Is smart growth really better than sprawl?

With all the drawbacks of density in a smart growth city -- noise, distraction, chaos -- is there something to be said for urbanism's foe, suburban sprawl? One expert weighs in.

SmartPlanet readers know we're big on cities and the efficiency that urban density brings. But is that concept -- urbanism -- actually harmful in terms of environmental impact?

Writing at the NRDC Switchboard, Kaid Benfield explores the question. He notes that while cities are more likely to support sustainable communities, better (more connected, more walkable) design and by their nature, higher densities, they're not always minimizing their environmental impacts.

Benfield calls it "the environmental paradox of smart growth,” and in essence, it's an ends-justifies-the-means argument -- that is, to reduce overall environmental impact, we may have to increase it in certain areas.

He writes:

For example, what about my spouse, who likes to visit and enjoy cities, but likes to retreat from them even more? In her heart she prefers a nature trail or even the relative peace and quiet of a suburban back yard. I’ve mostly converted her to the smart growth paradigm, and she gets it that to save nature we must do more clustering in cities. But she’s an introvert, and not really a city person by instinct.

We compromised by settling in a relatively quiet, moderate-density city neighborhood, but even there I have come to resent the fact that my neighbors (and one aspect of small-lot, city living is that there are a lot of them) seem to think the best way to spend a nice spring weekend day is to bring out some power tools in their back yards and do whatever it is that people with power tools do, loudly. We like to sleep with the windows open, but on nice evenings the 20-somethings in the group house across the street like to hang out on their front porch until the wee hours. Who wants to sleep with earplugs?

Sure, courtyards, pocket parks and other small retreats can help alleviate this feeling, but Benfield's point is that humans are not equipped to deal with full-on smart growth urbanism, and sometimes need a break from the hubbub.

Or succinctly: we ought to consider how far the pendulum swings away from sprawl, because there's a reason it exists, too.

How much urbanism is enough? [NRDC Switchboard]

Photo: Wolfram Ruoff

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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