Urban Studies Smart Growth
Gerrit-Jan Knaap, Rebecca Lewis, Arnab Chakraborty, Katy June-Friesen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0017


In market economies such as the United States and most western nations, land-use and development patterns are influenced by government regulations and investments in infrastructure but determined largely by market forces. Under these conditions, post–World War II development patterns—when the automobile became the dominant form of transportation—became highly dispersed, haphazard, and dominated by low-density development. Scholars and planners have pejoratively characterized this as urban sprawl, to which they attribute adverse social and environmental consequences, such as high rates of farm and forest land consumption, excessive driving and resultant air pollution, costly public infrastructure, and social segmentation. For many years, efforts to combat sprawl were called “growth control” or “growth management” and primarily focused on slowing the rate of urban growth. But in the 1990s in the United States, a new term and set of ideas entered the lexicon of planners, developers, and policy makers: smart growth. Proponents of smart growth aimed to change the focus from stopping or slowing growth to assuring that growth was “smarter” in location, intensity, and form. Although the precise meaning of the term remains ambiguous, the Smart Growth Network—a national alliance of more than thirty private sector, public sector, and nongovernmental organizations—continues to advance the following ten principles: (1) mix land uses; (2) taking advantage of compact building design; (3) creating a wide range of housing opportunities and choices; (4) creating walkable neighborhoods; (5) fostering distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place; (6) preserving open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas; (7) strengthening and directing development toward existing communities; (8) providing a variety of transportation choices; (9) making development decisions predictable, fair, and cost-effective; and (10) encouraging community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions. Over the past twenty years, scholars have undertaken considerable research to confirm or dispute the virtues of these principles and to understand how best to implement them. Recently, smart growth advocates have begun to address more contemporary challenges, such as climate change, social equity, public health, and more. Smart growth’s underlying principles are now also represented in the popular terminologies of “sustainable development” and “urban resilience” and in broader efforts such as the United Nations 2015 Sustainable Development Goals. This article, however limited in scope to the original set of smart growth principles, traces the history of the concept and presents research that explores the validity of the principles, the challenges of implementation, and the extent of success.

History and Definitions

Because “smart growth” was a new concept in the 1990s with an ambiguous name, scholars and advocates produced a substantial body of literature to define and promote the concept. Examples include Porter, et al. 2002, which outlines principles of smart growth and suggests how it should be promoted and implemented. Two publications by the Smart Growth Network—a national alliance of more than thirty private sector, public sector, and nongovernmental organizations— in collaboration with the International City/County Management Association and Environmental Protection Agency, were particularly influential. Smart Growth Network, et al. 2002 includes examples of smart growth programs and a matrix that connects policies to principles. Smart Growth Network, et al. 2006 argues that smart growth creates economic opportunities, strengthens communities, and protects environmental resources. Scholarly assessments and critiques include Burchell, et al. 2000, which argues that while smart growth is broadly recognized by the general public, timely, and incorporates innovative land-use policies, it is challenged by fragmented local governments, market support for sprawl, and the continuing dominance of cars. From a political perspective, Goetz 2005 argues that while smart growth provides a “big tent” under which transportation, environment, and affordable housing advocates can join forces regarding urban development, there are considerable challenges to unifying and mobilizing this diverse constituency. Katz 2002 outlines the demographic, market, and development trends that affect growth patterns in US metro areas and identifies the challenges smart growth must address to create sustainable communities. Ye, et al. 2005 examines smart growth statements from ten national organizations along with planning documents from states, showing that while there are similarities in how organizations broadly conceptualize smart growth, there is divergence in what smart growth means in practice. Weitz 1999 provides a historical perspective, reviewing almost three hundred publications on state growth management programs and detailing smart growth antecedents such as the Quiet Revolution and growth management, concluding that smart growth represents a fresh new era in state land-use policy. Knaap 2005 traces the evolution of smart growth and argues that the movement is not dead or dying but must take a more centrist approach and incorporate equity more fully into its policy agenda to succeed. Chapin 2012 sketches the characteristics of an emerging fourth wave in growth management, one that must respond to challenges of economic development, climate change, and changing energy demand and supply.

  • Burchell, Robert W., David Listokin, and Catherine C. Galley. “Smart Growth: More than a Ghost of Urban Policy Past, Less than a Bold New Horizon.” Housing Policy Debate 11.4 (2000): 821–879.

    DOI: 10.1080/10511482.2000.9521390

    Discusses what constitutes smart growth as opposed to “sprawled growth” and traces the contemporary origins and historical antecedents of smart growth principles. Writing in 2000, the authors conclude the time is ripe to enact new land-use policies, and they assess the possible impact of (and barriers to) implementing smart growth. Includes information on revitalization and growth management efforts in states and cities.

