Smart Growth - It's More than Ag Preservation and Stopping Urban Sprawl




Smart Growth is the latest buzz word in the planning media. During 1999, there were over 100 various ballot initiatives concerning urban sprawl, growth management, open space and smart growth placed before the voters across the United States. Even candidates for the presidency of the United States discuss the concept of offering different federal funding strategies to assist states and local governments to reduce sprawl. 

In Illinois local officials are reviewing their plans to incorporate smart growth land use goals in response to national and statewide attention toward smarter land use planning. Nevertheless, what is smart growth? How will governments determine if their local plans are smart growth oriented? Do we need to make changes so that our plans are smart growth oriented and ,if, so what changes do we need? The intent of this article is to answer these questions. 

Smart growth means different things to different people. Some proponents think that any infrastructure improvements, such as new road, especially interstates, in suburban areas promote sprawl, or in their minds "unsmart growth." They believe that we should target federal and state resources to rebuild older central cities, whether or not these cities lack vitality. Obviously, this approach also has opposition. 

Some developers feel that smart growth means higher density development on smaller lots, which may provide for greater profits. Others feel that governments should purchase land to save it from development pressures. It becomes open space or could even continue to be farmed. Not since the environmental movement of the 1970's have we seen such a public emphasis on land use and land regulation. 

The $10 billion Clinton Administration "Livability Agenda" which calls for the control of urban sprawl through preservation of open space and protection of water supply is only the beginning. The current attention to the issue of urban sprawl and wise management of our resources could result in new legislation and state policies addressing future new development. The concern for preservation of open space and protection of our resources has resulted in new resources and may initiate new legislation and state policies concerning land use controls. Background and a 

Definition Smart growth has grown from the anti sprawl development movement. In part, smart growth seeks to prevent leapfrog developments that are not contiguous to existing communities. A primary goal of smart growth is to save our most valuable natural resources and direct new development to areas where infrastructure is already in place, thus saving the expense of building new infrastructure and converting undeveloped land for urban uses. 

The State of Maryland has enacted a "Smart Growth and Neighborhood Conservation" initiative, which they intended "to reverse the inefficient and often costly pattern of development that has been the standard in this country for the past half century." 

According to the Maryland model, smart growth has three straightforward goals: 

To save our most valuable remaining natural resources before they are forever lost; 

To support existing communities and neighborhoods by targeting state resources to support development in areas where the infrastructure is already in place (or is planned) to support it; and 

To save taxpayers millions of dollars in the unnecessary cost of building the infrastructure required to support sprawl. 

Many supporters of smart growth in Illinois identify with the Maryland goals. These goals support logically planned infrastructure and development. Who's Doing What? In Illinois, the smart growth movement is expanding rapidly. Besides supporters of wise infrastructure development, the movement has grown to encompass many diverse groups including open space preservationists, transportation planners, pro growth advocates, economic developers who seek the location of jobs closer to home and citizens seeking additional and higher levels of government services. Each group brings a specific agenda and view concerning the pattern of future land use. In Northern Illinois, a quick inventory of interested groups would include the Metropolitan Chicago Mayors Caucus, the Northern Illinois Planning Commission, the Metropolitan Planning Council, Openlands Project and the State among others. 

County and multi-jurisdictional planning bodies will also become involved with smart growth initiatives as needs to plan for both redevelopment within existing communities and for expansion of the urban areas beyond local governmental jurisdictions become necessary. Various research studies and, more recently, policies and recommendations for better land use management have been published by many of these groups. These studies are designed to provide information and simulate local officials to action, recognizing, in Illinois, land use planning and development regulations are administered by local government. 

As the collective mayoral voice of municipalities in the Chicago region, the Metropolitan Chicago Mayors Caucus established the following vision and principles related to smart growth: Vision The Chicago metropolitan region will be a place where all residents enjoy a high quality of life characterized by access to jobs, economic opportunity, quality housing, educational opportunity, an effective transportation system, and a safe environment. 

The mayors adopted the following principles to support their vision: 

1. Regional growth and development policies, programs, and projects should respect local decision making authority.

2. Policies to guide the region's growth and development should be developed by the region. 

3. Regional growth and development initiatives should promote balanced economic development throughout the Region. 

4. Initiatives to promote the region's growth and development should employ positive incentives, not mandates or penalties. 

5. Regional growth and development initiatives should respect personal and economic choice and the diversity of the Region's communities. The most recent Smart Growth Vision was released by the Metropolitan Planning Council in December. "Building Stronger Communities" represents a year long effort to build consensus concerning smart growth for the greater Chicago region and the whole state. 

