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Debating Smart Growth

Examining 'Sustainable' Communities, Where People Want to Live <bt>

The developer of Reston said it was a pity the “Reimagining the Suburbs” exhibit at Northern Virginia Community College focused too much on smart growth.

“I feel it is a pity to devote an entire exhibit, one out of only four, to the narrow canvass we have here,” said Robert Simon on March 6, at the first of four panel discussions on the “Reimagining the Suburbs: Smart Growth and Choices for Change” exhibit.

The exhibit aims to analyze suburban planning and design from a smart growth perspective by focusing on the historical development of 10 American communities, including Reston in Fairfax County and other communities in Virginia, Maryland and throughout the United States. The exhibit is included in a four-part series on alternatives to sprawl displayed at the National Building Museum from 1999 to 2001.

Simon and Richard Collins, an architecture professor and the second panelist speaking about the exhibit, introduced their own vocabulary, Simon focusing on the idea of new towns and Collins on sustainable communities.

Mary Konsoulis, the exhibit’s developer and the third panelist, explained the original ideas in the exhibit. The smart growth series “looks at the topic of sprawl and its effects and the alternatives to sprawl, which is smart growth,” she said.

Konsoulis defined sprawl as a low-density community with predominantly single-family housing units, separate land uses for shopping and working, and a transportation system requiring automobile use. Smart growth, she said, mixes housing types and uses, reduces the demand on public resources, protects rural areas and the natural environment, and provides transportation alternatives including walkable communities.

THE EXHIBIT, which describes the smart growth tools used to help develop the 10 communities, does not offer a cookie-cutter solution for smart growth, Konsoulis said. The tools include traditional neighborhood and transit-oriented development and conservation design.

Simon explained how Reston, a 7,500-acre development with a build-out for 60,000 to 65,000 residents, fit in with some of the tools. Reston started the New Town movement in the 1960s by building a community of size with “places of work” and recreational and cultural facilities, Simon said, adding that the first residents moved to Reston in 1964. The 24,000-unit housing development has a mix of housing types, a smart growth principle Simon said he embraces.

“Not only does this make for a more interesting collection of neighbors than a homogenous development, but it offers people the opportunity to stay in their neighborhoods as their family sizes change or their disposable income waxes or wanes,” Simon said.

Simon said he agreed with three features listed under traditional neighborhood development, included in his 1962 plans for Lake Anne Village Center in Reston. The village center provides a community gathering place, living spaces above stores and parking behind buildings in commercial areas. Several other traditional neighborhood features are not universally applicable and not found in Reston, including a network of interconnected streets and narrow street widths, Simon said.

“What I found totally missing from the TND [traditional neighborhood development] analysis is what should be the first step in community planning regardless of the size of the project — analysis of the area in which, and the surroundings in which, the development is to take place,” Simon said, mentioning topography, weather and the developments near the project as considerations.

A COMMUNITY’S sustainability is measured according to four factors, Collins said. The factors include the population size and rate of growth in the community; the community’s affluence or the availability of natural, social and economic capital; the amount of consumption in the commercial market; and the technology that is available for design and planning, energy efficiencies and transportation. Capital includes natural resources such as water availability and natural beauty, while social capital refers to community organizations, civic culture and political processes. Economic capital includes workforce quality, commercial goods and services, and exports and imports of material and commodities.

Collins said smart growth and conservation design provide a step in the right direction and gave the “more inclusive” idea of sustainable communities as a next step.

“Sprawl is not just a function of poor design. It’s an ecological footprint,” said Collins, director of the Institute of Environmental Negotiation and professor of architecture at the University of Virginia. The ecological footprint includes the land base and water resources needed to provide the energy, food and resources demanded by the four factors Collins outlined. An area’s population, affluence and wasteful tendencies and government regulations all can affect land development.

Collins said smart growth is a rhetorical tool used to make change and said planning is the key. “Get out with people who are angry with each other. Whose in favor of dumb growth? There are those who are going to be suspicious of growth and will say it doesn’t look like smart growth to me.”

The next panel discussion, “Loudoun’s Existing Resources for Shaping the Future” is scheduled for March 14. Two additional panel discussions are scheduled for March 22 and March 27.

The panel will be on display at the new Waddell Building Gallery until March 30.