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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Making it Happen: Sustainable Smart Growth

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Gov Parris N Glendening at SFU downtown April 17

The former Gov of Maryland, he is now the President of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute, which he founded.

He opened by remarking that there is a new interest in sustainability: “everyone is talking about it – even Walmart!”. However he acknowledged that it is not happening at the federal level: “Only 10 people do not understand climate change. Unfortunately they are all in the White House.”

He described how the term “Smart Growth” was arrived at. A package of bills were to be resented in Maryland, and it was essential that people did not cherry pick among them. So a term was needed to show that it was a coherent program that needed all of them. The term is in fact interchangeable with a number of others used in other places.

The population of the US is at 300m now, and will be 430m by 2050. This raises the question “Can we continue to grow the same way as we did for last 60 years? He offered Einstein’s definition of insanity: expecting a different outcome from continuing to do the same thing. The status quo does not meet any of the challenges we now face. Even a place like Vancouver is not sustainable. If every city on earth was like Vancouver we would need four planets to support it (source: Brent Toderian). That is, of course better than the Las Vegas or Atalanta models which would require 20 planets.

The problems are multiple – traffic congestion, gas prices. It started with the building of Levittown, the post war suburbs which have given us sprawl, based on the belief that you could always build more roads and keep on expanding. It is inevitable that gas prices will continue to rise and scarcity is likely sooner rather than later until many people will find themselves unwilling and unable to drive long distances every day. We have also seen the health impacts of a lack of physical activity: obesity is directly correlated to sprawl. This is due to a sedentary lifestyle imposed by the urban form that favours cars over walking and biking. In the US cars are used for 75% of trips that are of less than one mile.

It has been established that one way commutes of 12 to 15 miles cancel out the economic advantage of lower priced homes. It is aid that people have to “drive till you qualify”: in other words the size of the mortgage you can support depends on your income so you have to find the house priced at what you can buy.

His commitment to the idea of conservation stemmed from his early experiences while a student seeing the effect of development on the Florida everglade. The loss of natural environment, caused by road widening and subsequent urban expansion has now caused sever problems of water supply and drainage. In Maryland it was the widening of US Highway #1, which made it easier to buy a farm and build on it than redevelop the declining urban areas. Land use and the development pattern needs a regional framework. The conventional land use and transportation planning model is a pattern for disaster. He showed an animation of a series of maps showing development at ten year increments “The Amoeba that Ate Maryland”. As the suburbs aged the development continued to spread out because the development playing field was “tilted to subsidise sprawl” There were a number of interrelated policies – the construction of the interstate highways, the GI loan plan which guaranteed mortgages and the banks use of a “red line” for existing communities where ethnic minorities lived and mortgages would not be granted.

Some states tried an Incentive based approach to change the rules of growth. Washington and Oregon tried regulations. Maryland tried the “carrot and stick” of both. He said that while you need both regulations and subsidies, regulation alone is more efficient bit is not politically doable. In 1977 Maryland designated Smart Growth areas which would have priority for state funding which steered investment to already developed areas. “The State will not pay to subsidize sprawl” and this changed the bottom line for developers. For example, the state would not fund new schools on greenfield sites: if the developer proceeded he would have to pay for the necessary schools. The plan was not against growth – and he noted that many environmentalists are against growth altogether. The policy ensured that over 400,000 acres in Maryland have been preserved as farmland.

The policy allowed for growth and but also promoted preservation. For example there is a tax credit for rehabilitating historic buildings, which can be seen to have worked in Baltimore and its inner harbour. He acknowledged that implementation is difficult. For example, the regents of the University of Maryland wanted to build on a greenfield site outside Hagerstown. The Governor directed them to the centre of the city where the Baldwin House (an old department store) stood empty. The rehabilitation of this building and bringing students and faculty to the centre of the city created an economic stimulus of activity. The state had to rewrite the code for building reuse: like most codes it had assumed that all activity would be new build. The use of this code was tied to a requirement that there must be an increase in density.

“People don’t like sprawl and they don’t like density”

It is essential to intensify development. In cities you can use the parking lots, not green fields. However, not all density is created equal: it must be well designed, walkable, livable and fun. He illustrated this with images from Detroit ( Ugly density) and Boston to show his conviction that “it is all about design.”

He recommended the book “Visualizing Density”from which these two images have been taken.

Regular attenders at these lectures or readers of this blog will be very familiar with the material covered at the end of his talk, which emphasized design paired with density and making the connection between density and climate change. For example he talked about Green Buildings and how significant it is to replace LEED with LEED ND. It is he said, crucial to think beyond emissions for vehicles – as VMT yearly increases negate all the improvement gained by technology.

