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The problems with ‘smart’ growth

Stuart Flashman, Emeryville
Monday September 09, 2002

To the Editor: 


Smart growth has come to the Bay Area. Smart growth means designing development to minimize environmental impacts. It focuses development near transit centers to decrease auto use, traffic and air pollution. It emphasizes high density urban “infill” development to preserve open space. These are laudable goals. The Association of Bay Area Government is now trying to apply smart growth to planning the Bay Area. 

Undoubtedly, smart growth is less damaging than suburban sprawl. However, that doesn’t mean it’s environmentally benign. Smart growth, like any development, puts pressure on regional infrastructure – the roads, water lines, sewers, transit facilities, etc. And Infrastructure costs money. Expanding development generally means expanding infrastructure – building more roads, water and sewer lines, etc. ABAG’s analysis assumes such expansion can and will occur, though cost isn’t considered. However, infrastructure needs can’t always be met that simply. 

For example, water is a limited resource. The East Bay is already near the limits of its water supplies, as we are reminded every drought. Supplies can be stretched through conservation, but fisheries are already suffering from current river diversions. Our water supplies are running out. Similarly, BART is approaching its capacity. The only way to add capacity is to build new lines – exorbitantly expensive if feasible. Many East Bay sewer mains and treatment plants are also nearing capacity. Adding sewer capacity is also not a trivial matter. 

In short, the Bay Area has only limited capacity to handle growth. Infrastructure limits need to be taken into account in planning the future. Otherwise, we will bring upon ourselves very avoidable future crises. 

Unfortunately, ABAG’s planning hasn’t considered infrastructure limitations. It just accepts local governments’ growth projections, which are driven by the quest for tax revenue. ABAG’s smart growth plan may be better than unrestrained sprawl, but it will still make the Bay Area an unpleasant place to live. It’s up to us to decide if that’s what we want for our future. If not, we must insist that ABAG consider the Bay Area’s carrying capacity. 



Stuart Flashman,