"Smart Growth" and "New Urbanism" Compared with "Large Lot Zoning" (Tom Lane) [ Home Page – Click Here]

(May 17, 2017) – Traditional "Large Lot Zoning" is "Greener" than "Smart Growth" within Urban Growth Boundaries . . . Copyright 2009 – 2017 . . . Tom Lane . . . Photographing California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington.

(revised Dec. 24, 2011) Smart Growth is Not Green. Low Density Housing Better for the Environment.

(revised December 24, 2011, Tom Lane) Look at the photo above, and think about the neighborhood that you grew up in.  Large shade trees, a nice backyard for baseball, and a large vegetable garden with fruit trees.  Wild birds, raccoons, and perhaps even deer, hawks, and eagles.   Bicycle and pedestrian friendly streets, with low traffic and low air pollution; no worries about asthma attacks while cycling or jogging.  Properties were a minimum of a quarter acre, and often much larger, with plenty of room for an apple orchard and baseball in the backyard.  In my thesis post, I provide additional commentary on these lifestyle factors.

Let’s compare the places of our childhoods to where President Barack Obama, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, ex-Deputy Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Rev. Ron Sims, the Puget Sound Regional Council, the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, and most professors of Urban Planning want us to live today. Below, this is your “backyard,” a dark, dangerous alley of garages with no lawn for the kids to play. (This is the Issaquah Highlands (click here for my photos), Ron Sims/Greg Nichols master planned smart growth development in Issaquah, near Seattle.)

A Dark Alley of garages in smart growth in Issaquah.

That’s your backyard. Now, here’s your “front yard,” on a busy two lane street that serves thousands of residents in this congested, high density master planned smart growth Issaquah Highlands neighborhood:

Your front yard doesn’t amount to much space at all in smart growth developments.

Sadly, no birds, no raccoons, no hawks, no native vegetation, no tall trees, and no baseball.  It’s the death of the American dream, and smart growth townhomes are trendy and very expensive.  High traffic makes bicycling dangerous, if not impossible.  Sinusitis is a common ailment in smart growth havens such as Boulder, Colorado and Eugene, Oregon.

Nobody is going to use bike lanes in heavy traffic.  Low density neighborhoods with low traffic areas in residential suburbs are the bicyclist’s best friend, not congested streets through smart growth development.  Indeed, why do people go mountain biking in the first place?  It’s to get away from it all.  And, of course, that’s the same reason Americans are willing to drive dozens of miles home after work to the suburbs, to their private yards with large trees, lawns, swimming pools, and the very trendy basketball hoops placed on cul-de-sacs.  Would you want to bike or walk on the main street through Issaquah Highlands, that’s clogged during commute hours making it impossible to take photos of the place?  This photos shows the ubiquitous “towering condos” in the distance:

Unreasonable density and traffic along the main road in Issaquah Highlands. Note towering smart growth condos in the distance.

Clearly, the density at Issaquah Highlands is too high. Below, you can see the snow covered rooftops of the development, with skyscrapers of downtown Seattle and downtown Bellevue in the distance. And, that’s where the high density belongs – not 25 miles east at Issaquah Highlands. Furthermore, Seattle was clearcut before its founding, over 100 years ago. Yet with so few trees in the Seattle area left today, then any treecutting, in most cases, is simply unacceptable. In the interest of dwindling bird, bee, and butterfly populations, treecutting should generally be against the law, without a permit. You can see that SURROUNDING developments and the distant hills were NOT clearcut before development.  Therefore, and tragically, it does appear that clearcutting is part of the allegedly “smart” growth building philosophy, but not the older developments (see google satellite photos below).

Overview of Issaquah Highlands, with downtown Seattle and downtown Bellevue in the distance.

Large trees sequester greenhouse gases and support wildlife, even hawks and eagles where the native trees have been carefully preserved during construction.  This is not the case in smart growth developments.  Do you see any native trees taller than 50 feet on any of my smart growth photos?  Large trees also reduce wind, thereby reducing heat loss from homes.  And, they provide summer shade, reducing cooling costs.