A useful source (new to me anyway) is Growing Cooler published by ULI

Chart of impact of VMT – Center for Clean Air Policy

Even if every state adopted the California emissions standards for CO2, which would have a limited impact on improving overall fleet economy for the next ten years or so, the increase in VMT more than offsets the improvement. “Why do we have to drive so much anyway?” The important thing is that the places we live in be compact, walkable – and affordable. He then cited a recent NPR program “I just wanted my life back” about a woman who moved to Atlantic Station in Atlanta GA in order to live closer to her job. He said that for most people there is an “undersupply of options” and he spoke approvingly of Sam Sullivan on EcoDensity. He recognized that this would be controversial but found a very powerful quotation.


Q – A lady from White Rock wants to replace her house on its present site with 4 townhouses but the City council won’t let her

A – Montgomery County in Maryland had faced the same issue and essentially it comes down to political will. Remember that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” and they have to “connect the dots” In the long term the only option may be to “toss out the current leadership”.

Q – How have things continued since you left?

A – There have been mixed results. About ¼ of the residential development is outside the designated growth area, so we have still got sprawl but not so much as before. Basically some developers were prepared to pay for schools. His immediate successor was not a supporter, but the new governor is. Maryland’s start has stimulated 27 states which now have got Smart Growth program – even Arizona – which “wrapped it in the water supply issue” – and Wyoming! Local governments must implement the provisions or the state must take stronger action. He noted that Canadian provinces have more power over municipal governments than states do.

Q – The “metropolis expands at the cost of the hinterland” how do you prevent the “loss of farmers from land” We now have the most expensive homes in Canada. How can growth serve the people?

A – Your points are valid – agricultural land is now so expensive, it has become the farmer’s retirement account. In Maryland they transferred the development rights from the farmer to the state. Essentially the state used its windfall from the tobacco court cases to buy out the development rights of farmers but they also imposed the condition that they could not continue to grow tobacco. It is, he said, essential to protect well being of farmers.

Smart Growth can be a gentrification issue: for example in Washington DC one development was for $800,000 homes on what had been a “no go” area. He said the states must aggressively pursue “inclusionary zoning” to provide a range of alternatives: for instance the requirement that 20% of the development be what is now called “workforce housing”.

Q – What is the “mesh of priorities between the state and municipalities”. The questioner was interested in the “conversations between levels of government”

A – This is critical “how do you make this work?” Transportation drives development patterns but transportation plans are rarely linked directly with land use decisions. For example the Washington DC subway system – a very significant investment – had no linkage to land use around stations.The state must be the link between transit and land use and insist on a minimum of mixed use and density – e.g. New Mexico LRT Albuquerque where “stations must have an overlay base in place”. It is a “matter of right” – to have the station there you must have land use plans that are adjusted to reflect the change in accessibility. “If you want a station, you must meet the requirements.”

Q – Affordable housing – displaced families – requests from the community for on site relocation have been ignored (the questioner was referring to Little Mountain in Vancouver)

A – A range of tools are available – the regulatory framework adopted by Montgomery County MD was inclusionary zoning 20% of workforce housing, with the first preference of its allocation to existing residents . In Maine there is a checklist for policies which is tied to state grants: if municipalities want state funding their chances of getting it are better the more boxes on the checklist are ticked. There is no one answer. The recent collapse of the housing market will force more action in future.

Q – public education

A – yes – lots of examples – direct impact on their lives

Q – We wanted to plan for “live, work and play in same place” (LRSP). You seem to be promoting a fascist system – its is elitist like Dubai which has created a slave economy. We must talk about cheap reasonable transportation and free parks. “Everything these days is user pay”. We need development for human beings

A – There is nothing magic about the term “Smart Growth”. We do outline the type of place we want: we do see need for play, space, transit. In the US we don’t pay for roads but we raise the price of transit – that’s wrong. Living, working and playing in a community accessible to everyone is the objective. “I don’t disagree with any of your desires”. The old “projects” were concentrations of poverty, where segregation stigmatized poverty.


I must admit that I was surprised that BC is the only province of Canada to have a SmartGrowth chapter. Perhaps that reflects our view that we are not American so we cannot join an organisation called “Smart Growth America”. While much of his talk concerned US governance, there really was not a huge amount of difference in outcomes. For example, Britain did not have guaranteed mortgages, but that did not stop the Wimpey housing estates leaping over the green belts and covering farmer’s fields. The sprawl in Britain may have been railway based but it was still low density.

It is notable that affordable housing may have been renamed, but it is still a state obligation, now imposed on developers, and producing more integrated communities. Canada seems to have completely abandoned the field, and the results in Vancouver are possibly the most apparent anywhere. People may object to the term “workforce housing” – but we do not have any – and that has had and is having a very definite impact on our workforce. One of the reasons transit expansion is slow is that CMBC cannot hire enough operators.

