Smart Growth Alive and Kicking Outside of New York State

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Eye from Albany
November 2003

Smart Growth Alive and Kicking Outside of New York State
by Paul M. Bray

I reconnected with the discourse on smart growth and combating sprawl on recent trip to Boston to attend a conference entitled “Density-Myth and Reality” organized by the Boston Society of Architects. Smart growth as a public policy for states to redirect economic growth away from green fields and back into our communities still has legs in the northeast. Unlike New York State where we seem unable to utter the words smart growth, it is alive and kicking in states like Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania under Republican and Democratic governors.

In Massachusetts I learned that Republican Governor Mitt Romney made sprawl a campaign issue. He has carried through on his promise by appointing environmental attorney, Douglas Foy, former President for 25 years of the Conservation Law Foundation, to oversee the State’s public infrastructure agencies like transportation, housing, energy and the environment. His mission is to have these agencies guide future development so that it is anti-sprawl and sustainable.

Similarly Democratic Governors McGreevey of New Jersey and Rendell of Pennsylvania have, despite budget shortages, confirmed their commitments to smart growth.

At the Boston Conference former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening, the pathfinder for smart growth, said that the fear cards of the continuing elimination of farmland and urban deterioration continue to drive the smart growth agenda. The numbers should also be drivers. The US population will increase by 40% in 2050 and at current rates of development the amount of urbanized land will more than double over that time. The last decades have taught us that sprawl occurs even if the population level remains level.

Foy chairs a Sustainable Development Coordinating Council. He identified three State levers to advance smart growth and sustainable development: (1) the Governor’s bully pulpit, (2) regulation and (3) capital improvements. Foy is putting his 25 years of experience as an environmental advocate and his backing by Governor Romney on the line to change the thinking of state development agencies. He calls it “hard wiring” the agencies so that on a day-to-day basis they act in a matter consistent with smart growth. Lawyer and architect Jay Wickersham revealed during his presentation at the conference the difficulty Foy faces.

Wickersham pointed out that Massachusetts is an example of the simultaneous successes and pitfalls of smart growth. Long before Glendening advanced a smart growth agenda in Maryland and the term became a buzzword, officials in Massachusetts in the 1970s began to trade in their highway funds to develop urban mass transit and suburban commuter rail in the Boston Metro area. A result has been smart growth success in the core and continued sprawl in the periphery. Fifty percent of trips downtown are now by transit or foot, the city population is growing and city employment has grown from 1.2 million in 1970 to 1.9 in 2000. Yet, there has also been a growth in auto miles driven and continuing patterns of sprawl in the suburbs.

The failure in the suburbs according to Wickersham has been caused, in part, by the refusal of suburban towns to conform their land use planning to allow denser, mixed-use development taking advantage of the transit access along commuter rail lines. Most suburban towns have zoned out dense multi-family housing as as-of-right use. Wickersham believes that the State has a responsibility to look out for the greater good and prohibit limits on development near suburban transit stations. Time will tell if the Foy, the State’s smart growth czar, will take this one (lever #2) on.

Massachusetts appears to be attacking sprawl through the Governor’s bully pulpit and for the most part in its investment of public infrastructure funds to benefit developed areas. Biting the bullet and guiding local land use decision making consistent with smart growth is still a challenge that needs to be undertaken.

In New York we are only partially using one of the three levers in the service of smart growth. Governor Pataki is not known for getting out there and articulating the case for smart growth. He even eschews the term in favor of the wimpier notion of “quality communities”. So, forget the bully pulpit. The regulation lever or creative substitutes don’t see the light of day in “home rule” New York with two wonderful exceptions where the State did step in to support protection of the Catskill Watershed and the Long Island Pine Barrens.

Where New York has weighed in a smart growth-like way, there have been good but in reality only baby steps towards smart growth. Examples are supporting purchase of farmland development rights and other farming preservation efforts, moving state offices to downtown locations and Department of Transportation’s context sensitive design. Glendening, for example, discounted land preservation by acquisition, “A state can’t purchase its way out of sprawl.” Unlike Maryland we are not even close to identifying priority areas with a minimum level of residential density and existing sewer and water are required for there to be eligibility for State funding. In other words, we in New York have a long way to go on the difficult but necessary road to smart growth. With States surrounding us more inclined to move ahead on this front, perhaps sooner than later it will move our leaders to action.

Paul M. Bray is President of the P.M.Bray LLC, an Albany environmental and planning law firm. His e-mail address is