Despite the reality of the situation, the smart growth proponents claim their developments are “green.”  Without a native tree canopy, apple orchards, and vegetable gardens, nothing could be further from the truth.  Given the expense of these developments, certainly much of the “green” talking is marketing hype.

Smart Growth = Another Form of Sprawl

Clearly, smart growth is just another form of urban sprawl, yet at an unacceptably high density.  Aesthetic and lifestyle considerations are not considered when the goal is to crowd as many people as possible, within urban growth boundaries.  Issaquah Highlands is not the only Seattle area smart growth development that looks horrible from a distance. Here’s an overview of Creekside, a high density smart growth development in the Kent Valley. Is there anything “smart” about this development?  Is it “smart” to not own a yard?  Is it “smart” to share five common walls with your neighbors’ townhomes?

Smart Growth – Sprawl in the Creekside Development in Kent, south of Seattle.

Here’s a view of a street in Talus, another smart growth master planned development in Issaquah. Once again, high density, inadequate setbacks, no privacy between the attached units, and a narrow street with a ridiculous median with tables and plantings, with the sidewalk down the middle of the street:

Ridiculous narrow street at Talus, a master planned smart growth development in Issaquah near Seattle.

In this area of Talus under development, the street near the crosswalks is only 17 feet wide. And, they’ve cleared all the native trees prior to development:

Street in new area of Talus is only 17 feet wide, and the native trees were clearcut in the foreground before development.

This “concrete turnaround” in Talus is unfortunate, given that concrete is an impermeable substrate that does not absorb groundwater. In fact, nearly 90% of Talus and Issaquah Highlands are composed of impervious surfaces, contributing to excessive runoff and water pollution in local streams.

Ridiculous concrete turnaround in Talus, impermeable to rainfall, contributing to runoff.

Marketing Hype at Talus – Wouldn’t you prefer an Acre compared to a Shared Greenbelt?

This sign attempts to convince you that the greenbelts and nearby parks combine to form a “green” neighborhood. While it is true that the nearby Cougar and Squak Mountain Parks provide tens of thousands of acres and even more trees, you do not own any native vegetation on your property. CLICK TO ENLARGE AND READ TEXT:

CLICK TO ENLARGE AND READ TEXT: Talus environmental sign, claiming various “green” attributes. Of course, most people can see through this marketing hype, and determine that a neighborhood of one acre lots would be 10 times greener.

Nearly 90% of Developed Areas are Impervious Surfaces Contributing to Runoff and Water Pollution

And, even though greenbelts, wetlands, and trails provide places to walk through Talus, and also at nearby Issaquah Highlands, nearly 90% of the developed areas are composed of impervious surfaces. In other words, nearly 90% is covered by materials that do not absorb rainfall, i.e. streets, sidewalks, driveways, patios, decks, cars, and roofs. Furthermore, there are no permaculture facilities to collect water, and prevent it from polluting the wetlands in the greenbelts.

Below, you can see the high density and high percentage of impervious surfaces, on Google sattelite views of Talus and Issaquah Highlands. You can see more Google images of both low and high density developments, with and without native trees, at this post:

On this Google Map, to the left of the major road (SR-900) is the Talus development. To the right of the road are traditional, low density Issaquah developments with large lots and native trees. Of course, most people would prefer a green backyard with a lawn for the pets and room for gardens and fruit trees. The anti-green approach of smart growth is unacceptable not only to the average American family, but also to birdwatchers, beekeepers, insect and native plant collectors, and landscape designers. Those who market this form of landscape will ultimately give up, as smart growth townhomes and towering condos continue to foreclose.

CLICK TO ENLARGE AND READ TEXT within your web browser. Talus is to the left of the majjor road, SR-900. Compare the high density and amount of backyard vegetaton of Talus with traditional Issaquah neighborhoods to the right of SR-900.

Here’s a view of 80% of the Issaquah Highlands development. Despite the legendary Douglas Fir native to the Pacific Northwest, note the large brown areas that have been clearcut and bulldozed of all native trees and shrubs. And, once again, just like at Talus, what is the point of the greenbelts, when you can’t even have large trees in your backyard?

