til you qualify” system for people to find they would drive out farther and farther to where the land was cheaper and the developers would be building the bigger houses and selling them for less. But that whole system has kind of fallen apart because, first of all, there’s lots of people trying to get into these houses paying more than, ultimately we find out, they’re worth, with these creative, innovative mortgage products that meant that they were paying more than they could really afford. And so the market for the subdivisions out there has really fallen off. There’s a lot of excess inventory. There’re lots that haven’t even been built on yet. There are people living in subdivisions that they can’t even get out of because there are so many other houses like theirs on the market, and people aren’t really looking for that right now. They’re looking for something where they don’t have to spend as much money on the gas.
MJ: What do you think is going to happen to all those homes that are out there—we see a lot of them in the Bay Area—of people who live far out and want to commute in? With the mortgage crisis, do you have any research on what is going to happen to those homes? Are they eventually going to be bought up or turned into something else?
DG: That’s a really good question. I think in the near term a lot of people are going to be stuck in a place that they don’t necessarily want to be stuck, and they’re going to find that it may take awhile for the housing values to recover in those areas, and they may not. I think the whole calculus has shifted. We did a poll on some transportation issues earlier this year, and in response to the question “Do you agree or disagree with this statement: Gas prices are only likely to get higher in the future?” 92 percent agreed. And similar numbers for how concerned people were about it and for how concerned they were for the nation that we were so oil dependent. I think that people’s perceptions are that that is a dangerous place to go. That might change, or we might miraculously see a couple of years of cheap gas again, and people’s memories may fail them, but I don’t think so.
MJ: Have private developers been getting on board with smart growth projects increasingly? Are they actually seeing this as something that can help their bottom line?
DG: Absolutely. The difficulty is that it is more complex to do these projects. It still takes multiple variances in the zoning codes. You often have to put together two or three different developers to do the different components: One is better versed in multifamily, the other one is single family, another one might do retail, although more and more developers are starting to get all those components in house. They’re starting to get better at it. Whey they succeed, they are more profitable. They hold their value better. And they offer a hedge against trouble in a particular market segment—you’re more diverse, so if people aren’t buying condos, they may rent your apartments. So that diversity helps. But the thing is, first of all, you need the expertise and you need a little bit of staying power, because the up-front costs can be more in terms of the planning and the approvals and in some cases installing the infrastructure.
MJ: Smart growth really does hinge on having different kinds of housing and different kinds of income levels, wouldn’t you say?
DG: Absolutely. Absolutely. One of the big changes that we’ve seen is now it’s not such an issue of convincing the local government, and the developers, and the buyers that this is a better way. Now the difficulty is in making sure that the many different income levels who want this kind of location can afford it. That people who work, who do the service jobs, whose labor is critical to these areas are able to find housing. And the other difficulty is making sure that you have a planning and development process that brings people in, helps them understand the potential benefits of this kind of growth, so that there’s not a reflexive opposition to change.
MJ: How do you make potential residents understand the benefits of this kind of housing when maybe they’ve grown up seeing the white-picket-fence, single-family home as the ideal? How do you let them know that there’s something different that might be more beneficial to them?
DG: It’s tricky because for years real estate agents have told people that if your house is anywhere near a house of lower value, you’re in trouble. You better be in a subdivision with houses all just like yours or maybe more expensive, because that’s the way to preserve value. But that’s been stood on its head in recent years because, when they’re well designed urban neighborhoods, when they’re walkable and have urban access, they’re holding their value and are improving. And one of the challenges is you can build one of these places that start out with some relatively affordable homes, and they appreciate so much that they are not so affordable anymore. So I think that myth is starting to dissipate.