It struck me that the audience were bringing their local issues to air in public rather than seeking knowledge but perhaps that is to be expected. Since I have now attended rather a lot of these, I am beginning to hear the same things repeated both from speakers and audience.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 18, 2008 at 9:39 am

14 Responses

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  1. It still doesn’t compute for me when people use “growth” and “sustainable” in the same sentence. Growth implies constant expansion, and it’s obvious that constant expansion implies never ending resource use. Anything that uses non-renewable resources is not sustainable.

    As Professor Albert Bartlett said, (I paraphrase) there will come a time when growth must stop. It is a fact.

    My question is, why not stop it before we end up like China? Anyone who wants to know where continuous economic and population growth will lead us need only visit there.


    April 18, 2008 at 9:59 am

  2. corey its called parkinson`s law( written by c.northcote parkinson) its a fundamental failing of goverment entities-( I think its more like a pyramid scheme) but basically PL means –the more money goverments get the more they need! if they get more property taxes things will be better-but then you have more policing -more sewage -more goverment —and on and on it goes–and its built into goverment phyche —gnp is up –gdp is up –were expecting % of growth—failure is less growth for some strange reason—–also I try to remind these pro-growth advocates–that all the big populations of the world ( india-china -africa-phillipenes-indonesia etc etc ) have virtually no human rights,no health care-etc etc etc——lets get bc running like a well oiled machine before we expand! ps why do most people from those countries I mentioned want to emmigrate to other countries! because their country sucks!

    grant g

    April 18, 2008 at 11:06 am

  3. So who will be the first to erect the Great Wall of the Lower Mainland? Every one of us contributes to growth merely by living. Without striving for a sustainable future, things like “limits to growth” and “carrying capacity” are never defined or addressed.

    UBC prof Bill Rees (probably no relation to Stephen), who is the author of the Ecological Footprint model, said that at our current rate of consumption we require several planet Earths. Even if we could get down to equilibrium, that doesn’t mean we don’t experience growth, only that it then becomes sustainable.


    April 18, 2008 at 11:38 am

  4. meredith —you say it yourself—we need three more planet earths to carry on—-we have studies and science –and we are not mindless cattle,so why carry on this way—I enjoy your comments meredith but—you have this we are the world ( kumbiah society mentality) when all we are really creating is segregated societies here in bc seperated by race and class!—-and when (china -india) and other populouses annouce through the UN or the WHO or some other orginization that —they have to ship out tens of millions of people or have tragic consequences! should we then ship people all over the world to carry on——–like the peak oil charts—–I believe there is a peak populous chart as well, and it will fall even faster than the the oil chart!—-large animal or bird populations and others ,when they get large -disease wipes them out (mother nature at work) like the spanish flu in I believe 1917 ( that killed an estimated 50million around the world) the next pandemic in this global (travelling society ) will be horrid—it won`t be 50million —it will be billions!——–and if we follow your kumbiah reasoning,we will fill every square foot with people and more people and more and more and more——–personally speaking —-I hope a big old comet crashes earth and cooks us all! maybe out of the ashes an INTELLIGENT SPECIES IS BORN signed……………………………….hale bop and the comets

    grant g

    April 18, 2008 at 1:30 pm

  5. Corey

    Growth is driven by population. People are going to come here, and we cannot stop them.Mao and Stalin couldn’t stop the migration within their own countries. The US is fighting a losing battle against “illegals” . Canada and the US are very attractive from the perspective of a large number of places. Moreover, those who are already in North America – and who are free to move where they please, also find this a better place than the one they left behind. That is not going to chnge.

    The need for smart growth is not “will we have growth?” because that is a given. It is what kind of growth will we have?

    Stephen Rees

    April 18, 2008 at 1:42 pm

  6. Ok, grant, forget building the Great Wall. Let’s take a more intricate view and let the sky fall instead. Wait a minute, thermonuclear warfare is actually more probable. But then some may survive only as mutants (i.e. somewhere between an amoeba and an armadillo) until the next Big Bang.

    Yes, we have only one planet. But I prefer to keep my feet firmly planted on it — albeit more lightly — and to adapt to the challenges ahead.

    If the current 6.7 billion people lived in a community like Chelsea, they would occupy an area the size of Senegal with only another 5 or 6 Senegals of land to support them. It’s the consumer mentality that drives the carrying capacity lower and the ecological footprint larger. With a lighter footprint (e.g. conserver society sans chanting and New Age music), the carrying capacity of the planet is somewhere around 13 billion. But the developing nations want what we have, so part of the onus is on us to demonstrate how quality of life can be maintained while using less.

    No, I don’t believe the sky will fall anytime soon, but I DO think there will be a very significant “correction” of the ecological and economic kinds, how big or small, hard or soft, equates to our ability to plan for it, and therein control it.

