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Work in Progress: What Is Smart Growth, Really? And What Could It Mean for Alexandria? During the past four months, we've been talking a lot about smart growth and what it could mean for Alexandria. We elected a mayor who made smart growth the central theme of his campaign. But still, for many, smart growth may seem like a witty rhetorical device, a catchy phrase with vague and uncertain implications. However, smart growth is a real, definable concept, with its own logic and set of rules. Earlier this week, Babs Zimmerman of KALB wrote that "smart growth hammers on parochialism," which, if I understand her correctly, means that smart growth upends narrow-minding thinking; it encourages creative solutions to planning problems. It's funny that Mrs. Zimmerman uses the word "parochialism," because it's actually a word that critics of smart growth like to use against it. They claim that "smart growth" is too narrow in its focus, that it represents a "Disneyfication" of American cities, and that it limits the ability of the free market to determine and direct growth. They point to planned communities, like Seaside, Florida, as examples of the type of generic and nostalgic developments championed by smart growth proponents. If you've never been to Seaside, I recommend it. (You'd probably recognize Seaside; it's the setting for the movie The Truman Show). Seaside is one of the first projects undertaken by famed urban planner Andres Duany, and indeed, it is known as the "first manifestation" of New Urbanism. It's a charming, resort town, but I'd caution those who look to Seaside as "the model," because, frankly, smart growth has many different applications. Smart growth has been used in re-codifying and redeveloping hundreds of American cities, including Providence, Portland, Austin, Los Angeles, and throngs of medium-sized cities. (DPZ, the company created by Andres Duany, is behind the redevelopment of downtown Baton Rouge, which witnessed an 11% increase in property value during the past year; overall property values in Baton Rouge only increased by 3%). So what is smart growth exactly and how can it be used in Alexandria? Smart growth is a recognition that the zoning codes and development patterns undertaken by advocates of sprawl will create long-term sustainability problems, threatening a city's quality of life and thinning out its resources. Consider something often mentioned by Mr. Roy during the campaign: In the early 1960s, Alexandria was a city of 9 square miles and a population of 48,000 people; today, Alexandria is a city of approximately 26 square miles, yet our population still hovers around 48,000 people. Alexandria tended to grow in finger-patterns; we're a good example of suburban sprawl. (Forty years ago, Suburban Garden Restaurant was, literally, suburban; today, one can drive fifteen miles from the city's center before entering the "suburbs"). For many years, Americans had a tendency to think of sprawl as good, a healthy reflection of a city's growth. Consider the City of Houston, Texas. Since the 1950s, Houston has been sprawling in every direction, and perhaps as a result, it attracted millions of people and scores of Fortune 500 companies. It may have worked for awhile. But now, Houstonians recognize that this sprawl came at a big cost: Their inner-city core was drained, their most historical neighborhoods were blighted (incidentally, some of the redevelopment plans for these neighborhoods were ill-conceived and counter-productive), and taxpayers were overly burdened by funding developments in the outer fringes of the city limits. Additionally, as fuel costs increased, so did the burden on their middle class, the backbone of their economy. Costs of construction have also increased, but instead of redeveloping affordable housing in the city's core, the middle class, for many years, followed the trend and continued to look for cheaper land in the suburbs. There's probably not an easy solution for Houston, but they've been taking steps in the right direction: light rail transportation that connects its downtown with the medical center, the encouragement of multi-use developments, and the revitalization of downtown (and therefore, housing in the city's center) through key investments- a new basketball arena, a baseball stadium, an arts complex, and a massive convention center). As a result of these efforts, property values in the city's core have increased substantially, and the city's core is thriving again. (This hasn't come at the expense of the suburbs; they're replicating this condensing and becoming independent communities). And this is what Alexandria must learn from, lest we repeat the mistakes made by other cities during periods of sustained growth. Smart growth in Alexandria means putting a check against unfettered expansion. It means thinking of creative solutions for affordable housing in existing neighborhoods (and not simply creating a bunch of new housing developments on cheaper land in the city's outer reaches. Again, affordability must also require access to resources). Fortunately, Alexandria is at a point where smart growth can be realized. We can use concepts like the Katrina Cottage to create an attractive and functional solution to inner-city affordable housing, which is already being done in cities all across the nation. We can re-codify. We can encourage the development of our downtown through targeted marketing and a package of unique incentives, like the Renewal Zone Incentives. We can also encourage mixed use developments throughout the city and planned use developments in the city's suburbs. We can smartly manage our traffic flow by building new connections and arteries. And the best news is that this is all possible, provided that our city government facilitates this process through events like charettes, which enables the entire community to actively participate in the planning process, and through re-codification and increased code enforcement.