What is “smart growth?”

Brent Finnegan -- October 24th, 2008

“Smart growth” is a trendy buzzword that urban planners have been using for years, but what does it actually mean? As part of the Q&A series, we asked the candidates for City Council: What does “smart growth” mean to you as it relates to Harrisonburg? Are you in favor of it? If so, how should smart growth be implemented in the City? If not, what should Harrisonburg do to manage new growth and development?

Roger Baker: Quite simply smart growth is following your plan and I believe in doing that.
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J.M. Snell: “Smart Growth” is a big word with a broad definition. It encompasses ideas like clustering of houses and businesses to preserve green space, live-work-play neighborhoods, alternative transportation ideas, preservation of historical landmarks, growing vertical vs total infill to preserve play areas, and genuine good planning. I can’t imagine anyone who isn’t in favor of smart growth, there will certainly be different scenarios where some will disagree with others about certain details, but I think everyone is in favor of “Smart Growth”.

The first smart growth concept that has already started in the city is vertical growth and better alternative transportation with improved mass transit options. Managing growth is best accomplished by planning well. We shouldn’t as a government promote economic development without expecting additional housing and retail expansions to support those newly created jobs. Our Comprehensive Plan is due for an update and economic development should be considered as closely as transportation.
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Charles Chenault: Smart growth means many things, one of which is growth within our means. I am in favor of smart growth through the use of a comprehensive plan and zoning ordinances that encourage growth that goes up rather than out and focuses new growth in the downtown area and away from high traffic congestion areas. Smart growth does not include continuing to build multi-family, high density student housing when statistics show that we have more than enough inventory under construction or in the planning or approval stages to cover all of the projected JMU growth and then some. There will be a tendency to try to densely residentially and heavily commercially develop the raw land south of the city based on the construction of the east-west connector (StoneSpring/Erickson). We will need to resist this temptation until the revised comprehensive plan has time to digest this and also recognize that these roads will not be complete in the near future. While I stress growth in the downtown area, I must also recognize that this growth should be consistent architecturally with what is downtown and consistent as well with the long range plans being developed for downtown (Streetscape, the Stoltzfus model, etc.). Finally, smart growth means protecting existing neighborhoods and preserving the historical integrity of our community.
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Richard Baugh: Great question. My guess is that every Council candidate is for “smart growth.” So, it is a great idea to ask us what we mean by that. Because if our prior records on this issue are any indication, we do not all agree on what this term means.

If one was to Google “smart growth,” “new urbanism,” or similar phrases, and then write down the underlying concepts, one would be hard pressed to find any that are not ALREADY articulated in Harrisonburg’s Comprehensive Plan. Some are articulated at great length and in great detail.

Why then is this not more apparent? My observation is that in some instances there is a general lack of knowledge about and respect for the Comprehensive Plan. In others, there is a failure to accept one of the basic tenants of smart growth.

You see, when there are presentations about having attractive buildings with lots of green space and lots of easy pedestrian access, EVERYONE is in favor of this. Where you start to lose people is that there is a second part to this equation. You see, it is not just about having a vision of the development you want. It is also about having a vision of the development you do not want, and then having the conviction to say no to it. THAT’S where Harrisonburg has had a problem.

My vision is that we try and have the best Comprehensive Plan we can. We get the broadest community input we can, develop as much consensus as we can, and always keep in mind that goal of trying to be a place that offers quality to its citizens. To date, Harrisonburg has actually done a good job with its planning, at least on paper. However, we have dropped the ball by not electing Council members who are committed to this planning.

In short, our planning should be that we give the citizens what they want, and that we give the citizens quality. After that, whether that means a lot of growth, modest growth, or none, is up to us. At least that is how I think it should be.

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Dave Wiens: The problem with the term smart growth is that it has been used by almost everybody so as to make it a meaningless term. Of course, everybody wants smart growth. What does that mean? To me, smart growth suggests a vision for the city. It suggests a city that is extremely livable. It is a city that has a well thought out plan in place and that plan is followed no matter what alternatives a developer might suggest. It is a plan that scatters residential areas with commercial spaces so that people can get what they want by either walking or traveling a very short distance. Smart growth suggests well built and attractive construction that makes the city a pleasure to observe, not one where many developers built many developments on the cheap and walk away with nice profits. Smart growth suggests a walkable city that also encourages alternative forms of transportation like bicycling. Most of all, however, smart growth suggests planning.

Harrisonburg has a comprehensive plan in place. It is a good plan created by members of the Planning Commission, the city planning staff, outside consultants and members of the community. If followed, it would lead us to a city that has the elements suggested above. Too often, however, it is ignored by members of the planning commission or city council and so it is not permitted to lead us as it could. We need to be the planned community we say we are by following the comprehensive plan.
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We have not yet received responses to this question from Kai Degner, Tracy Evans, or Rodney Eagle. We will add their responses as we receive them. A total of eight candidates (including two incumbents) are running for three available seats on City Council.

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