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Smart Growth Loophole?

In the past there have been strings on listserves addressing the merits of more dense development versus low density development from a smart growth and water quality benefit standpoint. This is not a new topic to these listserves or those of us that dabble in the watershed restoration arena. The comments are typically thoughtful, and mostly pro-density. But what I find curiously absent from the conversation is the stated need to set aside the areas that otherwise would have been developed to accommodate growth (that is now presumably housed in higher density zones). In other words, doesn”t higher density development have to go hand in hand with open space preservation to limit or prevent the creep of the development envelope? This can be a sticky issue, because it gets into property rights, transfer development rights, and a whole host of legal issues. Despite these tough issues, I think it misses the mark to talk about increasing density in the name of protecting the environment, if it is not done in concert with mechanisms to ensure the preservation of substantial amounts of open space. If this isn”t done, then what is to prevent the sprawl and lower density development from occurring outside of the higher density zones? Market forces are not the answer in my estimation. I don”t think we can trust them just yet.

Two policy-related options that seem intriguing and worth exploring related to this smart growth paradox include:

  1. Designate a percentage of the good and excellent quality streams and their watersheds as off limits to development. Exceptions to this might be considered where stringent water quality and volume reduction criteria are in place coupled with commitments to maintain and monitor stormwater management systems to ensure water quality and habitat quality targets are being met.
  2. Reassess watershed use designations and reclassify stream systems for more realistic designations. For example, an urban stream designation that has new standards related to more realistic aquatic and human contact scenarios could be established. Effective management of such urban systems would still be required, but the goals/targets for water and habitat quality would become less stringent as agreed upon indicators of watershed health (e.g., effective impervious cover, urbanization, etc.) reached certain benchmarks.

Ted Brown, PE, LEED AP
Water Resource Engineer
Biohabitats, Inc.

6 comments

  1. Keith Bowers, says:

    I agree with your premise and I would take a slightly different approach.

    I think we should be using the sciences of conservation biology and landscape ecology to determine a network of connected patches and cooridors sufficient for protecting biodiversity and ultimately reintroducing large predators (similar to what the Wildlands Network is championing). This network of connected patches could also double as a continental green infrastructure backbone providing a host of natural capital functions.

  2. Ron says:

    The problem as I see it is that we have never found the courage to limit growth. If we densely develop communities without limiting population growth, we still will end up covering the earth, only higher. Low density (country spacing) self limits population out of cultural necessity. I am not suggesting that one density fits all, but their is a place for both

  3. Ted Brown says:

    Good point Keith. The landscape ecology/conservation biology model is more robust scientifically, but this also makes it more difficult to explain in layperson terms which translates to policy development and implementation. Watersheds are easier to understand and adminster policy across in my view, but there is no reason why overlay zones can't be established and managed for a variety of considerations.

  4. Nick L. says:

    I'd be interested in research on what these watershed indicators should be. The 10% impervious cap has been suggested by many, but some have suggested that this would lead to further sprawl and low density development. Per capita impervious cover? measures of landscape fragmentation? What should we be using as an indicator?

  5. Ted Brown says:

    Good point Keith. The landscape ecology/conservation biology model is more robust scientifically, but this also makes it more difficult to explain in layperson terms which translates to policy development and implementation. Watersheds are easier to understand and administer policy across in my view, but there is no reason why overlay zones can't be established and managed for a variety of considerations.

  6. Ted Brown says:

    Those suggested indicators are good. We also can use biological indicators that have served us well as spatial and temporal indicators. I am less of a fan of instream water quality indicators such as chemical parameters, but states like Colorado have very detailed numeric instream criteria that require applicants to develop anti-degradation analyses to document that criteria will not be violated by proposed land use changes.

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