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Monday, October 14, 2013

Why Smart Growth is a Conservation Issue

Some readers who have heard the term Smart Growth might recall that the term somehow has something to do with zoning or deciding whether to build a new strip mall or similar sedentary activities.  And they might think, 'Why should I care about a new Walmart?  I just want to fish, or watch birds, or (fill in your favorite outdoor activity here).'

Stream Hugger has always been about interpreting conservation issues in a way that is relatable to the general public.  I hope this particular post will explain how certain land use decisions, even in already developed areas, can affect the environment in surrounding undeveloped areas.

Smart Growth is a land use principle that can be summed up in two words:  common sense. Instead of allowing unchecked sprawl in the hope of future prosperity and publicly funding infrastructure with no regard for its long-term costs, we need to call a time out.  Take a deep breath.  Get it through our heads that we are not in a big, imaginary race against the neighboring municipality to get built-out before they do so that we can get our share of the riches that developers always promise.  The ruse that we have to allow property owners to do what they want with their hundred-acre parcels in the name of "property rights" and "stimulating the economy" is hogwash, because every other property owner in that community has a right to not have their properties adversely affected by poorly vetted and illogical new development.

From the Smart Growth America website, "Smart growth means building urban, suburban and rural communities with housing and transportation choices near jobs, shops and schools. This approach supports local economies and protects the environment." Let's focus on how Smart Growth can protect the environment.

This big-box store has way more parking spaces than it needs,
which needlessly creates more stormwater runoff than it should.
Projects that are approved and built under Smart Growth principles tend to require less pavement than traditional projects. So more of the precipitation that falls on a parcel can soak into the soil to recharge groundwater rather than running off to a municipal stormwater system. For commercial developments, Smart Growth can mean requiring a realistic number of parking spaces rather than a cookbook number of parking spaces based soley on square-footage of the buildings. This reduction in parking space, as well as allowing new types of permeable paving options and encouraging green roofs, can result in significant decreases in stormwater runoff compared with traditional big-box development practices.

Smart Growth, however, is not just about what we build. It’s also about where we build.  Smart Growth encourages building more densely in already developed areas – building where the people already are. If we encourage development in areas in or near where people are already working, going to school, shopping, and playing, we can minimize the footprint of new development.  Concentrating the growth near existing uses helps to keep surrounding open spaces open so that they can continue to absorb and filter stormwater runoff as nature intended.
A recently published study showed that even modest increases in development density can significantly reduce water quality problems associated with development. The study, from the Chesapeake Bay watershed, found that when development was concentrated it required about half as much impervious surface as sparsely developed land and resulted in 43% less polluting runoff stormwater runoff.
By focusing development on already-developed areas we are also preserving wildlife habitat. Habitat loss is the main threat to 80% of the threatened and endangered species in the U.S. Focusing growth within an existing community, rather than outside of town on a greenfield, helps preserve wildlife habitat, protects water quality and avoids the costs associated with dispersed infrastructure.
Studies have found that smart growth development helps bird species flourish, with more birds and a greater diversity of species in smart growth areas than areas with dispersed development. Protecting open space, parks and farmland means strengthening existing communities, attracting businesses, and avoiding the costs associated with supporting dispersed infrastructure. Communities with well-maintained neighborhood parks and extensive park systems have been shown to consistently attract and retain businesses.

Smart growth offers aesthetic and economic advantages for our communities. And it can protect wildlife habitat and water quality in the undeveloped areas that we rely on for rest and relaxation. We need to demand that our municipal officials get on board with Smart Growth principles.