Hey, Government! Smart Growth is Smart for Business and Curbing Climate Change

in Public Policy/Real Estate

By Paulina Knotts


At alarming rates, America’s growing population, industrialization, and consumerism are depleting its finite land and natural resources, while simultaneously accelerating global warming.[1] [This acceleration is largely due to heightened greenhouse gas emissions, which inefficient and unplanned “sprawl” development has increased.[2]  Sprawl is a modern “form of urbanization distinguished by leapfrog patterns of development, widespread commercial strips, low density, separated land uses, automobile dominance, and a minimum of public open space.”[3]

In many states, the land use systems in place not accounted for the nation’s rapid population growth. This results in a pattern of inefficient, sprawling suburban and exurban development.  Current uncontrolled growth patterns have resulted in challenges to utilities provision, increased infrastructure costs, degraded environmentally sensitive lands, and caused exponential energy consumption. Additionally, motor vehicle dependency due to longer distances travelled between destinations increases greenhouse gas emissions and traffic pollution that complicates health, as well as other social costs, such as unproductive time spent commuting.[4] Sprawling development has created a national infrastructure gap, with current deficiencies in infrastructure approaching $1.5 trillion.[5]

Current uncontrolled growth patterns have resulted in challenges to utilities provision, increased infrastructure costs, degraded environmentally sensitive lands, and caused exponential energy consumption.

The growth of unchecked sprawl and its grave consequences call for the adoption of sustainable, planned development in order to mitigate the irreparable threats to the environment, natural resources, and quality of life. One impediment is that local governments are ill-equipped to combat this costly devastation without coordinated partnerships between federal, state, and local agencies to “build on their economic strengths” and “grow in environmentally sustainable ways.”[6] Therefore, states should use the power of the purse to incentivize reforming local land use planning to use modern objectives, policies, and regionally coordinated approaches to effectively implement sustainable development strategies, such as “smart growth” management.

America’s Land Use Laws Breed Sprawl

The pursuit of private property as part of the “American Dream” largely promoted sprawl, but it is permitted, if not encouraged by inefficient local land use laws, such as outdated zoning practices that unnecessarily separate residential and commercial uses and prohibit mixed-use development.[7]  In Village of Euclid v. Amber Realty Company, the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of segregated land uses and granted primary authority to local governments over land use matters so long as the decisions were not arbitrary.[8] As a result, the commonly used and court sanctioned non-arbitrary way to design a zoning code was to segregate uses thought to be incompatible with one another. The consequent fragmented and uncoordinated planning often results in patterns of scattered development on large lots exacerbating sprawl.[9] Despite this, it is continuously advanced by local governments without state or federal oversight through the use of their long-held authority over local development planning[10] and reluctance to participate in coordinated regional planning.

Some residents oppose state intervention to curb sprawl because they might believe that sprawl is a consequence of free market choices.[11] Some oppose state intervention because they believe that spending for growth management initiatives, such as policies promoting transit oriented development, increase the economic burden for those who do not use public transit; additionally, more road construction is preferable for continued car use[. On the other hand, some believe that sprawl is the result of the government’s failure to have the foresight needed plan for efficient communities and that its dangers must be combatted with smart growth management.[12]

Smart Growth’s Call for Intergovernmental Coordination to Combat Sprawl

“Smart Growth” is a term for planned land use practices, policies, and controls that improve efficiency, economic prosperity, and sustainability by creating development patterns that reduce the need to move throughout the city. Smart growth restricts low density development and contains urban growth within designated areas, thus curbing sprawl.[13] Smart growth uses land planning strategies, such as increasing density, by directing development towards existing communities to achieve its goals, which include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, balancing business and development interests with environmental concerns, preserving open spaces, and providing a variety of housing and job opportunities with compact mixed-use development.[14]

To create sustainable land use patterns using smart growth management calls for coordinated efforts between all levels of government and using  consensus-building processes.[15] Implementing smart growth development will require reforming current land use policies and practices, such as replacing outdated zoning with mixed-use land development, which is a key component. Reform will require states to confront obstacles presented by the precedent of local governments’ [control in the land use process, and instead allow states to require or incentivize regionally coordinated planning. States can significantly influence intergovernmental collaboration and guide sustainable development through the use of strategic funding incentives, regulatory controls, statutory reforms, and other incentive based intergovernmental cooperation.[16]

To create sustainable land use patterns using smart growth management calls for coordinated efforts between all levels of government and using consensus-building processes.