Getting people comfortable with change, there have been several examples, some in the Bay Area, where the rail transit has been built, there’s BART, or in DC there’s the Metro. And for a number of years there wasn’t that much activity around the stations. They didn’t attract that much development. But now they are starting to be really hot spots for development. Communities are trying to plan for them. Neighbors look at it and they say, “That’s not what it was like when I came here, and I don’t really want it to change,” and it makes them very nervous. So in some cases, people are made more comfortable just by being involved in the planning process from the outset. Not being like they used to do, where they would present you with “Oh, look at this project, what do you think, give us comment.” Now they do these basically community design processes called charrettes—collaborative design processes where you bring in people from the community, the developer, the developer’s team, architect, planners; people come in and they get shown the parameters of what the project might be, an initial idea about it. People say, “Well, what I’m really concerned about is preserving this little green space over here,” or “I’d want a park that my kids can walk to,” or “I’m concerned that this particular intersection already has too much traffic; what are we going to do about that?” You put those concerns on the table and you address them in the design process. So people come back the next night and they see some proposed solutions and they give a little bit of feedback. And they come back maybe a few days later and there’s a more developed plan and they react to that. So at the end of it, you have something that people feel that they’ve had a part in and addresses if not all then at least some of their most important concerns. That kind of thing has really helped and has become almost mandatory. You pretty much have to do that if you want to have a successful infill development like that.
MJ: Is that because it makes the citizens feel ownership for the project?
DG: Exactly. You know, people naturally come into these proposed changes with skepticism and fear because for many years new development, or new road projects, were presented as a fait accompli and the result wasn’t always positive. I think when people feel like they may be getting something in exchange for the change, a long-standing traffic bottleneck might be addressed in the process, or they might get sidewalks and street trees that they didn’t have before, or there might be a pocket park, or they can walk to restaurants and they weren’t able to do that before. In some cases, even, they get a grocery store that they’ve been wanting for years. That helps them to see that there are benefits that come with it.
MJ: I’m wondering about ecovillages. Is that encompassed in the smart growth movement, or is that something different?
DG: That depends, and there’s often debate about these things. The carbon-neutral aspect of it is very much embraced by smart growth. And a lot of what you do to make it carbon neutral would be to pick an appropriate location. If you build an ecovillage on a cornfield 30 miles from town, and there’s no transit connection, how eco are you? To the degree that they are walkable, that they are reachable, by a reachable transit system, then that’s smart. One other thing I should mention that’s come out recently is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Neighborhood Development design standards. LEED for green buildings came out and it was really great. But we in the smart growth world were concerned that, again, you could build a so-called green building in a cornfield that you could only drive to. And meanwhile you’ve got this embodied energy and embodied environmental impact in existing buildings that may be abandoned or not revitalized because we’re still building brand-new LEED certified buildings out there somewhere. So we started, and the Congress for the New Urbanism is very involved in this, we started talking with the US Green Building Council about a standard for green neighborhoods. The pilot for that is out now. There’s a couple of hundred projects that are going through the evaluation process. It looks at everything from the location, how accessible is it to jobs and existing transit, even to affordable housing—you get credit for having affordable housing in the project, because its another way to cut down on environmental impact, because all kinds of workers can live closer to where they need to be. It looks at green infrastructure, how you’re handling storm water in a way that recharges the aquifer or naturally cleans the groundwater before it flows into streams. And it looks at leaving an appropriate amount of tree canopy for habitat or using green roofs or those kinds of things.
MJ: Taking a more holistic view?
DG: Yeah. Green building meets smart growth meets the ecovillage impulse.
MJ: Any other projects out there other than the Atlantic Station project that might be good examples to demonstrate smart growth?
DG: There’s a number of different ones. I really like the ones where they redevelop these old automobile corridors, failed malls, or shopping centers in the inner suburbs. There’s Belmar in Colorado. A good place to look for some of this is the EPA gives out a smart growth award each year, and it might be worth taking a spin through some of those award winners. There’s a project that I like in Seattle that doesn’t hit all the points of smart growth, but it’s a neat project, High Point. It’s a redevelopment of a decayed housing project, and they did a mixed-income neighborhood with a lot of green infrastructure touches. It’s just a pretty neat project, worth taking a look at.