Smart Growth America’s economic development approach

We’re spending the rest of this summer talking about our data-driven, equity-focused approach to economic development and producing prosperous, resilient places—from the team that makes it happen. Catch up with the full series of posts, essays, and reports on this page.

Some may think of smart growth as a physical form of development, but in a simpler sense it’s deciding how to best use limited resources when it comes to choices about land use, housing, development, and infrastructure. Our economic development team is at the core of SGA’s work to move the needle on these questions across the country.

Every town, city, and county is actively deciding how to grow and develop and change. These decisions shape entire neighborhoods, have enormous implications for local government finances—which cascades through every other priority in the budget—and form the foundation of our communities as we know them. 

Economic development is at the root of smart growth, guiding our decisions in a monetary sense about what we can build, where we can build it, and the role of the public vs. private sector. And our economic development team within SGA is the heart of our work to push these decisions in a better direction.

As was described in the first post in this ongoing summer series, the smart growth movement was born out of the need to refute the false dichotomy between environmental protection and economic growth.   The smart growth approach to economic development is about how we can protect the environment and boost the bottom line.  There is a better approach to economic development than trying to lure major employers with huge tax incentives, building new highways, and letting growth sprawl in all directions.  Explaining this  is why the smart growth movement early on was as focused on illuminating the perils of sprawl as it was on infill and encouraging growth in downtowns and other walkable places to bring more lasting, durable, economic returns.

When we do workshops with local communities, we’re trying to instill a longer perspective in the minds of people who might be just trying to see through this year’s budget cycle. Every single choice they make about development brings either a cost or a return for decades to come.  When viewed over the long term, it becomes clear that economic sustainability and environmental sustainability are complementary, not in conflict.  The smart growth approach to economic development is the way to achieve fiscal and economic health over time. 

Fiscal and economic health should also be a core concern for local elected leaders because it’s  necessary if they are to extend the benefits of growth to everyone in their communities. This is the second part of our approach to economic development: Helping local leaders address profound issues of equity and opportunity for all within their communities.  We can help them explain to their communities both that economic growth depends upon equity and that achieving equity requires economic growth.  If it isn’t equitable, it isn’t smart growth. And vice versa.

How is the bottom line connected to improving equity?

The primary task of our economic development team is to make the case for smart growth in all types of places on the basis of economic growth and fiscal health. Put another way, helping leaders at all levels make decisions about growth that bring returns to their communities, rather than just increasing their liabilities and costs.

This may sound like a narrow focus on government accounting, but we deeply believe that when communities make a comprehensive  examination of their fiscal and economic health, they win at more than just finances. It comes down to an opportunity cost for better things.  Communities that are pouring limited resources into a form of growth (sprawl, etc.) that brings them more costs than returns don’t have the money to do other things, such as investing in affordable housing, devoting more money to social services, or investing in the local institutions that build and sustain the social capital that keeps a community together and thriving. (To say nothing of the negative consequences of sprawling growth, which tends to do far more damage to people in marginalized groups or on the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy through poor health, greater likelihood of being killed while walking, “drive ‘til you qualify” affordable housing policies that lead to punishing commutes, etc.) 

A smart growth approach to economic development embeds a focus on improving equity, allowing communities to also address environmental or societal challenges, whether local water quality, global climate change, or the racial wealth gap in their local context. 

What does our economic development team do?

We work on issues of smart growth and economic development policy at every jurisdictional level, with an emphasis on reaching policymakers at the state, regional, and local levels. We provide direct technical assistance to communities struggling with challenges of equitably managing growth (such as when a new transit line is coming), and to those which are struggling to find a way to grow (like rural towns that have lost a major employer).  We do research and number-crunching to provide analysis and technical assistance for places of all sizes to help them produce growth that is sustainable and equitable. And we support the work of all the other teams and programs within Smart Growth America. 

Our team helped perform the underlying analysis in Dangerous by Design, Smart Growth America’s report about the worsening epidemic of people struck and killed while walking. Our team produced Unrealized Gains, SGA’s report about the impact of Opportunity Zones on small business stability and growth in distressed communities. We have more of these kinds of releases coming this summer, and we’re excited to do a little more to highlight our team’s work, thinking, and staff.

How do we do it?

One of the core ways SGA helps make smart growth happen across the country is by doing hands-on technical assistance workshops—of almost every kind—with communities from coast to coast. We conduct workshops on “Planning for Economic and Fiscal Health” in towns large and small, usually presenting them with specifically-tailored analysis showing how different growth planning scenarios will impact their local bottom line. When the National Complete Streets Coalition helps local leaders go from policy to practice on building safer streets, our team might provide economic analyses of the benefits of potential Complete Streets projects. When a community is facing a major economic adjustment — the loss of a traditional industry, closure of a steel mill, coal mine, or nuclear power plant — our team prepares hotspot analyses to help community leaders see the potential economic benefits or pitfalls of where and how they choose to grow.

Along those lines, one of the things on tap we’re most excited to highlight this summer is our geospatial fiscal analysis work — which is a fancy way of referring to the work we do to help communities understand how a smart growth approach to development could help improve their bottom line. How much will it cost to support new development in coming years? Would the development bring more net revenue (the difference between new revenue generated, and the additional cost of providing services) if it were designed or located differently? We’ve advised many communities over the last few years, and we’re preparing new releases on this topic this summer, including some model language that your community could incorporate to make this kind of planning and decision-making the norm.

Smart growth has and will continue to be a reliant and cost-effective means to creating places that are healthy, prosperous, and resilient. Our team is here to bring it to your community. 

Economic development