California, for example, created a smart growth initiative, the Sustainable Communities Act of 2008 (SB 375), which links land use planning, including regional transportation infrastructure development and regional affordable housing needs, with regional GHG emission reduction targets.[17] SB 375 was enacted after the legislature realized that the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 (AB 32)’s goals of reducing statewide greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 could not be achieved without improved land use and transportation policies.[18] California’s  GHG targets could only be met by reducing Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), so SB 375 uses regional transportation plans that discourages automobile dependency by incentivizing compact, mixed-used development located along public transit corridors.[19] 

SB 375 works to coordinate “disjointed planning activities and provide incentives for local governments and developers to follow new conscientiously-planned growth patterns.”[20] It also afforded the state increased influence over local land use planning and authority to employ numerous regulatory measures, such as regional transportation planning, increased transit investment, and enhanced multi-modal public transportation to reduce the amount of VMTs.[21] Federal law requires regional metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to adopt regional transportation plans,[22] but local compliance with SB 375’s regional plans is voluntary, which necessitates incentives for cities to incorporate the region’s development plans. State agencies provide local governments with guidance to implement smart growth principles to develop sustainable communities, as well as infrastructure funding incentives to embrace conscientiously-planned, regional growth patterns.[23] Transportation-oriented development projects are incentivized to be consistent with the regional Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) with state funds for coordination, or with relaxed environmental review requirements under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for developers.[24] 

If cities continue to enact sprawl inducing development patterns, the environment and public infrastructure systems will be exponentially burdened, finite environmental and agricultural lands will be consumed, and the devastating impacts will be extremely difficult to reverse. California is taking substantial steps to curb the emissions of GHGs that contribute to global warming. AB 32 and SB 375 are pieces of ambitious legislation that need to be aggressively pursued in order for their targets to be reached. States must act now and should follow California’s lead to push standards that reduce GHG emissions and likewise advance a bottom-up policy change through funding incentives awarded to local programs that integrate regional development plans to curb sprawl’s devastating, costly impacts.

[1] Kyle D. Mott, Redevelopment Reimagined: A Proposal to Revive California’s Redevelopment Agencies to Attain the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Targets of Senate Bill 375, 17 CHAP. L. REV. 233, 253 (2013).

[2] Michael M. Maya, Transportation Planning and the Prevention of Sprawl, 83 N.Y.U.L. REV. 879, 883 (2008).

[3] Oliver Gillham, The Limitless City: A Primer on the Urban Sprawl, Debate 8 (2002).

[4] David P. Fan et al., The Rise and Fall of Concern About Urban Sprawl in the United States: An Updated Analysis, U.S. Dep’t. of Agric. (2005), http://nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/gtr/gtr_nc265/gtr_nc265_001.pdf; Edward J. Sullivan & Jessica Yeh, Smart Growth: State Strategies in Managing Sprawl, 45 URB. L. 349 (2013).

[5] James McBride, The State of U.S. Infrastructure Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/state-us-infrastructure (last visited Mar 17, 2019).

[6] Ashira P. Ostrow, Emerging Counties? Prospects for Regional Governance in the Wake of Municipal Dissolution, 122 YALE L.J. 187, 200 (2013).

[7] Randolph R. Lowell, Coastal Smart Growth, 22 PACE ENVTL. L. REV. 231, 242 (2005).

[8] See generally Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., 272 U.S. 365 (1926).

[9] David L. Callies & et. al., Land Use Cases and Materials, 828 (7th ed. 2017).

[10] Id.

[11] Jonathan Levine, Zoned Out, 2 (RFP Press, 2006).

[12] John C. Mooney, Selling Smart Growth, JOHN HOPKINS UNIV. (May 2008), https://jscholarship.library.jhu.edu/bitstream/handle/1774.2/32777/Mooney,%20John%20C.%20-%20Selling%20Smart%20Growth.pdf.

[13] Gabor Zovanyi, The Role of Initial Statewide Smart-Growth Legislation in Advancing the Tenets of Smart Growth., 39 URBAN L. 371 (2007).

[14] Id.

[15] See Robert H. Freilich & Neil M. Popowitz, The Umbrella of Sustainability: Smart Growth, New Urbanism, Renewable Energy and Green Development in the 21st Century, 42 URB. L. 1 (2010).

[16] Patricia E. Salkin, Using Smart Growth to Achieve Sustainable Land Use Policies, 32 ELR 11385, 11391 (2002).

[17] See Amanda Eaken & Justin Horner, A Bold Plan for Sustainable California Communities: A Report on the Implementation of Senate Bill 375, NAT’L RES. DEF. COUNCIL, (Sept. 2012), http://www.nrdc.org/globalwarming/sb375/implementation-report/files/implementation-report.pdf.

[18] Joanna D. Malaczynski & Timothy P. Duane, Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Vehicles Miles Traveled: Integrating the California Environmental Quality Act with the California Global Warming Solutions Act, 36 ECOLOGY L.Q. 71, 75 (2009).

[19] Dorothy J. Glancy, Vehicle Miles Traveled and Sustainable Communities, 46 MCGEORGE L. REV. 23, 24–25.

[20] Freilich & Popowitz, supra note 15 (quoting Press Release, California OFF. Governor, Governor Signs Sweeping Legislation to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Land Use (Sept. 30, 2008)).

[21] Glancy, supra note 19 at 25.

[22] Cal. Gov’t Code § 14522.1 (West Supp. 2014).

[23] See 2009 Legis. Bill Hist. CA S.B. 391.

[24] Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21155.2 (West Supp. 2014).