Thursday, August 11, 2005

"Smart Growth" on the West Side

Yesterday's DesNews carried an editorial opinion titled "Grow West Bench 'Smartly.'" It talks about how the Salt Lake County Counci of Governments endorsed the idea of looking comprehensively at future growth of the "west bench" -- the area along the slopes of the Oquirrh Mountains.

As a planner, I'm all for a comprehensive look at growth, wherever it may occur. The editorial, however, triggered some interesting thoughts for me.

First, I remember when I was a kid growing up in a neighborhood near Liberty Park (I'm a South High alum!) my perceptions of Salt Lake City and surrounding communities. Murray was a ways away, in Sandy there wasn't much there. Hardly anything existed west of the Jordan River. Then someone told me about a supposed prophecy by Brigham Young that one day the Jordan River would be in the middle of the community. I just couldn't imagine that! There was pretty much nothing but the Kennecott mine and Hercules out there in those days.

Now, look where we are. The Jordan River is indeed surrounded on every side by growth and development. Now we're talking about growing up the Oquirrh hillsides. Amazing. By all means, let's plan for it and see what we can do.

The other thing that struck me is the vaguenss of our terms. The DesNews editorial starts out by saying, "'Smart growth' is more than a clever catch phrase. It's a philosophy about land use that focuses on making neighborhoods functional, liveable and committed to open space."

Actually, what the DesNews is saying here sounds more like the principles of New Urbanism. Smart growth is more related to containing growth in existing urban areas to minimize the cost of new services and facilities.

But both terms, smart growth and new urbanism are just old terms recycled, and in some ways catch phrases. Richard Carson writes about these two ideas a lot, and says, "Today we talk about the virtues of Smart Growth and New Urbanism. However, Smart Growth is just growth management (remember that term?) recycled. And New Urbanism is arguably an elitist attempt to change government policy for the few. ... It simply makes high density housing more attractive for upper income Americans."

Is that what is happening with Daybreak? To some extent, I think it may be. I'm not sure really how affordable their housing prices are, but I'm guessing there's not a lot of low-income housing there. Also, is it really smart growth to build all those new developments way out there on the slopes of the Oquirrh Mountains? They tout that they plan to have light rail there someday, and they may well do. But does that really make it smart growth?

Now, let me just say, I think this is pattern of development is virtually inevitable. Even such smart growth meccas as Maryland and Vermont haven't really been able to put much of a dent in what we would consider "sprawl" development. Let's just recognize this and plan to make them the best communities we can. After all, if I'm going to live in some far out suburb somewhere, it sure would be nice to have all the neighborhood and community amenities we can get.

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