What is smart growth?

“We envision a country where no matter where you live, or who you are, you can enjoy living in a place that is healthy, prosperous, and resilient.”


Neighborhoods shape our lives. Where we live can influence our health, our economic potential, and our children’s futures. Everyone in America—no matter their age, ability, income, or race—deserves the option to live somewhere affordable, convenient, beautiful, and safe.

Smart growth means reinvesting in America’s downtowns and main streets, the economic engines of big cities and rural towns alike. Smart growth means creating homes for families of all income levels alongside one another in locations where daily needs are close by. Smart growth means diversifying our transportation system so Americans have a choice in how they get around. Smart growth means building streets that are safe for people walking, bicycling or using any sort of assistive device, as well as driving. Smart growth means protecting our open green spaces for generations to come.

Above all, it’s about helping every town and city become a more economically prosperous, socially equitable, and environmentally sustainable place to live, helping everyone flourish.

So what is smart growth?

Smart growth looks different from place to place—it’s an overall approach to development that encourages a mix of building types and uses, diverse housing and transportation options, development within existing neighborhoods, and robust community engagement. The 10 principles below, developed several decades ago but unpacked in this guide from US EPA, are considered the foundation of a smart growth approach—click on each principle to expand and learn more.

Mixing land uses means building homes, offices, schools, parks, shops, restaurants, and other types of development near one another—on the same block or even within the same building.
Mixed land uses bring more people to a neighborhood at a variety of times of day, which can support businesses, improve safety, and enhance the vitality of an area. Mixing land uses also makes it possible for people to live closer to where they work or run errands, and means they don’t need to drive a car to get there. Mixed-use neighborhoods are in-demand, meaning this approach can boost property values and keep them stable, protecting the investment of homeowners as well as tax revenues for municipalities.

Compact design means making more efficient use of land that has already been developed. Encouraging development to grow up, rather than out, is one way to do this. Infill development—building on empty or underutilized lots—is another. Building within an existing neighborhood can attract more people to the jobs, homes, and businesses already there while also making the most of public investments in things like water and sewer lines, roads, and emergency services.

Building quality housing for families of all life stages and income levels is an integral part of a smart growth approach. Housing constitutes a significant share of new construction and development in any city, but its economic importance is sometimes overlooked. Adding housing in commercial districts can breathe new life into these neighborhoods in evenings and on weekends. And more importantly, the housing options available in a community will influence families’ economic opportunities, costs of living, and how much time they spend commuting each day. Diversifying housing options within existing neighborhoods can give everyone more choices about where to live.

Walkable neighborhoods are in high demand across the country and it’s hardly a mystery why. Walking is a convenient, affordable, and healthy way to get around that never goes out of style—so long as people can do it safely and conveniently. Walkable places are created in part by mixing land uses and taking advantage of compact design but are activated by smart street design that makes walking not only practical but safe and convenient to enjoy.

Unique, interesting places that reflect the diverse values, culture, and heritage of the people who live there have the greatest staying power. Projects and neighborhoods that incorporate natural features, historic structures, public art, and placemaking can help distinguish a place from its neighbors to attract new residents and visitors, and support a vibrant community for the people who already live there.

Preserving open spaces like prairie, wetlands, parks, and farms is both an environmental issue and economic issue. People across the country want access to natural recreation areas, which translates into demand for housing and tourism. Meeting that demand improves a city’s ability to attract employers, while also supporting agricultural industries. Preserving open spaces can also make communities more resilient, protecting them from natural disasters, combating air pollution, controlling wind, providing erosion control, moderating temperatures, protecting water quality, and protecting animal and plant habitats.

Developing within existing communities—rather than building on previously undeveloped land—makes the most of the investments we’ve already made in roads, bridges, water pipes, and other infrastructure, while strengthening local tax bases and protecting open space. Regulations, zoning, and other public policies sometimes make this approach unnecessarily difficult for developers, however. Local leaders can and should change policy to encourage development within existing neighborhoods.

Providing a variety of transportation choices—high-quality public transportation, safe and convenient biking and walking infrastructure, and well-maintained roads and bridges— helps communities to attract talent, to compete on a global scale, and to improve the day-to-day lives of their residents. To make this happen, elected leaders and transportation agencies must change how they prioritize, select, invest in, build, and measure transportation projects at the local, regional, and nationwide level.

Developers play a crucial role in how towns and cities are built. Many developers who want to build walkable, urban places but are thwarted by restrictive regulations or complicated approval processes. Municipalities interested in encouraging smart growth development can and should examine their regulations and streamline the project permitting and approval process so that development decisions are more timely, cost-effective, and predictable for developers. By creating a supportive environment for development of innovative, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use projects, government can provide smart growth leadership for the private sector.

Every community has different needs, and meeting those needs requires a different approach from place to place. Communities suffering from disinvestment may need to focus on encouraging development downtown; communities with robust economic growth may need to focus on addressing social equity. The common thread is that the needs of every community and the strategies to address them are best defined by the people who live and work there.

Smart growth is not possible without the perspective of everyone with a vested interest in a town, city, or neighborhood. Smart growth is about building a future for a community that everyone can participate in, and gathering the ideas, feedback, and support of everyone in a community is the only way to do that. This process is not only inclusive and equitable, it also will give projects built-in support and staying power.

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