This summer: Talking economics, equity, and smart growth

Improving racial and social equity is directly connected to building strong local economies, but there’s a mistaken perception that those goals are opposed to one another. Done right, both goals are not just achievable, but essential to a smart growth approach. We’re going to spend the rest of the summer explaining how and why. 

Our economic development team at Smart Growth America promotes smart growth through a place-based approach that uses data-driven analysis to show how smart growth is the key to both fiscal health and social equity.

This summer, we’re going to be telling you more about our approach to economic development, what this team does, and how it filters through all of SGA’s work. You can jump straight down to the bottom of this post for a sneak peek at what’s coming over the next couple of months. But to better understand how economic development in smart growth has evolved since the early days of the movement, we need to take a quick ride through its history.

The 1990s: economic development and smart growth

In the simplest terms, we would describe the genesis of the smart growth movement in the late 1990s as a bunch of environmentalists discovering that, in order to truly protect the environment, they had to get involved in the land use, development, zoning, and transportation decisions fueling the rampant sprawl of isolated, new single-family-only neighborhoods, drive-only stroads, and place-less, unprofitable growth chewing up valuable farmland and open space.

On the other side, the conventional wisdom in economic development circles at the time was that considering  environmental impacts (or considering any approach to growth other than sprawling in all directions as fast as possible) was somehow a compromise; an economic strategy that left money on the table in service of environmental goals.

It’s an oversimplification but a pretty fair summary of that particular moment.

That’s why the earliest years of the movement in the 1990s were so intently focused on reconciling this “smart” new idea about growth with environmental protection—two ideas that were mistakenly believed to be in opposition. (It cut both ways, too: many environmentalists didn’t trust the idea that they could support “growth.” Many still don’t.) 

So the budding smart growth movement spent a lot of time early on making the case that smart growth was both good for business and the environment. Our Smart Growth Is Smart Business report from 2004 is a good example of the rhetoric and research that defined that era. That report is a bit of a time capsule— you’ll only find the word “equity” in reference to capital—but it’s also as prophetic as ever in places: 

Sprawl creates economic inefficiencies by increasing business operating costs as well as costs for local governments, because new infrastructure and services—roads, schools, utilities, water and sewer, and police and fire protection—must be provided to support the new development. The burden of these major infrastructure costs on local, state, and federal governments is likely to increase as budget pressures make it difficult to help fund the tremendous backlog of infrastructure improvements and other public sector needs. The costs of providing and maintaining new infrastructure, while still maintaining the old infrastructure, are passed on to businesses as well as residents.

The next evolution: equitable economic development

Today, there’s a different set of ideas that are mistakenly believed to be in opposition: place-based economic development and the need to improve equity in our communities. Just like environmentalism and economic development 25 years ago, we believe that these goals are not opposed to one another, but essential to one another.

Improving racial and social equity has absolutely become an animating concern for many in this hopefully older and wiser movement, but it’s a non-negotiable part of SGA’s mission. As we said back in January during our first Equity Summit, “if it’s not equitable, then it’s not smart growth.”

Economic development within smart growth is about building places that benefit everyone, where everyone has good access to jobs and opportunities, and where the economic benefits are distributed more evenly. Our team makes the smart growth case by focusing on both economic growth and fiscal health. E.g, there’s no way to improve equity if your city goes bankrupt chasing unproductive growth that leads to fiscal decline. And we’re dedicated to implementing demonstrably inclusive economic development policies to ensure the benefits of smart growth are enjoyable by everyone, not just a select few.

What’s coming this summer

Making this case is one reason why we’re spending the rest of the summer at Smart Growth America talking about economic development and equity in smart growth in a focused way. The second reason is that we have an incredible team of policy, research, and advocacy experts at SGA who help embed smart, equitable, economic development principles in all of our work with communities across the country. 

We want to shine a spotlight on our economic development work this summer. We’ll explain how improving racial and social equity in our communities is essential to building strong local economies. We’ll show how, done right, both of these goals are not just achievable, but are essential to a truly smart growth approach. Our economic development team will be releasing a few key things this summer, including:

  • A new report about the benefits for communities that implement form-based codes—for both equity and the bottom line.
  • New research and tools for helping communities evaluate the fiscal impacts of their development decisions.
  • A short report about the transportation needs in rural communities, and the connection to economic development
  • Stories of communities who have transitioned from the old conventional wisdom (sprawl is good!) to the new (place and people are what matters most.)
  • A close look at Recast Your City, a  book from SGA alum and frequent collaborator Ilana Preuss, about how small-scale manufacturing can be used to catalyze smart, equitable development in communities of all sizes.
  • All summer long, new research and pieces about a range of topics related to economic development, such as leveraging big infrastructure investments for equitable development, the equity impacts of sprawl, how planning for fiscal health with municipal budgets is fundamentally a strategy to improve equity, and others.

Stay tuned. 

Coming up next will be a short look at what a smart growth approach to economic development means. And then a close look at an inspiring project to revitalize Newport’s North End while repairing the damage of a highway that cut a neighborhood apart. 

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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.