    PS. It was the Spanish flu and it killed 25 million, including my great aunt in 1919.


    April 18, 2008 at 3:30 pm

  7. Another way to look at this issue is to consider Canada’s population if it was possible to have the overall density of England. Given that our land mass is the second largest in the world after Russia, we’d have somewhere over 4 billion people, or almost 2/3 of the world’s population. Because we have only 32 million — even less than Southern California — we are truly blessed.

    To some of us it’s not a matter of sitting in an armchair waiting for the apocalypse, but to try to shift society’s attitudes to manage our physical and human resources with greater efficacy.

    The hard part is shifting the attitudes, not managing the resources.


    April 18, 2008 at 3:42 pm

  8. I think your way off on the 13 billion( david suzuki says 6 billion) and 25 million dead from spanish flu is way off ( historians estimate 90 million ) most countries kept no statistics — but I won

    grant g

    April 18, 2008 at 3:53 pm

  9. meant to say I won`t quibble—-

    grant g

    April 18, 2008 at 3:55 pm

  10. But whatever kind of growth it may be, it still doesn’t change the fact that one day growth will be limited, either by us, or by the forces of nature, or by lack of land and resources.

    My question is, do we want this limit on growth to happen while we still have some room left to squirm, or should we limit when and only when we are stuffed in here like sardines?

    It is a physical impossibility for growth to continue infinitely, is it not?

    So why not recognize that a limit on growth will happen, and then decide how large we want that limit to be.

    And Stephen I’m tempted to disagree with you. Yes, this may be a very attractive place to live, but growth depends on many factors other than population expansion, doesn’t it? It relies on an expanding economy and money supply, and a belief that the future will be better than the past, right? So take these away and… would people still come here?

    I’m not so sure.


    April 18, 2008 at 3:59 pm

  11. As long as we have a standard of living that greatly exceeds that of many other countries, political stability, basic human rights for all and nice mountains with sea views, yes, people will want to settle here. Though all of those things could change, it seems unlikely to me, and sensible to plan for more people.

    It may be possible to convince North Americans to consume less, though that seems an uphill struggle to me, and I have no doubt at all that the current crisis will be sorted out – and replaced by others. We got rid of lead in petrol, the hole in the ozone layer and DDT. The wolf made a comeback and so did some species of whales. A lot of people have managed to stop smoking. And computers have got really cheap – as have ball point pens and paperback books. More people now ride bicycles and many cities that got rid of them have brought back electric trams. There is hope for the human race.

    Stephen Rees

    April 18, 2008 at 4:18 pm

  12. To recognize the limits to growth – absolutely. That’s what we’re saying, so we may be on the same page after all. We all know that we are living too large in developed countries, so it’s a matter of figuring out how to intelligently lessen our consumption while attempting to maintain a relatively high quality of life. I’ll take Celsea or Quebec City over Atlanta or LA anyday, and I believe it’s entirely possible to consume less while protecting and enhancing our health care system for one … so I guess that makes me an optimist despite the spin meisters in office. But I also know that we’re in for some big challenges.

    The planet has been pummelled, but it also has great resiliency and the ability to heal. And we have the ability to adapt to change, and that means finding that point where a certain level of growth is sustainable. I don’t know what that point is, but I do know that we passed it a while ago while munching Big Macs in the SUV on the freeway on the way to the airport to see the investments the coal plants on the other side of the world. And to think that Japan had a stabile, steady, wealthy society that didn’t really change for 500 years before industrialization came along.


    April 18, 2008 at 4:39 pm

  13. perhaps your right stephen–but I have my doubts!—the monetary system must change–the way money is gathered and invested is nuts–2000 people have 10% of all the money in the world! I always thought a form of communism was the way to go—one for all all for one–everyone contributes and wealth is shared relatively evenly—-but communism failed—the world is in a capitolistic frenzy! the survival of the fittest but perhaps enlightenment will occur! or maybe fortress USA will go apeshit and whack the rest of the world! how many conflicts have there been –to many to count— and most of those conflicts were over ( religion–colour–race ) throw in water-food-land–energy and yikes! signed……………………………………don`t nuke me bro!

    grant g

    April 18, 2008 at 4:40 pm

  14. […] The idea that you should use government investment as a way to shape growth seems to be anathema to our present provincial government. They even go so far as to claim that widening the freeway will not influence growth – even though they have been promoting development at highway interchanges in this area. They are even better at it than Judge Doom. The map also shows mode share – and how, at present, transit does not meet much need in the exurbs. That is because the distances to be covered are too great to be covered in a reasonable time by a bus that stops at every hole in the hedge. Assuming there is a bus service at all, which usually there isn’t. So speedy rail cars stopping only at centres will encourage transit oriented development there – provided the municipalities zone it properly. […]

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