80% of the Issaquah Highlands development on this google sattelite image.

Finally, the Issaquah Highlands multiple retaining walls prove that smart growth is the antitheses of “designing with nature.”

Ugly, towering walls at Issaquah Highlands. What are they for?

What is the Purpose of Smart Growth Garage Alleys?

Let’s take a look at another alley in the Issaquah development.  Why even have this alley in the first place?  Why not give everyone a backyard?  Alleys are fundamental principles of smart growth design, since smart growth proponents such as Andres Duany are trying to take us back to an ancient era where nobody owned a car … a time when everyone walked to the store, and rode the train and streetcar to work.  Andres Duany’s philosophy is the opposite of Frank Lloyd Wright, who advocated decentralization and automobile dependent cities spread throughout the countryside. Of course, most Americans would prefer an acre in the countryside with fruit trees and vegetable gardens, and that’s exactly what Frank Lloyd Wright proposed, as part of his “Broadacre City.”

Another alley, with no private backyards, at Issaquah Highlands.

Finally, how can this expensive Solar Powered buildings at Issaquah Highlands, under construction, meet the “green” requirements of smart growth, given that the developer has clearcut all of the native trees?

No native trees in sight, yet Issaquah Highlands is billed as “green” due to the forthcoming solar panels on these roofs, among other vague reasons.

Alternatives to High Density Smart Growth

The “traditional alternative” to smart growth high density is, of course, the standard plan of homes on 1/4 to 1/2 acre lots with large native trees.  For whatever reason, opponents of “urban sprawl” wish to stop these low density developments with private yards, and build townhomes and condos instead.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, most of the Seattle area was on larger lots.  In contrast to builders of smart growth today who clearcut native trees (see my photos at this post), native vegetation was at one time highly valued, and preserved by many developers.  For example, Middle Class homes in various HOA’s in Renton, near Seattle, including Candlewood Ridge, Carriage Wood, and Fairwood Greens, and also in nearby Maple Valley, were built on quarter acre lots.  Many of the native trees were retained 50 years ago, and many have even grown to achieve old growth status today:

Large native trees in the quarter acre backyards of homes in the Candlewood HOA near Renton.Large private park in Candlewood with tall native trees.Fairwood Greens HOA with large native trees on quarter acre lots.

Large private park in Candlewood with tall native trees.

Fairwood Greens HOA with large native trees on quarter acre lots.

Fairwood Greens. Large native trees in greenbelt / wetland area in the distance.

Fairwood Country Club, Renton, Wa.

Wide street with native and non-native trees in Maple Valley, Wa.

Giant sunken Park that’s also a retention basin at the Valley Green development in Maple Valley, SE of Seattle.

Cheap High Density Smart Growth Developments in Seattle

As trees are clearcut, cheap, inexpensive high density developments are destroying the once pristine Seattle suburbs. Since the Washington Growth Management Act and Puget Sound Regional Council allowed very high densities, developers take advantage of this, and build ugly, attached townhomes with limited landscaping. The sign shows that these new “homes” will have 0.18 acre lots, with a density between 5 and 6 units per acre. Compare this to a quarter acre lot at 4 units per acre. These photos are in unincorporated King County, just east of Kent and within the Urban Growth Boundary:

Cheap attatched townhomes against the Urban Growth Boundary outside of Kent, Wa. at sunset.

Even Phoenix and All of Arizona Looks Better that Seattle, since there’s No State Growth Management Act

Compared to Washington State, Arizona is perceived as a “Republican” state that doesn’t care about the environment, but it’s actually just the opposite.  Arizona does not have a state growth management act, and many neighborhoods in Scottsdale, Fountain Hills, Cave Creek, and Carefree have minimum residential densities.  In Cave Creek, the minimum lot size is 18,000 square feet, and the average density in Fountain Hills is 1.66 dU/acre.  Developers in Phoenix do not have incentives to build high density townhomes and smart growth condos. Here are a few examples:

Low denisty neighborhood in north Phoenix with irrigated turfgrass and many other parks nearby.

Tramanto neighborhood in North Phoenix, with wide streets, native desert vegetation, and large setbacks.

