Is the era of smart growth over?

Not exactly, but a group of panelists at the American Planning Association conference in Los Angeles suggested Sunday that we may be moving past the 2000-era concept of what smart growth is – and into a new era that combines managing growth, placemaking, climate change, demographic change, and the need for economic growth.

"We are truly at the cusp of the next big thing," said presenter Tim Chapin, a planning professor at Florida State. "We are living in a time when planners and economic development are much more together than they have been in, gosh, decades."

Shelley Poticha, head of the Office of Sustainable Communities at the Department of Housing & Urban Development, agreed that economic development is a vital part of the emerging new trend. "We need to turn this around to a place-based ED strategy that is very multi-layered," Poticha said. "Many communities we are working with had economies based on one or two strong sectors and one or both crashed. And so they don't have much to stand on." At the same time, she said, place-based strategies can strengthen downtowns and neighborhoods in a way that reinforces local businesses and allows wealth to stay and circulate in a community rather than leaving town.

The session was the first of three at the national APA on Sunday dealing with smart growth-related issues that are covered in the current issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association. Chapin, the lead presenter, presented his concept of three "eras" of growth management in the United States – the "growth control" era of 1950-1975; the "growth management" era of 1975-1999; and the "smart growth" era of 1999 to the present.

In the growth control era, growth was viewed as a problem – a cancer to be restricted and boxed in. In the growth management era, growth was considered a fiscal problem – permissible so long as it paid for itself. In the smart growth era, growth has been viewed as "an opportunity for achieving desirable development patterns," Chapin said.

The "emblematic policy" in each era, he said, was the regulatory "urban growth boundary" in the growth control era; the service-based "urban service area" in the growth management era; and the incentive-based "priority funding area" in the smart growth era.

Still, Chapin added, it may be time for a rebranding. "There's some sense out there that this concept of SG is a bit stale – that it has lost its resonance with the public and political leaders." He suggested that the next era of growth management will include a focus on jobs, regionalism, and other factors. He called this new era – admitting that he doesn't particularly like this term – the era of "sustainable growth".

Gerrit Knapp, director of the National Center for Smart Growth at the University of Maryland, wasn't quite willing to surrender the smart growth moniker. He said the challenges remain the same: "How do we design cities that are economically efficient and globally competitive?", especially in absorbing immigrants and finding pathways to prosperity.

With a wry smile, he said he didn't know what the new era should be called, but would go back to Maryland immediately and start researching the question.