Public Comment

Smart Growth

By Steve Meyers
Tuesday August 28, 2007

In a recent editorial, Becky O’Malley described “smart growth” as “the unproven theory that making already-developed urban areas ever denser will prevent sprawl into the hinterlands.” While this is often cited as a benefit of smart growth by its advocates, it is only one aspect of smart growth, and the least important from the perspective of Berkeley. 

First, I agree with Ms. O’Malley that building more apartment buildings in Berkeley will have little if any effect on sprawl outside of the East Bay. Suburban sprawl is mainly driven by demand for detached single-family homes. The people who are moving into the new apartment buildings (rental and condo) in Berkeley are overwhelmingly not families with children who would otherwise live out in Contra Costa country. It is likely true, however, that most of these new residents work or study in Berkeley, and would have lived outside Berkeley if the new housing had not been built here. Thus, their commuting (most likely driving) is now less than it would have been otherwise, which is a good thing for the environment. 

This is a modest benefit, and hardly something to get too excited about. Among smart growth advocates (of which I am one) and Berkeley’s planning staff, there is too often a tone that Berkeley needs to “sacrifice” for the good of the region and the planet. I think this is the wrong emphasis. Smart growth is good mainly because it can help make Berkeley a better city—if it’s done right. 

First off, we need to recognize why growth (especially more housing) is important to Berkeley’s future. Berkeley is one of the most desirable places to live in the country, especially for progressive folks who enjoy a vibrant atmosphere. Since there is little if any room to build single-family houses in Berkeley and its immediate environs, the price of existing homes has been bid up to where they are unaffordable for most people (who does buy these modest houses going for well over $500,000 anyway?). If multi-unit housing is not built in Berkeley, over time the demand will push up rents and condo prices. Vacancy rent control would only slow the process. Combined with the sky-high price of single-family homes, a policy of little or no growth would mean that Berkeley would become more of an upscale city, and lose the diversity that makes it more interesting than a town like Palo Alto. 

A smart growth approach says that the best place to build new housing is along major boulevards and in the downtown. 

This is marked contrast to the “dumb growth” that prevailed here in the 1960s, when numerous apartment buildings were put up within residential neighborhoods, creating an ugliness that we still live with today. The smart growth strategy likely encourages residents of new housing to use of mass transit instead of cars, though probably less than claimed by many smart growth advocates. Undoubtedly though, it creates a more vibrant street life and support local businesses. 

This basic approach seems to have widespread support in Berkeley (even among critics of certain new developments). Apart from the minority that would prefer very little new housing at all (“Berkeley is too crowded and has too much traffic already”), I think it’s fair to say that the debate is not about smart growth, but rather about how best to do it. I believe that discussion would be advanced if those who are opposed to the scale and magnitude of current development trends stop attacking smart growth, and if those who support the trends stop making questionable claims about the impact of development in Berkeley on suburban sprawl. 


Steve Meyers is a Berkeley resident.