What is Smart Growth?

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Smart buildings. Smart cities. Smart growth. What’s the meaning of all this “smart” talk? In the most basic sense, all three are associated with sustainability and social responsibility, with smart buildings and smart cities individually and collectively supporting smart growth.

So what is smart growth, and why is it important? With respect to sustainability and social responsibility, smart growth is of critical importance. In 2010, 82 percent of Americans lived in urban communities (towns and cities) and by 2050 it will be 90 percent. For the first time in history, more than half of the people on Earth live in cities, and urban populations are projected to double by mid-century. Towns and cities are responsible for approximately 65 percent of all energy used, 60 percent of all water consumed and 70 percent of all greenhouse gases produced worldwide. As compared to less densely populated rural areas, urban communities offer increased potential for resolution of environmental and social problems, generate jobs and income, relieve pressure on natural habitats and areas of biodiversity, and with proper governance they can deliver education, health care and other services more efficiently. In essence, smart growth is about urbanization.

Enter smart growth.

The challenges presented by sustainable urban development are immense. Smart growth, an urban planning and transportation theory, values long-range, regional considerations of sustainability over a short-term focus. Its goals are to achieve a unique sense of community and place; expand the range of transportation, employment, and housing choices; equitably distribute the costs and benefits of development; preserve and enhance natural and cultural resources; and promote public health. Utilizing growth management tools to encourage sustainable communities, combat sprawl, and strengthen urban centers through existing infrastructure, smart growth is supported by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), and many other environmental organizations, such as Smart Growth America. USGBC promotes smart growth through their LEED for Neighborhood Development Rating System and the EPA’s support is focused around their EPA Smart Growth Program.

The EPA has compiled a set of best-practice examples of adopted codes and guidelines from around the U.S. that support smart growth, grouped into six categories: 

  • Unified Development Code
  • Form-Based Code/SmartCode
  • Transit-Oriented Development
  • Design Guidelines
  • Street Design Standards 
  • Zoning Overlay

To help understand how smart growth is implemented, we need to start from the beginning.

As sustainable professionals, we view a building as a system. And broken down, a building is a collection of systems that, collectively, are designed so that each system plays well with other systems that comprise the building. As an example, when we consider, as part of the window system design, the type and amount of glazing to use, we understand the impact our decision will have on the heating, air conditioning, electrical and lighting systems. Design a less appropriate type of glazing system for the project and the air conditioning load will be increased and additional artificial lighting will be required, all resulting in an increase in energy consumption. Glazing also plays an important role in determining occupant productivity and satisfaction as well. Increased natural light and views equate to increased occupant productivity and satisfaction. Another example, paint. Consider the fact that dark colors absorb more heat from the sun and reflect less natural light, causing an increase in air conditioning and artificial lighting and, consequently, increasing the building’s energy consumption. Light colors on the other hand absorb less heat and reflect more natural light, requiring less air conditioning, artificial lighting, and energy. This is what we do as sustainable professionals. Working together as a cohesive unit, an Integrated Project Team recognizes the importance of understanding systems thinking and synergies.

Importantly, we also consider the building as but one system among many similar systems that, collectively, comprise our communities. We ask important, needed questions. Have we selected a site that takes advantage of infrastructures inherently associated with urban communities, such as mass transportation, walkability options, services, utilities, etc.? And if so, is our project a burden on the community infrastructure? Have we managed stormwater effectively so the run-off doesn’t cause flooding downstream? Are we addressing the Heat Island Effect caused by the project so it doesn’t negatively impact the Heat Island Effect associated with urban communities? Does our project damage, or enhance, existing ecosystems? This is what we do as sustainable professionals. We produce sustainable buildings that help create and/or maintain sustainable communities.

Notice the absence of the term “green”? Is a green building the same as a sustainable building? One could claim that a green building completes its mission once occupancy takes place, further arguing green buildings lose their “greenness” as they deteriorate over time. Today, the terms are generally accepted as being interchangeable. Regardless, in order to be truly sustainable, green buildings must be monitored and maintained.

Enter smart building.

The state of the art of buildings is that they aren’t just green, but “smart” — structures that go beyond simple resource efficiency and indoor air quality, built with the latest technology for building controls and automation. One definition of smart buildings, from Siemens:

“only solutions which create the greatest synergies between energy efficiency, comfort and safety and security will be sustainable over the long term … solutions that turn buildings into living organisms: networked, intelligent, sensitive and adaptable.”

For more detailed information on smart buildings, Studio4’s The Smarter Building post can be viewed here.

As smart buildings are designed and built, in the aggregate they create smart cities. Considering a building system as a part, the sum total of all parts create the whole. Whereas, the whole is equal to, or greater than, the sum of its individual parts.

Enter smart city.

As a building is a system of systems, a city is also a system of systems. However, a much more complex system due to increased social responsibilities. From transportation and traffic, airports and rail, public safety, healthcare, education, energy and utilities, economic development, to social services, these are environmental and socially related concerns that smart cities manage.

For more detailed information on smart cities, the Studio4’s The Smarter City post can be viewed here.

For additional information related to smart growth:

Smart Growth Principles

EPA: About Smart Growth

EPA: Examples of Codes that Support Smart Growth Development

EPA: Smart Growth Illustrated

This post is part of Studio4’s “the smarter approach” series that includes smart buildings, smart cities, smart growth, and green cloud technology. The scope of the series, as well as the content in each post, will be updated as necessary.

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