Urban-planning expert: 'Smart growth' needed, not sprawl

Urban-planning expert: 'Smart growth' needed, not sprawl

The push for "smart growth" — policies to curb sprawl and make urban centers more livable — took off about 20 years ago, with mixed results, an urban-planning expert says.

The policies themselves have proven valid and are common practice among planners now, said Professor Gerrit-Jan Knaap, executive director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research at the University of Maryland.

"That doesn't mean we've been extremely successful at it," said Knaap, who also taught at the University of Illinois from 1989 to 2002.

"Most planning professionals agree that we need to manage growth and get people not to drive so much, and we need to protect environmental resources. How much progress we've made in actually changing development patterns" is not so clear, he said.

Knaap will be a keynote speaker at a three-day conference that starts today at the Illini Union, hosted by the UI's Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment.

Each year, the institute organizes an event featuring top national and international scientists, policy experts and industry representatives to present the latest on a specific "grand world challenge." The focus this year is on "Sustainable Cities" — how to meet growing urban transportation, housing, food and water needs while making cities more resilient to climate change.

Knaap said there's been a lot of research on the basic principles of smart growth, such as creating walkable neighborhoods, promoting bicycles and mass-transit, mixing land uses, favoring redevelopment over sprawl and protecting resources.

"Twenty years of research essentially has verified that this stuff makes good sense. It results in people walking more, it results in people driving less, which provides environmental and social benefits," he said. "All that we presumed to be true in 1990 has largely proven to be true."

But he added, "sprawl isn't over."

To work, smart growth requires "political leadership," Knaap said, as well as planning, investments in pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, and some containment on sprawl in order to make places within current city boundaries more viable.

"The biggest challenges are still political," he said. "Land-use decisions are made in a political environment." There's also still a strong preference for single-occupancy vehicles and single-family homes, he said.


'Sustainable cities'

Smart-growth principles have taken hold in cities big and small, as it can be done at different scales, he said."Downtown Champaign looked fabulous the last time I saw it. That's smart growth success," Knaap said. The commercial area along North Prospect Avenue, not so much, he said.

Knaap got interested in the topic growing up in Oregon, which adopted smart-growth principles before they got their name.

Oregon and Maryland remain at the forefront of the smart-growth movement, he said, while the Midwest "isn't particularly known for its progressive land-use policies."

California is also a leader, using smart growth principles to combat climate change. But there is still sprawl in all of those states, he said.

Knaap said the movement now focuses on "sustainable cities."

"Smart growth is still valid, but we haven't gone far enough, and we now face new challenges that back in the 1990s we weren't worried about," such as climate change, public health and equitable development to ensure social mobility, he said.

Knaap will deliver the opening keynote at 5:15 p.m. today.


What's on tap

In all, two dozen experts and a government panel will explore the next steps to building sustainable cities. Events include:

— Noon Thursday: A keynote address by Bobby Hambrick, founder and CEO of Peoria-based AutonomouStuff, a leader in the automotive and technology industry. He will discuss automated vehicles and how they are going to be on the streets "sooner than you think."

— 5:35 p.m. Thursday: The signing of a joint commitment to "shared resilience to climate change" by UI Chancellor Robert Jones, Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen and Urbana City Council member Bill Brown, followed by a panel discussion.

— 12:15 p.m. Friday: A lunchtime keynote from Brian Stone, professor of city and regional planning at Georgia Tech, on "Fires, Floods, and Frappaccinos: Planning for Climate Change in the Age of the Anthropocene."

The event is open to the public, with registration closing at noon today. To register, go to sustainability.illinois.edu and click on "events."