Smart Growth principles part of Treasure Valley summit

Proponents say people who live in dense-housing areas with services at walking distance are healthier, wealthier

sberg@idahostatesman.comApril 17, 2014 


    Dr. Richard Jackson, host and narrator of the PBS series "Designing Healthy Communities," will be the keynote speaker for a summit in Garden City focusing on the relationship between the places people live and their health. Tyler Norris, another community health expert, will be a special presenter.

    The event starts at 7 a.m. Thursday at the Riverside Hotel in Garden City and ends at noon Friday. You can register at the hotel. Cost is $10 to see Jackson's address at 8 a.m. Thursday, and $30 for access to the full summit.


    In Smart Growth America's survey of all 221 metro areas in the United States, the Boise-Nampa area didn't score well.

    The Treasure Valley's highest rank came in the category of "land use mix," which measures how well a given area mixes commercial, residential and other uses. Santa Barbara, Calif., ranked highest among all small metro areas.

    Boise-Nampa's worst score - according to Smart Growth America - was in the area of "activity centering," a category that ranks how well communities mix businesses and the jobs they provide with high-density residential development in the same compact areas.

The two things people hate about development are sprawl and density.

That's an old saying among urban planners, one that captures the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" resistance that meets all new trends in development. With growth comes sprawl or increasing density - probably both. Either way, people complain.

The effects of density and sprawl will be the subject of a summit Thursday and Friday in the Treasure Valley. The Creating Healthy Communities Summit will focus on the connection between the way a community is developed and the health and vitality of its residents.

Suburban housing developments that rely on a few major arterials for access are coming under increased scrutiny from a growing group of urban planners, health experts and regular people who subscribe to the philosophy known as Smart Growth.

Though housing in these sprawling neighborhoods is often cheaper than what's available close to city centers, Smart Growth backers say people who live in suburbs aren't necessarily saving money. The cost of driving between home and work, and to stores and basically everything else, erodes those savings, Smart Growth believers say.

Additionally, the costs of building infrastructure burden the rest of the city, as do heavier auto emissions and traffic.

The Smart Growth philosophy champions more dense residential developments, in which neighborhood stores, recreation centers and other "activity centers" are sprinkled among houses. The whole idea is to keep homes and destinations within walking distance of each other.

"People will choose to walk or bike, especially walk, if it's within half a mile of their house and it's an interesting place to walk," said Elaine Clegg, a Boise city councilwoman who's also a project coordinator for Idaho Smart Growth.

Clegg points to several studies that link compact, connected residential communities to better physical health and financial well-being. Basically, the idea is that people who do more walking and less driving will be healthier and spend less on combined expenses of housing and transportation.

"Especially young people who create jobs and the creative economy and all that stuff, they're not attracted to big, sprawling suburbs where they have to spend all their time in the car," Idaho Smart Growth Executive Director Scot Oliver said. "A lot of them don't even have a car anymore. And so they're attracted to downtowns and close-in neighborhoods and the denser options."

On the other side of the debate is Bob Bruegmann, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an expert in architecture and urban development. He isn't sold on the Smart Growth concept, but he admits that putting stores and other commercial outlets close to homes can be a good thing.

"It certainly is ridiculous that you often have to get in the car and drive a couple miles just to get a gallon of milk," he said.

What Bruegmann doesn't like are laws mandating Smart Growth principles.

"It's one thing to say, 'Here's another model that we think you're going to like,' " he said. "But to say (to people in the suburbs), 'You guys' - whatever it is, 60, 70 percent of America - 'You are just wrong. And you did something stupid.' That's really elitist and it's just not a very good tactic."

Boise's in a good spot right now, Bruegmann said, partly because it doesn't have strict density regulations. He said regulations in cities such as Portland and Boulder, Colo., have caused a spike in housing prices there - and actually sent people to less dogmatic places such as Boise.

Clegg disagrees. She thinks that the popularity of developments that follow Smart Growth principles is a more important factor in their increased prices. Besides, she's not advocating making higher density a requirement. Instead, she said, cities should write zoning designations that allow for those densities, as well as a mix of residential and commercial uses in the same development, so that private developers can respond to that niche. The point is to have more options, not fewer, she said.

"I'm not trying to stop suburban growth, but I am asking that folks really do a full accounting before they expand their boundaries and add new costs and new services, new responsibilities," Clegg said.

Sven Berg: 377-6275

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