Today, citizens will head to the polls to vote on the future of the country, state, and city. Throughout this campaign season, there have been many issues that have proven to be divisive, providing a clear contrast between candidates and political parties. But some issues and policies transcend ideology, garnering bipartisan support. The way we shape our communities is one of these rare instances as both Democrats and Republicans have championed smart growth policies to create better communities for everyone.
Take Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. As a candidate for governor of Massachusetts, Romney ran as a smart growth candidate, boldly declaring that “sprawl is the most important quality of life issue facing Massachusetts.”
As governor, Romney worked diligently to combat sprawl, incentivize infill development, promote transit-oriented development, and encourage mixed income housing. The Office for Commonwealth Development was created to help usher in these policies. As Governor Romney put it, “By targeting development to areas where there is already infrastructure in place, not only can we revitalize our older communities, but we can also curb sprawl as well.”
Coming from a business background, Governor Romney appreciated efficiency. He understood the importance of smart growth and the inefficiencies of sprawl, and worked hard to create an environment in Massachusetts that fostered well thought-out development. (It should be noted that as a presidential nominee, Romney has largely refrained from invoking any smart growth rhetoric on the campaign trail).
Governor Romney’s effort in Massachusetts worked so well that President Obama used it as a model for the administration’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a partnership that brought together the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Transportation to encourage smart growth. Transportation, housing, and environmental issues are all intertwined, and the Partnership provides a tool for these once siloed institutions to work together to provide assistance to communities embracing smart growth principles. Since 2009, the Partnership has provided over $3.5 billion in assistance in the form of grants and technical assistance to over 700 communities to help them plan better communities.
It’s not just the presidential candidates who exhibit smart growth leadership. Republicans and Democrats at all levels of government understand the importance of reinvesting in established neighborhoods and growing cities the right way, and have taken matters into their own hands. Michigan Governor and Republican Rick Snyder recently launched an initiative known as MIplace which encourages mixed-used development as a tool for creating more attractive neighborhoods and regions. At the municipal level, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, a Republican, spearheaded the city’s “Metropolitan Area Projects,” or MAPS, which makes investments in jogging and biking trails, sidewalks and neighborhood parks in downtown Oklahoma City. Cincinnati’s Mark Mallory, a Democrat, has presided over a bevy of downtown, transit-oriented development. And let’s not forget our former Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who signed SB 375 into law, California’s legislative effort to curb sprawl and encourage infill development.
Smart growth should appeal to all ends of the political spectrum, as it offers something for everyone. For the fiscally conservative, smart growth means utilizing the infrastructure that is already there, making more efficient use of tax dollars while also discouraging cumbersome and antiquated zoning laws that limit a property owner’s uses for their own land. For the socially-minded liberal, smart growth provides a blueprint for more inclusive neighborhoods and the preservation of natural resources and environment.
Now, I am not so naive that I think these issues are universally embraced by everyone. Despite the clear case for smart growth, there are those who continue to misunderstand its basic tenets. For example, Paul Ryan, the current Republican nominee for Vice President, was one of the President’s loudest critics when the Partnership for Sustainable Communities was created. There have been several attempts to defund the program as well. But these attacks are misguided as they misconstrue the intent of smart growth as an assault on suburbia and cars. But those who understand the fiscal realities facing the federal, state and local governments understand that the our history of growing cities from the inside out is simply unsustainable. As conservative blogger James Bacon said in a speech to the Congress for the New Urbanism:
“There is nothing intrinsically liberal or conservative about the idea of creating more efficient human settlement patterns that expand the range of housing and transportation options while reducing the cost of government. Rather than getting stuck defending an indefensible status quo, conservatives need to articulate their own vision in a manner consistent with conservative principles.”
Fortunately for Bacon, many conservatives have been leaders in smart growth, as evidenced above. Once people understand the economic implications facing governments across the country, it becomes clear that our current pattern of growth exacerbates these fiscal issues. Clearly, the development of smarter neighborhoods, towns, cities and metropolitan areas is bigger than the usual partisan politics that divide the country.