Advocates for “smart growth” have long extolled the virtues of creating green spaces, bike paths and pedestrian areas for the benefit of all city dwellers.
But a report from the pro-business D.C. Policy Center shows that smart growth designs actually push out longtime, low-income residents to make way for younger, wealthier newcomers.
“Urban planners and local governments attach great value to cultivating neighborhoods where residents are close to public transportation or can walk or bike to work,” the D.C. Policy Center says in a report released Tuesday. “In fact, these policies may be hurting our poorer residents.”
Written by the center’s executive director, Yesim Sayin Taylor, the report says that while more transportation options in newly redesigned neighborhoods create a boon for those who can afford the convenience, transit-oriented development programs can create social inequities and increase the pace of gentrification.
The D.C. Policy Center’s report focuses on the District, but smart growth planning has played a prominent role in many other U.S. cities.
Smart growth urban planning promotes small, walkable and bicycle-friendly neighborhoods that provide access to all the needs of residents, including grocery stores, restaurants, schools and workplaces. In essence, they become little cities within the larger city and are meant to curb urban sprawl.
National smart growth organizations say they aren’t blind to the unintended consequences of redeveloped neighborhoods and place the onus on cities for creating enough of them.
“Nationally, there is no question that when cities are building smart growth neighborhoods, people want to live there. When that happens, you have people with more money ousting people with less money,” said Geoff Anderson, president of the nonprofit Smart Growth America. “So we need to have public policy that makes sure people who have been there for a long time can benefit.”
Mr. Anderson said the lack of smart growth neighborhoods drives up housing prices in cities where smart growth has been employed. Those areas end up pricing out residents who may have been in their homes for generations.
“What we’re seeing is gross failure in cities supplying these kinds of places,” Mr. Anderson said in an interview with The Washington Times. “Supply has to be in balance with demand. Tons of people want them, but there’s not enough.”
Mostly high-income young workers are benefiting, he said, but smart growth needs to expand to all residents, regardless of their economic means, for the concept’s goals to be realized.
Cheryl Cort, policy director for the local Coalition for Smarter Growth, agreed with Mr. Anderson.
“The city should continue to do more to help residents throughout the city have better access to transit and better access to jobs, education and training,” she said. “We need to ensure that our city makes it possible for everyone to share in the rising prosperity.”
With the District growing in population and becoming more attractive to young, well-off residents, Ms. Cort said, developers and planners can’t lose focus of those who are being left out.
“Increased demand for housing experienced by the city has brought both good news — fiscal health — and bad news — dramatic loss of housing affordability,” Ms. Cort told The Times. “We focus much of our attention on creating and preserving more affordable housing, especially in transit-accessible neighborhoods.”
According to the 2015 American Community Survey conducted by the Census Bureau, most D.C. residents who walk or bike to work live close to the downtown corridors and relatively few live east of the Anacostia River, where housing is much more affordable for lower-income residents.
“More residents east of the river drive to work than any other section of the city, despite low access to cars,” Ms. Taylor says in the D.C. Policy Center report.
East-of-the-river residents have fewer options for work travel because employment is farther away, the report notes. In those neighborhoods, more than one-third of residents commute 45 minutes or more to work each day.
Ms. Taylor said smart growth policies have good intentions but developments being built across the city must do more.
She said the city needs to expand its stock of affordable housing and promote dense, mixed-income developments along transit-accessible corridors. Also, Metro and bus networks need to provide accessible and reliable options for all residents.
“And — in conjunction with these measures — we should continue to improve streets for pedestrians and cyclists so that residents of all neighborhoods can safely access these healthier modes of transportation,” Ms. Taylor said.
Mr. Anderson said development needs to catch up with demand and that cities need to have public policy measures, such as housing and density bonuses, so people who have been there a long time can benefit from the construction.
“We need to use other tools to make these places accessible. It is really important for low-income families and individuals to live in a place where they have access to opportunity,” he said.
Ms. Taylor said she is not against smart growth but added that it must be implemented in a way that doesn’t harm the city’s most vulnerable residents.
“To be clear, bike lanes are good. Safe sidewalks are good. They are relatively cheap investments that reduce congestion and help improve health,” she said. “But we don’t have to don a veil of ignorance to formulate transportation policy. Those who can walk or bike to work have already won the income lottery.”
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