‘Investing in a Better Future: A Review of the Fiscal and Competitive Advantages of Smarter Growth Development Patterns’ (2004) by Mark Muro and Robert Puentes for the Brookings Institution Centre on Urban and Metropolitan Policy – reviewed by Edward Harkins, Networking Officer, SURF

This discussion paper is a timely analysis of current USA perspectives on the ‘Smarter Growth’ agenda, with a focus on the economic benefits of Smarter Growth. This focus, they point out, moves on from the earlier focus of the smarter growth agenda on, variously, ‘large open space projects, environmental protection, urban design initiatives, downtown revitalisation, congestion relief, social equity and improving schools’.

Current USA interest in the cost benefits of smart growth is ascribed by the authors to “the several years of economic uncertainty, a tense new climate of austerity… and state and local budget deficits”. Over the same period the U.K. has experienced strong economic growth. However, the current consensus among economists is for a downturn in U.K. economic growth and in the rate of growth of public expenditure over the next few years. Consequently, the Brookings paper is an opportunity for U.K. regeneration practitioners to learn from the USA experience and to think and act proactively.

The authors argue that the USA ‘calculus for change’ has altered and there is growing interest in suggested fiscal and economic benefits of smarter growth. Furthermore, there is growing sensitivity on the costs to communities of unplanned and opportunistic growth. The authors quote from Parris Glendening, recent Governor of Maryland and now president of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute in the USA:

“No longer should taxpayers be forced to bear the burden of new roads, schools and sewer every time a McMansion is built or a mall is erected… The infrastructure costs savings associated with smart growth are more imperative as officials are forced to take tough funding decisions”

This led the authors to ask “How much does unplanned growth cost, and can (local) governments really save money and jump start economies by applying smarter ideas before approving the next development project?”. The authors “survey the best academic empirical research literature probing the fiscal and economic implications of land use patterns and conclude that, yes, thinking through growth and its impact on communities can save taxpayers money and deliver important benefits to businesses and regions”. The value of this work lies in the rigorous and extensive evidence base for the authors’ conclusions.

Another aspect that will interest U.K. regeneration practitioners is the evidence in this paper on performance linkages between urban core, suburbs and regional economic performance. However, the authors acknowledge that the basis for this perspective is more subjective. The authors quote, among others, the work of Gottlieb (1998). Gottlieb’s analysis of at least 10 to 13 city-suburb analyses going back to the 1960s, show a link between central city and suburban economic performance, central city and metropolitan economic performance, or between regional and metropolitan economic performance.

This more qualitative vein, is perhaps best popularised by Richard Florida (2000). Florida argues that attributes like compact “24-7” urban scenes, subway or light rail systems and good environmental management, spur growth because they appeal to the affinity for such qualities among highly educated, highly mobile ‘knowledge workers’. Florida’s evidence suggests that such smart growth attributes can enhance regions’ ability to attract talent and develop high technology industries.

It’s appropriate to end this review with reference to the authors’ evidence based conclusions on the savings and other benefits accruing from smarter growth (based on several USA studies of the rational use of more compact development patterns over 2000-2005):

• Promised savings of 11.8% ($11 Billion) from 25 year road building costs and 3.7% ($4 Billion) for annual operations and service delivery

• Regional economic performance is enhanced when areas are developed to the extent that compact, mixed-use development fosters dense labour markets, vibrant urban centres, efficient transportation systems and a high ‘quality of place’

• Studies suggest that, to the extent smarter development patterns foster equity in regions by improving city-centre incomes and vitality, they will also enhance the economic well-being of the suburbs.