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Citizens Union

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Smart Growth for New York

By Niko Fleming

In 1979, officials of Portland, Oregon drew a circle around their city and said, basically: Do not build beyond this circle. Since 1997, the State of Maryland has refused to give money for things like roadways and sewers outside certain designated areas. And Austin, Texas rates new building projects by how close they are to mass transit, how friendly they are to pedestrians, how well they mix together commercial, residential and industrial uses.

These policies are examples of what professional planners have started to call smart growth. The districts Maryland favors are officially designated "Smart Growth Areas." The criteria Austin uses to rate new buildings are officially called "Smart Growth Criteria." The major groups advocating smart growth are called Smart Growth Network and Smart Growth America.

Smart growth was created to fight suburban sprawl, the uncontrolled growth that has resulted in far-flung suburbs, more highways with more traffic jams, and communities with no sense of community.

New York City is part of a region of 20 million people, and the way that region grows has immediate effects on the city. But the concept of smart growth is not limited to the suburbs, or the Sunbelt. New York City can be smart about growing too.


Smart growth advocates crusade against America's car-centered culture and the pollution it causes. New York City has one of the most successful public transit systems in the country. Thirty-nine percent of workers do not drive to their jobs, and we can imagine what the city would look like if they did. But the city's transit system risks becoming a victim of its own success. Although there has been a 25 percent increase in subway and bus passenger trips over the last three years, the funding has not kept pace with the increased ridership. NYC Transit faces shortfalls of up to $406 million by 2004 if new funding is not secured, according to the Independent Budget Office. Without good maintenance, the new riders could be lost again.

In addition to maintenance, the transit system is overdue for expansion. This would start with finally building the Second Avenue subway, and extending this through to the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens with efficient links to the commuter railroads.

Innovation is the third element. The MetroCard has been a great success. Other innovations can improve city transportation (and reduce rush-hour traffic) without the need for huge infrastructure. The Port Authority has introduced peak-hour pricing on the Hudson River bridges. And express buses could be looked to as a lower-cost alternative if money for new subway lines is not found.


The waterfront is the city's greatest underused asset. Cities from San Francisco to Sydney showcase and protect their waterfronts, which are beloved by residents and tourists alike. New York needs a major effort to rescue the waterfront from the underused industrial and shipping sites that blight stretches of it. A successful Olympics bid for 2012 would be a great opportunity to transform the waterfront but we should not have to wait for that.

The Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance has organized a campaign to reclaim the waterfront. Their suggestions for the city include ensuring open space along the waterfront, with easy public access; cleaning up the physical environment; repairing damaged waterfront sites; and ending practices that allow raw sewage to flow into the rivers. Communities must also be included in planning for the future of the waterfront.


Brownfields are "abandoned industrial properties where redevelopment is discouraged by real or perceived contamination." According to the most recent Public Advocate's report, there are 3,300 acres of vacant brownfields in New York City. If a city short on land is to continue to grow, it cannot afford to leave these sites unused. While programs and funding exist to clean up brownfields, the report says that the city has fallen well short of other parts of the country in taking advantage of them.

The city can do far more in investigating and assessing brownfield sites, and could also give tax incentives to help get them cleaned up. In addition, it needs to take a stronger role in pushing for state legislation on brownfields and refinancing of the bankrupt Superfund.


The main tools used to promote economic development in the 1990s have been tax breaks aimed at persuading companies to stay in New York City. These have not been effective in keeping jobs in the city. The city should do more in four areas:

  • Encouraging new business development zones so that areas outside of midtown and downtown benefit from economic growth. An example is the rezoning plans to make Long Island City more of a commercial hub.
  • Supporting industries that are good candidates for future growth, such as biotechnology and computer services. New York's economy is overly dependent on the financial sector, and that may become a significant weakness if the stock market continues to stagnate.
  • Retaining manufacturing jobs. These still provide employment for 250,000 New Yorkers, and manufacturers need places to operate where they will not be priced out of the real estate market.
  • Reorganizing the city's dispersed and unfocused economic development agencies under a new deputy mayor.


One of the things that city planners have learned over the last few decades is that we cannot impose decisions on communities, the way Robert Moses did. They need to be involved in decisions that affect them. The Planners Network Association has suggested that each community board should have a planner to help it think through and provide input to these decisions. However it is done, the concerns of community residents need to be taken seriously in the planning process.

In addition to planning, zoning is one of the critical functions of a city. If the devil is in the details, zoning is certainly where the details are spelled out. It is one of the most powerful tools the city government has in shaping the face of the city, but the current regulations are a confusing jumble. Reform efforts such as the Unified Bulk Proposal seem to have stalled. We need to revisit zoning reform, with particular attention to encouraging mixed land use and preserving neighborhood.

Smart growth does not mean no growth. Successful cities grow. Over the past decade, New York City has grown by more than 100,000 people, and the New York metropolitan region by 630,000.

But what it means is that city officials and their suburban counterparts have a coordinated vision of that growth. The city must work with state authorities and with its neighbors to promote the reality that everything is linked. Pollution, for example, respects no arbitrary boundaries between city and suburbs, and the decisions made in one area regarding the environment and transportation and economic development cannot help but affect the areas surrounding it. To update the motto of the environmental movement, we need to think regionally and act locally.

To learn more about Smart Growth, try these sites:

Niko Fleming, on sabbatical from his job with the Canadian Department of Finance, works on urban and regional planning issues for the Citizens Union Foundation.

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