Photo by pderby on Flickr.

“Smart Growth” is the idea that cities and regions should focus on growing in existing communities and near transit rather than in rural or fringe area. A colleague recently said he doesn’t hear the term as much as he used to, and wondered why that might be.

Perhaps Smart Growth’s proponents worry that people who get nervous about change will bristle at the term, so they talk about its tenets— walkable communities, transportation choices, the preservation of open space, etc— without actually saying the words.

Stepping further back, it could be that a lot of people don’t know that Smart Growth comprises these elements, so it makes more sense to talk about them specifically.

Greater Greater Washington contributors added their thoughts as well.

Dan Reed said:

I consciously stopped using the phrase “Smart Growth,” as well as “New Urbanism,” because I felt the two were used and misused way too much. I agree that it makes more sense to talk about specific aspects of each, as it may be easier to find common ground with people on one issue (and build support for it) than to ask people to commit to an entire “agenda,” at least right off the bat.

Agnes Artemel explained what she hears when people discuss these issues in Alexandria:

In Alexandria, no one talks about Smart Growth, although many support the underlying principles.  The term has been replaced by euphemisms or subset terminology, like “walkable community,” “complete streets,” “density around transit,” and the overused “live, work, and play.” “Growth” is a fear factor word, even when tempered with “smart.”

Payton Chung followed up on Dan Reed’s mention of “New Urbanism”:

There’s been chatter within the Congress for the New Urbanism about whether it’s worth dropping the “new,” or even just declaring victory and disbanding. That was originally a wordsmith’s attempt at reclaiming language — in the dark days of the 1990s “urban” was used as a racist, classist code word. Since then, that meaning has fallen away, and the architects behind CNU have been successful at pushing the French-derived “urbanism” into the American vernacular. Both Smart Growth and New Urbanism have declined as search terms since the mid-2000s.

Ben Ross also mentioned the word urbanism.

I hear “urbanism” in place of Smart Growth. It’s a slight change of focus, from choosing where we grow to making the places where we now grow differently, but mostly just a change of language.

Canaan Merchant explained that he thinks that the term needs refining.

I prefer having a strict definition for Smart Growth (note the uppercase) and having a specific list of criteria for something to be Smart Growth. That helps prevent the term from being coopted as just a marketing buzzword (though I’ve seen people try) or a general term that says “any type of development I like is Smart Growth, even if what I like is actually sprawl or auto-centric.”

Alex Posorske, the Coalition for Smarter Growth’s managing director, explained why he thinks the term is as important as ever (he did, of course, admit that the term being part of his organization’s name might make him at least slightly biased!):

I still think it’s a great term. It encompasses a wide range of what we do: pro-transit, anti-sprawl, advocate for transit-oriented development, affordable housing, transportation spending priorities, etc. Other terms, like urbanism, don’t quite manage to take everything in.

There’s something to be said for finding common ground issue by issue. But from a regional movement perspective, there’s also something to be said for simplified communication to ease outreach to the people who support what the term encompasses. Smart Growth isn’t the clearest term ever— it can still take some explaining— but at only two words, it’s a great start.

Cheryl Cort, the Coalition for Smarter Growth’s policy director, added more background:

Smart Growth is a shorthand term that can be useful, but when I’m persuading someone to embrace policies that create a more walkable, inclusive and sustainable place, I don’t use it. Any shorthand term can be abused and co-opted. Another example is “sustainable” which has regained its popularity after some years out of favor.

In the 1990s, professional planners used to talk about “growth management.” People who thought of themselves as environmentalists, or just opposed a development often were “no growth” or “slow growthers.”

Maryland Governor Glendening came along with a more qualitative approach to growth: we want growth, but it needs to be the right kind, in the right place. Or, in other words, Smart Growth.

What do you think? Do you think we should keep using the term Smart Growth? Does it accurately describe the ideas it’s supposed to represent? Let us know in the comments.

If you have a burning question to ask or a topic we should discuss, send an email to ask@ggwash.org!

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Abigail Zenner, is a former lobbyist turned communications specialist. She specializes in taking technical urban planning jargon and turning it into readable blog posts. When she’s not nerding out about urban planning, transportation, and American History, you may find her teaching a fitness class. Her blog posts represent her personal views only.