Very wide residential street in Phoenix, with sidewalks, bike lanes, and a median of native plants.

Very large park with irrigated turfgrass in Phoenix, Arizona.

Below, note Cave Creek and Carefree, Arizona (northeast of Phoenix) offers very low density developments, with lots of wildlife and native vegetation. Here’s a typical view of native cacti growing over a roadway. Note the absence of “smart growth” features such as gravelscaping and bike lanes.

Mountain biking and horseback riding, of course, are popular in Cave Creek, due to the large amount of open space. People are willing to pay a price in terms of long commutes to from Cave Creek to Phoenix, receiving close access to nature, cooler temperatures, and low crime. People truly live green in Cave Creek, and I’ve posted additional photos at this link.

Living Green in Cave Creek, Arizona on large lots with native vegetation, wildlife, and no bike lanes or gravelscaping! Awesome! Cave Creek deserves an award! (Feb. 2010)

Population and Density Statistics from Wendell Cox

In light rail posts on this web site (indexed at this link: https://smartgrowthusa.wordpress.com/category/light-rail/, I’ve posted density statistics from Wendell Cox, given that development of light rail is not cost effective unless density reaches a critical threshold.

Furthermore, with higher density under smart growth, Cox shows that commutes are longer:

From: http://www.demographia.com/db-intljtwdens.htm Accessed: Dec. 10, 2011

Can Urban Areas become too large?

Obviously, the answer to this question is in the eyes of the beholder.  If someone doesn’t care about rationing water supplies or breathing toxic air, then they are not an environmentalist.

Most people believe that an urban area can eventually become too big, either due to its population, and/or its land area. An urban growth boundary causes too many people to live in too small in area, due to infilling of towering smart growth condos. High density cities have higher air pollution, less native trees, and as Wendell Cox has calculated above, longer commutes. Therefore, perhaps an ideal city size would be under a million, with a population density of 1,500 per square mile?

Note:  The smart growth and light rail proponents want several thousand peoople crowded in every single square mile, extending indefinitely over the City Limits of smart growth havens such as Seattle, Portland, and Denver. They do not want Middle Class families to own private yards.

Density Tables from Demographia from Wendell Cox,
see “permission to grant to use with attribution” on last panel below.


* Note: For many more cities, and even lower densities, refer to this chart at: http://www.demographia.com/db-ua2000dense.htm

Density and Population, 1950-2000, from Wendell Cox

This data is from Wendell Cox’s web site.  Click here for a link for the entire Excel chart.  Two of seven pages are shown below:

CLICK TABLES IN YOUR WEB BROWSER to enlarge, or, print the .XLS Excel link above for all seven pages.


3 comments on “(revised Dec. 24, 2011) Smart Growth is Not Green. Low Density Housing Better for the Environment.

  1. John

    I’m no fan of New Urbanism either, but you’ve got it the wrong way around. The density failings of New Urbanism are a matter of bad design and poor economic policy, not the density itself.

    Your 1,500 people per square mile is really an awful, awful idea. This is why:

    As the world approaches its buildout of ~11 billion, we’ll need to add 4 billion new people (about 200 million in the United Sates), and we have to design places for these people which are (a) nice to live in, and (b) dense enough so that we do not impinge upon sensitive farmlands, forests, grasslands, deserts, tundra, mountains, wetlands, and coastal areas. Typically, New Urbanism fails on (a) because it’s just not good design, and it fails on (b) because *it’s not dense enough.*

    We have about 1.5 million square kilometers of ground on which we Earthlings can still build without further impinging the biosphere (and ironically ourselves). Your 1,500 people per square mile is ~580 per square kilometer. To house everyone in the U.S. at buildout, we’d need to cover another ~345,000 square kilometers. This is an area equal to roughly twice the ENTIRE surface area of the state of Washington, or an area which would most likely reduce national agrarian or forested land by as much as 20%, neither of which can we afford. Even spread across the country, this is not feasible for reasons of infrastructure, water, agriculture, and economics.

    Applied across the entire world, your scheme would require ~6.9 million square kilometers, or about 4.5 times what’s practicably available.