  • Chapin, Timothy S. “Introduction: From Growth Controls, to Comprehensive Planning, to Smart Growth: Planning’s Emerging Fourth Wave.” Journal of the American Planning Association 78.1 (2012): 5–15.

    DOI: 10.1080/01944363.2011.645273

    Details local, regional, and state approaches to managing growth since the 1950s. Identifies an emerging new fourth wave of growth management, the “era of sustainable growth,” that is superseding the era of smart growth. This fourth wave focuses more on economic inequality, climate change, energy issues, and food systems. And it regards growth as a potential solution rather than an inherent problem.

  • Goetz, Edward G. “The Big Tent of Growth Management: Smart Growth As a Movement.” In Policies for Managing Urban Growth and Landscape Change: A Key to Conservation in the 21st Century. Edited by David N. Bengston, 45–51. St. Paul, MN: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, North Central Research Station, 2005.

    Traces the emergence of a smart growth movement in the late 1990s and evaluates the ability of the movement to sustain itself. Examines efforts of the Smart Growth Organizing Project in Minnesota to move smart growth beyond policy circles and mobilize residents of the Twin Cities metro area.

  • Katz, Bruce. “Smart Growth: The Future of the American Metropolis?” LSE STICERD Research Paper No. CASE058. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, 2002.

    Outlines policies that facilitate sprawl and discusses how smart growth policies may be able to change growth patterns. Argues that for smart growth to have an impact going forward, it must pay more attention to affordable housing, regional diversity, federal policy, city-level reforms, and the role of race in growth patterns.

  • Knaap, Gerrit-Jan. “A Requiem for Smart Growth?” In Planning Reform in the New Century. Edited by Daniel R. Mandelker, 103–128, Chicago: American Planning Association, 2005.

    Asks whether smart growth can survive another term under President George W. Bush and what must be done to regain momentum and capture the favor of an ever-growing conservative majority. Begins with a brief history of smart growth, examines recent trends, and assesses whether smart growth will change those trends and how it might adapt to the new political realities.

  • Porter, Douglas R., Robert T. Dunphy, and David Salvesen. Making Smart Growth Work. Washington, DC: Urban Land Institute, 2002.

    A practitioner’s guide to enacting smart growth principles such as compact development, infill, open space conservation, and mobility choices. Makes the case for using smart growth principles and examines how developers and planners have applied these ideas across the country. Includes guidance on mobilizing community support for smart growth.

  • Smart Growth Network, International City/County Management Association, and US Environmental Protection Agency. Getting to Smart Growth: 100 Policies for Implementation. Washington, DC: Smart Growth Network, 2002.

    Early guide that aims to bridge the gap between principles and practice: to recognize the importance of smart growth principles and implement smart growth at the local and state level. Details policies that have worked in different communities. Created by the Smart Growth Network, a coalition of more than thirty organizations that worked to define and promote smart growth beginning in the mid-1990s.

  • Smart Growth Network, International City/County Management Association, and US Environmental Protection Agency. This Is Smart Growth. Washington, DC: Smart Growth Network, 2006.

    Geared toward planners, community leaders, and policymakers, this guide further defines smart growth and offers more examples of policies and practices around the country, as well as implementation strategies. Discusses how communities can improve the quality of their development. Created by the Smart Growth Network, a coalition of more than thirty organizations that worked to define and promote smart growth beginning in the mid-1990s.

  • Weitz, Jerry. “From Quiet Revolution to Smart Growth: State Growth Management Programs, 1960 to 1999.” Journal of Planning Literature 14.2 (1999): 266–337.

    DOI: 10.1177/08854129922092694

    Comprehensive bibliography written by a longtime urban planner that surveys the literature on state growth management in the four decades leading up to the 1990s smart growth era. Identifies eighteen “growth management states” and details their planning efforts. Proposes a system for classifying the elements of state growth management programs. Includes a glossary of state growth management terms.

  • Ye, Lin, Sumedha Mandpe, and Peter B. Meyer. “What Is ‘Smart Growth?’—Really?” Journal of Planning Literature 19.3 (2005): 301–315.

    DOI: 10.1177/0885412204271668

    Examines how a range of organizations use and define the term “smart growth” and identifies varied methods of implementation. Reviews the divergent agendas of ten national organizations that embrace smart growth, identifies common aims, and attempts to clarify the term. Analyzes planning documents from Georgia and Kentucky to see how the idea of “smart growth” has been used at the state planning level.

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