As the election for At-Large Councilmember in DC heats up, expect to see the usual cast of characters using “Smart Growth” as a disparaging term, floating paranoid conspiracy theories about a nefarious cabal of developers, republicans, and their city-planner lackeys intent on running roughshod over our neighborhoods. In response to these suggestions, the Ward3Vision Steering Committee has written this brief history that articulates the social and environmental justice underpinnings of Smart Growth. We believe that this approach to regional and local development captures the best of what our society can achieve.
“Think globally, act locally” became a leading environmental movement slogan in the 1970’s. People had fled the city for the white picket fence quarter acre and a two-car garage. Companies relocated to sprawling suburban campuses and shopping malls with acres of parking were springing up like dandelions. Washington’s 1950’s-era zoning codified an auto-centric mindset focused on parking and downtown interior malls (“gallerias” meant to compete with the suburban malls) destroying the very qualities that made urban life attractive while enabling sprawl, wreaking havoc on the environment and the coffers of jurisdictions trying to provide expensive infrastructure for low density suburbs, or services in cities with a diminishing tax base.
Some planners resisted, but in the face of Departments of Transportation (and Federal funding) showing a marked preference for automobiles over people and an “urban renewal” mentality in city planning that swept poor residents from their neighborhoods, it was an uphill battle. Urban poverty, crack, crime and racism didn’t make it any easier. Sprawl was king, farmland was disappearing at an alarming rate, the quality of urban life was in the tank, and regional environmental quality was not far behind. Like many cities, DC lost almost half its population. Not coincidentally, people started talking about something called Global Warming.
In the early 1990’s, Maryland leaders recognized this failure and a coalition of environmentalists – the “Save the Bay” community, urban advocates and the agriculture community – created the first of several initiatives we call “smart growth”. The basic idea was to focus new development where transportation and other infrastructure existed while preserving and protecting farming, forest, and other natural features.
Fast forward two decades, and a very similar progressive coalition – affordable housing, transportation and environmental advocates – vigorously supported candidate Barack Obama, whose 2008 campaign featured improving American cities. Among the first pieces of legislation introduced by the Obama Administration, the Livable Communities Act, required HUD, EPA, DOT and SBA to evaluate federal proposals to ensure proper coordination. In other words, no longer would the federal government subsidize housing projects that were isolated from transportation infrastructure or dispersed without the integrated review of the EPA. America was finally catching up to the rest of the world recognizing the environmental imperative of focusing housing and business on transportation corridors and protecting green space.
So how does that manifest in the District?
DC’s exciting urban revitalization is attracting new residents to existing infrastructure – roads, utilities and public transportation. It is clearly good to broaden the tax base, and it is certainly good for the environment when these new residents live a car-free or car-light lifestyle, hence the strong support for alternative transportation infrastructure (both hardware such as streetcars and software such as new approaches to parking) and new housing (both big buildings on avenues and little ones in alleys) that reflect the desires of younger residents to save thousands of dollars per year on car expenses and use the savings to build up a nest egg, pay off student loans or pump back into the economy one latte at a time.
In Ward 3 that means we might have new housing along transit corridors made more affordable housing by decoupling parking from rent. New residents will support local restaurants, shops, grocery stores and other services that benefit all. It also strengthens the market for homes as apartment residents start families and look to buy in the neighborhood.
Yes, developers build these buildings. Does that make it “republican” or some sort of conspiracy? Ward3Vision believes there is room for a few more residents in our terrific neighborhoods by way of some transit corridor density and addition of modest ADUs. We believe new understanding of the environmental impact of development means we should demand even higher standards than we did of the past developers who built the houses and high-rises of Ward 3. We believe the character of our neighborhoods – their livability and walkability – could be enhanced by new environmentally responsible development.
The progressive democratic leadership of the country agrees. Smart Growth is the best policy.
Think Globally, Act Locally.
Side note: throughout the 1990’s, the Maryland State office responsible for this project was none other than current DC OP Director Harriet Tregoning.