vanessa-newVanessa Remmers covers Stafford County government and schools for and The Free Lance-Star.

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Smart Growth?

Time for me to throw something up here. I figured I’d start with a concept that I’ve run into more than once while covering Stafford government: planning. Many of the disagreements that arise on the Board of Supervisors have to do with planning, and rightly so—when the future of a locality is at stake, elected officials tend to heat up.

Traditionally, the issue has caused an ideological split among board members, and that tradition has held on the current board. This split can be described in a number of ways: no-growth advocates vs. growth advocates; slow-growth advocates vs. property rights advocates; environmentalists vs. developers, etc…

None of those labels accurately reflect the infinite spectrum of philosophies when it comes to the issue of growth, and I’m not about to suggest a better one. What I can do is highlight the concept of smart growth or New Urbanism—a planning technique that eschews suburban sprawl by attempting to re-create the town centers and cities of Europe and America. It goes under many names, but here is the basic concept: commercial, business and residential uses share the same space. Density is increased and open space is included in the plans. Think downtown Fredericksburg or Washington, D.C. In theory, this discourages driving, encourages mass transit, and creates myriad social benefits for a community.

It is a tempting scenario. The idea of walking through a friendly, tree-lined bustling downtown area tugs at our collective nostalgia strings, especially those of us who live in extremely pedestrian unfriendly subdivisions. Is smart growth really a panacea? Will it make for better neighbors and less traffic? Who knows, but it sure sounds nice, and makes a lot of basic sense. The real question is: can a locality force such development to happen? More importantly, can Stafford?

Stafford has not out-and-out embraced the tenets of smart growth, but there are some signs that the county might try it out, at least in a limited fashion. The recent shrinking of the Urban Services Area was designed, in part, to further condense development to the center of the county, perhaps creating some kind of town-style growth. The redevelopment areas of the county (Southern Gateway, Boswell’s Corner, The Courthouse) are being envisioned in classic downtown block form with sidewalks, tight road frontage, multi-story commercial/residential combo buildings and small parks.

Of course, there are plenty of people out there who think smart growth will never work in Stafford (or anywhere else, for that matter). Market forces can cause even the best-laid plans to backfire.

I highly recommend the following links:

The first is an enlightening lecture on the concepts of smart growth by Andres Duany, a rather famous Miami Architect and urban planner. He is a little un-focused at times, but he is convincing. The thought of planning for people rather than cars makes a lot of sense. Almost too much sense. As usual, beware the person who is convinced they are right. Be warned: it is a 9-part video, and it is long.

The second is an article written by Randal O’Toole, an economist from the Thoreau Institute–a group opposed to community planning of any kind. From the sound of this article, it could also be a road-building company. Even so, a pretty good rebuttal from the free-market side of things. It is also long. I never said this would be easy.