    Large-lot zoning is “greener” only if you and everyone else stop having babies now, and you somehow kill about 2 billion people in the very near future. This this must not happen, your position is ethically indefensible. Please reconsider your position and encourage cities, including New Urbanists, to design smarter instead of relying on their fantasies from the 1920s. As for you, you’re going to have to give up your romanticized fantasy of needing a quarter acre or more for every 2.5 people. Thanks.

  2. Tom Lane

    There is absolutely no reason why we cannot live in harmony on large lots in natural areas at low densities, preserving native vegetation and wildlife habitat. Indeed, smart growth is unsustainable. For instance, many of the principles of smart growth, such as the extensive use of impermeable surfaces in high density environments, limit groundwater replenishement. High density urban infill results in high levels of traffic congestion, air pollution, noise pollution, and an urban heat island effect.

    Whereas you can climb a hill in low density cities such as Reno, or Salt Lake City, and look down and hear no traffic noise, due to low density suburbs. This is not the case from the Flagstaff Mountain overlook in Boulder, where you look down and hear loud traffic noise. The Denver metro and its suburbs have concentrated population density, whereas Salt Lake City is more spread out, discontinuously along the I-15 corridor.

    Here’s are additional statistics that you may wish to consider, from my post: http://wp.me/pMHrW-dE

    No Rational for Controlling Sprawl with Smart Growth, according to controversial popular author Randal O’Toole, Famous Dartmouth Economist Dr. William Fischel, and Famous USC Planner Dr. Peter Gordon –

    There is no rationale for controlling “sprawl.” Randal O’Toole writes that 95% of the U.S. is rural open space. You can download data for the amount of open space in your state here: http://americandreamcoalition.org/penalty.html Randal O’Toole writes:

    “Nearly 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas that cover just 2.6 percent of the land. Nearly 95 percent of the United States remains as rural open space. Government actions that drive up housing prices in order to preserve such an abundant resources are a tragic misplacement of priorities.”

    Find out much of your state has been urbanized and how much rural open space is left. Download an open space spreadsheet (excel) showing what percentage of each state that has been urbanized or developed in any way and what percentage remains as rural open space. This is based on two different sources of data, the 1997 Natural Resources Inventory and the 2000 census. More information about these data is available in the discussion of open space data in the Journalists’ Guide to the American Dream.”

    So there’s plenty of land for large lots, and we really don’t need urban growth boundaries or urban renewal districts (i.e. mixed-use, high density areas).

    Dr. Peter Gordon and Dr. Harry W. Richardson of USC discuss the abundance of US land in their article “Are Compact Cities a Desirable Planning Goal?” They mention Dartmouth’s Dr. William Fischel, who found that even if every American household was on an acre (with four persons per residence), only 3% of the entire US would be occupied, even when Alaska and Hawaii are excluded!

    Dr. Fischel discusses this in his book “The Economics of Zoning Laws: A Property Rights Approach to American Land Use Controls.“ A free google preview of his calculations for the 3% amount can be found on pages 1 and 2 at this link:


    That’s the good news for those of us coming from the landscaping and birdwatching side of this debate. We want plenty of land to develop large homes with lush landscaping with native plants and wildlife. Of course, when large native trees and shrubs are preserved during construction, there is significantly less precipitation runoff, less need for irrigation, less wind, less temperature extremes, decreased heating and cooling costs, etc.

  3. Connor

    The purpose of high density development is protect and conserve forests. As the population continues to grow (and it won’t reach its peak for many years) we need more housing for people. With low density development (sprawl) it continues to go outward into our lush forests than contain many diverse animals. You may think that low density developments are great for the environment because they have tall native trees, but they really aren’t, they’re just picturesque. Bears cannot be supported in these areas, only small animals. It’s much better for the environment to condense the human population is a small area and protect lush forests without any type of development in it, which have lots of animals and functions well as an ecosystem. Also, high density developments don’t always add to runoff and pollution to rivers, Puget Sound, etc. because new laws are requiring that developments are built with drainage systems that are like how nature infiltrates water through the soil, storm drains aren’t used.

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