Smart Growth Overview

According to the U.S. EPA's Smart Growth Network, what distinguishes Smart Growth from sprawl is its ability to "make the link between development and quality of life."

According to the U.S. EPA's Smart Growth Network, what distinguishes Smart Growth from sprawl is its ability to "make the link between development and quality of life." Smart Growth recognizes that how buildings are built and where development takes place are the factors that make development either a community asset or liability. Smart Growth advocates seek growth and development where it will build community, protect environmental amenities, promote fiscal health and keep taxes low, maximize return on public and private investment, and encourage economic efficiency. 

Sprawl in New York has been the result of slow and piecemeal land use change since 1945. In many respects, sprawl has eroded our quality of life, the beauty of our landscape, and the vitality and health of our communities. Sprawl is one of the most important issues facing society today; indeed many of our social problems are connected to our pattern of development. New York will continue to lose any sense of identity and economic competitiveness unless communities reconsider the high costs of low-density development. 

Sprawl has: 

  • consumed millions of acres of New York State's farms and forests, its wildlife habitat and public water supply watersheds;
  • generated air and water pollution;
  • disfigured the countryside, and undercut the character of suburbs as it has sapped the vitality of older town and city centers;
  • congested highways and limited transit alternatives;
  • placed urban residents, minorities, senior citizens, the disabled and the poor at an economic disadvantage; and
  • increased housing and public service costs and taxes.

New York should want and seek growth, but not economically and environmentally destructive growth. Sprawl is expensive, especially in a state whose population has barely changed in over 20 years and is not expected to grow significantly in the near future. By dispersing our population further away from traditional centers, we are only diluting the tax base and placing an increased burden on taxpayers. We cannot afford to finance new infrastructure to support sprawling growth at the same time we face the need to replace highways, water and sewer lines and other systems in existing cities and suburbs. 

New York needs a state-wide vision for the future that strengthens our existing city, town and village centers and downtowns while protecting open space and rural communities. In recent years, many states, including our neighbors and competitors, have begun to face these issues by adopting "smart growth" strategies designed to slow sprawl. 

To be successful in New York, the process must be a bottoms up approach which respects home rule and allows local governments to determine how and where they want to grow. However, the state must look at ways to help local governments manage growth or revitalize neglected areas. This can occur through financial incentives to muncipalities that have developed comprehensive plans that adhere to smart growth principles and by educating local communities, officials, citizens and developers about the impacts of growth and the tools available to address those impacts. 

Smart Growth Working Group

Since April of 1999, Audubon New York has chaired the Smart Growth Working Group whose participants represent a wide diversity of statewide interests rarely seen working together on any issue. They include builders, business leaders, local governments, farmers and farming advocates, conservationists, planners, environmentalists and academics. Over the last several years, Lawmakers from Buffalo to Long Island have introduced comprehensive bipartisan legislation to implement the Principles of the Smart Growth Working Group and provide incentives and direction for local governments to undertake Smart Growth Planning. 

Smart Growth Working Group Principles 

  1. Provide for and encourage local governments to develop, through a collaborative community based effort, a comprehensive land use plan or amendment thereto which includes long term land use and permit predictability and coordination, efficient decision making and plan implementation.
  2. Encourage mixed use development, redevelopment and infill development of main streets, historic districts, downtowns and adjacent areas and brownfields to lessen the necessity for expansion of infrastructure and accommodate an appropriate proportion of necessary development which would otherwise be located on undeveloped land. Further, to encourage investment in infrastructure in locally-designated growth areas within and adjoining urban, suburban and rural areas.
  3. Encourage the location of land development in areas where infrastructure and public services are adequate and also encourage more compact development, for example, through the use of transfer or purchase of development rights, incentive zoning, cluster developments, tax incentives, conservation easements and planned unit developments, to provide for effective use of open space.
  4. Encourage the reform of state and municipal regulatory activities to promote expedited permitting of development that is consistent with these policies and with local smart growth plans, for example, by preparing generic environmental impact statements for designated centers under the State Environmental Quality Review Act.
  5. Adopt measures for the preservation of open space and parkland in order to protect natural resources, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities. Preserved land should be subject to effective stewardship to ensure appropriate care and use of these areas. Whenever practicable, parkland should be proximate and accessible to existing development.
  6. Encourage the retention of farms, farm services, and associated infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, through the use and support of state initiated farmland protection programs and other state and local activities.
  7. To assure consistency, cooperation and coordination of state and local government decisions on infrastructure and facilities location, maintenance and improvement, for example, through state open space, transportation and industrial and economic development investments consistent with these principles. This will ensure sound comprehensive land use planning, and stimulate economic competitiveness and the efficient allocation of resources.
  8. Encourage consideration of future housing needs and to promote a diversity of home type and affordability in proximity to places of employment, recreation and commercial development, to facilitate a variety of transportation choices, to reduce automobile dependency, traffic congestion and broaden access to the job market and community facilities to families of all economic circumstances.
  9. Encourage the cooperation within regions -- whether among villages, towns, cities, counties or existing regional authorities and service providers -- to implement common local and regional goals while reaffirming home rule and recognizing the plans of other local governments.

Smart Growth Working Group Members 

Related Websites: 

Department of State

DEC Smart Growth

Brookings Institute, sprawl without growth study