The study identified five goals which embody smart growth; 

1. Protect open space, 

2. Coordinate transportation with development, 

3. Improve water quality, 

4. Expand housing for workers, and 

5. Coordinate and expand state support to local communities. 

Smart Growth Graduates to Sensible or Sustainable Growth Almost daily the local newspaper contains a report about future land development, whether it be titled smart growth, sustainable growth, sensible development or anti sprawl development. Usually the media summarize a state or local effort to achieve one or more of the goals stated above. In Illinois Governor Ryan and the Illinois General Assembly have established the Illinois Growth Task Force to study smart growth and establish state policy and investment guidelines. 

Many local governments are reviewing their plans and testing whether their current plans fulfill smart growth standards and provide for sensible and sustainable future development. One such group is the Eastern Will County Regional Council, an intergovernmental agency created for joint planning by the local governments in that area. According to Ken Kramer, Chair of the Council and a Park Forest Trustee, "Eastern Will County is truly a microcosm of the State. In terms of smart growth, we represent older cities as well as fast growing rural communities. We need to improve existing roads. We need new roads built as well as better public transit to job centers. 

In the future we will be one of the fastest growing Illinois county and we must consider our need to house this expanding workforce." "The goal of the Smart Growth Strategy for Eastern Will County will be to draw together our local governments to assure we have a land use plan which conserves resources and supports our ability to grow in the future. We also need to increase the number of jobs in our area, to reduce long commute times for our workers." Kramer believes the Eastern Will County Regional Council is a proper vehicle for the study of smart growth since the council represents a group of communities which, while independent, must base their future planning on several common growth and development issues including transportation improvements and location of new employment opportunities. 

"Ultimately, the character of Eastern Will County will be shaped by the individual decisions made by each local government. Collective future planning will provide a chance to address quality of life issues, reduction of traffic congestion, increasing available jobs and reducing impact to our schools rather than reacting to new as it happens." Testing The Local Plan For Smart Growth Consistency Local officials should determine whether their community plan is a Smart Growth Plan. 

Below is a series of questions which can be used to test as to whether the plan could be considered a Smart Growth Plan. 

1. Does the plan provide for increased land for new development adjoining the current developed area? 

2. Does the plan call for developing vacant land within the existing pattern of development? 

3. Does the plan promote the building or improving of new roads which will expand the pattern of development to vacant or existing agricultural land areas? 

4. Does the plan specify land which should be preserved from development? 

5. Does the plan require the installation of additional water and sewer lines, using state grants or loans, while current capacity remains unused? 

6. Does the plan seek to decrease the average single family home lot size? 

7. Does the plan consider more pedestrian pathways within the community including shopping/entertainment areas, schools, government buildings, etc. and have you considered road width and sidewalk requirements in new subdivisions. 

8. Does the plan promote coordination of the pattern of land use with abutting neighbors? 

9. Does the plan explore mass transportation for workers to reach their places of employment? 

10. Does the plan include housing for families employed in jobs located in the community? 

Fortunately, there is no correct answer nor wrong answer to these test questions. These questions form the basis for discussion and determination, by local officials, whether their plan meets their definition of smart growth. What to Do with this Information Citizens and the media will call upon individual communities in the next several years to test whether their community plans fulfill requirements for smart growth. 

It is possible that coordination with surrounding comminutes will be necessary. It is also possible that coordination with county, regional and state agencies will be required to assure that investment in roads and other infrastructure correspond with state and local established smart growth policies. The long established land use planning rules are beginning to change with increasing demand on local governments to limit urban sprawl, to provide for more open space, to preserve agricultural land, and to lessen the dependance on the auto as the principal means of transportation. A review of the local plan today may identify changes necessary to reach conformance with forthcoming statewide smart growth policies. Careful attention should be given to Illinois Growth Task Force deliberations as the outcomes of the task force may indicate new statewide goals and possibly legislative initiatives which will shape the role of local government planning in the future. 

About the Authors 

Chuck Eckenstahler, AICP, is the owner of Public Consulting Team, a Benton Harbor, Michigan planning consulting firm engaged by the Villages of Beecher, Sauk Village and Homewood to serve as their consulting planner. He holds two Masters' Degrees, one from Governors State University and the other form the University of Notre Dame. He is an active writer, having more than 100 articles published on various economic development, land use planning and real estate development topics. He can be contacted at 219-879-1012, or E-mail at 

 Craig Harlan Hullinger AICP is a consultant. He has served as the Will County Director of Land Use and Planning where he supervised planning, zoning, engineering, and building functions. Craig has a BA Degree in Public Administration and a Master's Degree in Environmental Planning. He can be contacted at 309 634 5557 or E-mail

Beth Ruyle is a Financial Advisor with Ehlers and Associates. She recently served as the Director of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association. For over twenty years she lead this thirty eight municipalities in this Council of Governments in the development of plans and programs. At Ehlers and Associates she is undertaking a myriad of projects in fiscal strategic planning, economic development, intergovernmental programs and public finance. Ruyle has her Master Degree in Public Administration from the University of Georgia. Contact Ruyle at 309 966 1616 or at E-mail   

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