America's smart mover

Smart growth exponent Gerrit Knaap is optimistic that the Obama administration will usher in more sustainable land-use and transport policy at national and local level, he tells Cliff Hague.

Now that Barack Obama is president, can we expect a new era for planning in the USA? Will America's about-turn on climate change result in a shift from suburban sprawl to more environmentally friendly practices? Is smart growth, with its emphasis on mixed uses and higher densities around public transport nodes, an idea whose time has come?

For the moment, Gerrit Knaap is simply happy to be able to travel abroad without having to pretend to be Dutch rather than a citizen of Dubya's land of the free. As director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education, he replies readily "yes we can" when I ask him whether Americans can start to change the way that they consume land. So will the walk from a compact townhouse to the metro station replace the drive from the ranch house to the parking lot at the out-of-town mall?

Since the GIs returned from fighting in Europe and the Far East in 1945, the single family house standing in its own land with enough lawn to feed a herd of sheep and space for two or more gas-guzzlers has been the preferred option of middle America. The further west you go, the bigger the plots get. Knaap and his Maryland-based operation offer a different way of developing.

"Key principles of smart growth include more compact building design in walkable neighbourhoods," Knaap explains. "It is also about preserving open space and farmland and developing in and around communities rather than scattering development around the countryside. Smart growth means people have choices about how to travel. They are not solely dependent on the car."

Other parts of the package include a range of housing choices - which means affordable homes as well as a mix of sizes - and a strong commitment to public involvement in the planning process. The recipe may sound unremarkable to British planners, but there are parts of the USA where it rings of communism.

Will Obama's administration make a difference? The federal government does not have planning powers like those of national governments in the UK. Responsibility rests with each state, although they devolve powers to local level. However, Obama cut his teeth as a community organiser in Chicago's inner city and is committed to establishing an office of urban policy that will report directly to him.

"It has been a long time since we had any kind of urban agenda," says Knaap. "Obama is talking about boosting funds for the community development grant and has been strongly influenced by researchers at the Brookings Institution. They have been ramping up research on metropolitan regions. Obama embraces this. The metropolitan area broadens the political constituency from just an inner city focus."

Knaap identifies Brookings metropolitan policy programme director Bruce Katz as an influential figure. He is currently on leave from the organisation and has been drafted in as a senior adviser in the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. The rhetoric of the programme that Katz ran at Brookings stresses the need to move away from car dependence and take climate change seriously. It talks of "innovative solutions to help communities grow in more inclusive, competitive and sustainable ways".

Knaap predicts that Obama's response will be to increase federal support for innovation clusters and a stronger focus on what he calls "transit". Money will be shifted from roads to public transport. This is important, because Knaap recognises that the smart growth vision of transit-oriented development, using higher densities around transport nodes, is hard to achieve in practice without some sort of subsidy.

As well as these carrots, the federal government will be able to wield a few sticks. "The Clean Air Act offers levers such as federal targets for greenhouse gas reductions that could feed through to influence planning and urban form," Knaap observes. He cites California's recent legislation requiring metropolitan planning bodies to achieve cuts. "Changing the pattern of land use is part of the equation. We will not see national land-use planning policies but incentives and regulations could influence the way planning is done locally."

Affordable housing is another strand of the smart growth package. It has depended on negotiation with developers and sophisticated understanding of housing markets, because affordable homes are private rather than European-style social rented. The collapse of the sub-prime market demonstrates the enduring problems in providing market housing to those on low and irregular incomes.

So will Obama revive public housing? Knaap's answer is an emphatic "no". The smart growth formula calls for the construction of smaller houses, more apartments and provision of a wider range of housing opportunities and choices than have been the norm as suburbia has rolled out across the landscape. Knaap senses that times are changing in ways that will alter how planning is done and the skills that planners will need.

"Planners will have to move beyond plans and regulation to become more entrepreneurial. They should be protagonists for 'growing cooler'," he maintains. "To do that, they need to combine the capacity to design for low-carbon neighbourhoods with a better grasp of the financial side of development. We launched a programme at the University of Maryland last year that aims to give students those skills."


Age: 52

Family: Married with five children

Education: Degree in economics, Willamette University; PhD in economics, University of Oregon; post-doctorate in economics, University of Wisconsin

Interests: Tennis, his family

2002: Professor and executive director, National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education, University of Maryland

1989: Associate professor of urban planning, University of Illinois

1982: Assistant professor in economics, University of Wisconsin

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