What Is Smart Growth?

How Old Cities Become Sustainable

Lowell, Massachusetts factories transformed by Smart Growth urban planning
The Industrial Revolution factories of Lowell, Massachusetts have been repurposed. Photo of Lowell, Massachusetts ©Denis Tangney Jr/Photodisc/Getty Images

Smart Growth describes a collaborative approach to town and city design and restoration. Its principles emphasize issues of transportation and public health, environmental and historic preservation, sustainable development, and long-range planning. Also Known As: New Urbanism

Smart Growth focuses on

  • areas with problematic infrastructure already in place (e.g., "urban blight")
  • reducing suburban sprawl
  • planning for urban growth
  • careful considerations of rural areas, farmlands, and environmentally sensitive areas

SOURCE: "Policy Guide on Smart Growth," American Planning Association (APA) at www.planning.org/policy/guides/pdf/smartgrowth.pdf, adopted April 2002

Ten Smart Growth Principles

Development should be planned according to Smart Growth principles:

  1. Mix land uses
  2. Take advantage of compact building design
  3. Create a range of housing opportunities and choices
  4. Create walkable neighborhoods
  5. Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place
  6. Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas
  7. Strengthen and direct development towards existing communities
  8. Provide a variety of transportation choices
  9. Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost effective
  10. Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions
"Growth is smart when it gives us great communities, with more choices and personal freedom, good return on public investment, greater opportunity across the community, a thriving natural environment, and a legacy we can be proud to leave our children and grandchildren."

SOURCE: "This is Smart Growth," International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), September 2006, p. 1. Publication number 231-K-06-002. (PDF online)

Some Organizations Involved With Smart Growth

Smart Growth Network (SGN)

The SGN consists of private and public partners, from for-profit real estate and land developers to environmental groups and historic preservationists to state, federal, and local governments. Partners promote development with these factors in mind: the economy, the community, public health, and the environment. Activities include:

  • Raising public awareness
  • Promoting Smart Growth best practices
  • Developing and sharing information
  • Solving problems that create barriers to Smart Growth.

SOURCE: "This is Smart Growth," International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), September 2006. Publication number 231-K-06-002. (PDF online)

Examples of Smart Growth Communities:

The following cities and towns have been cited as using Smart Growth principles:

SOURCE: "This is Smart Growth," International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), September 2006. Publication number 231-K-06-002. (PDF online at http://www.epa.gov/smartgrowth/pdf/2009_11_tisg.pdf)

Case Study: Lowell, MA

Lowell, Massachusetts is a city of the Industrial Revolution that fell on hard times when the factories began to shut down. The implementation of Form-Based Codes (FBC) in Lowell has helped revitalize what was once a crumbling New England city. Learn more about FBC from the Form-Based Codes Institute.

Saving Your City's History

Eric Wheeler, an architectural historian in Portland, Oregon, describes Beaux Arts Architecture in this video from the Smart Growth city of Portland.

Getting to Smart Growth

The U.S. federal government does not dictate local, state, or regional planning or building codes. Instead, the EPA provides a variety of tools, including information, technical assistance, partnerships, and grants as incentives to promote Smart Growth planning and development. The ongoing Getting to Smart Growth: Policies for Implementation is a popular series of practical, real world implementations of the Ten Principles.

Teaching About Smart Growth With EPA Lesson Plans

The EPA encourages colleges and universities to include Smart Growth principles as part of the learning experience by providing A set of model course prospectuses.

International Movement

The EPA provides a Map of Smart Growth Projects throughout the United States. Urban planning, however, is not a new idea nor is it an American idea. Smart Growth can be found from Miami to Ontario, Canada:


Smart Growth planning principles have been called unfair, ineffective, and unjustified. Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, an independent research organization, has examined criticism by the following people:

  • Alex Anas, Buffalo State University
  • Wendell Cox, The Public Purpose
  • Edward Glaeser, Harvard University
  • Matthew Kahn, UCLA
  • Peter Gordon and Harry W. Richardson, University of Southern California
  • Edwin S. Mills, emeritus professor Northwestern University, the Independent Institute
  • National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)
  • Randal O'Toole, CATO Institute

Mr. Litman acknowledges these legitimate criticisms:

  • exaggerated benefits
  • exaggerated harm from sprawl
  • unintended impacts and consequences
  • potential of increasing traffic congestion and air pollution
  • regulations reduce consumer options
  • consumer choice for suburban, auto-dependent lifestyle
  • strategies are interdependent and balanced
  • preserving greenspace is not economically justifiable

SOURCE: "Evaluating Criticism of Smart Growth," Todd Litman, Victoria Transport Policy Institute, March 12, 2012, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada (PDF online)