A Holy Cause

Two things you should know about this Smart Growth business:
A) It's everywhere; and
B) Lots of people are doing it.

Ray Suarez, host of NPR’s
Talk of the Nation

Peter Calthorpe, creator of the
New Triangle Square

Jim Chaffin, chairman of the Urban Land Institute

Yup, despite what you may hear from the talk-radio crowd in Austin, Smart Growth is not a freaky Commie campaign spawned by Chairman Watson and his Politburo, but a nationwide movement with followers in communities even more conservative than ours. Even big developers and GOP politicians are getting on the bandwagon.

You'll have a chance to see for yourself how wide the Smart Growth net has been cast on December 15-17, when the second annual Partners for Smart Growth Conference takes over the Austin Convention Center. Sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the developer-oriented Urban Land Institute, and a public-private coalition known as the Smart Growth Network, the conference seeks to advance the three-pronged cause of "profitable development, livable communities, and environmental quality."

The first Partners for Smart Growth Conference, held in Baltimore -- where "Smart Growth" is an entrenched official maxim of not just local but Maryland state government -- "was more wildly successful than we ever dreamed of, with people clamoring to get in and eating it all up," says the ULI's conference planner Michael Pawlukiewicz. "It was really a new experience, because we had public-sector people, environmentalists, and developers all in the same room, talking about these issues, which we'd never seen happen before. And they found out they had a lot to talk about."

How did Austin, where Smart Growth as a political concept is still less than a year old, end up hosting this gig? Pawlukiewicz recounts that the Austin contingent at the first confab -- including architects, developers, Assistant City Manager Jim Smith, and various others -- "were really excited and eager to go home and use what they'd learned. And then they decided they wanted to have this year's conference in Austin and, quite frankly, badgered us. These people are so enthusiastic. ... It was really the locals' persistence that paid off in the end." He adds that while Austin has problems as a meeting site -- our lack of direct air connections, hotel rooms, et cetera -- "a lot of people are interested in Austin and have never been there, and this is their opportunity to go."

Which makes Partners for Smart Growth sort of like South by Southwest for land-use policy wonks -- of whom there are many, since there appears not to be a single metro area in the country that isn't worrying about growth, traffic, green space, and quality of life. (Even such bastions of non-progressive thought as Charleston and Salt Lake City are duly concerned about their future QOL.) But instead of A&R execs and other fabulosi, we'll get hotshot urban-visionary developers in Brioni suits. Instead of frayed, cynical, and underpaid media types, we'll get harried, quizzical, and underpaid public and nonprofit sector types. And for star power, instead of Johnny Cash or Tony Bennett, we get the governor of New Jersey and, perhaps, the vice president of the United States (see box for details on the conference schedule and logistics.)

And, like SXSW (and for about the same price as a wristband), there's a special slab of programming aimed at the locals. The last day of the conference -- Thursday, Dec. 17 -- will "Focus on Central Texas," with programs and activities on topics ripped from today's Austin headlines. "The local day is mostly for local benefit," says Pawlukiewicz. "But it's clear that Smart Growth isn't something that can be implemented at a national level; it happens on the local and regional level. So we want to have a local emphasis so that people from around the country can see how others are putting these ideas into practice."

With session topics like "Why Smart Growth Matters," "Livability and the New Economy," "Enhancing Existing Neighborhoods," "Compete Globally, Cooperate Locally," and "Density Is Not a Four-Letter Word," the Partners for Smart Growth Conference will surely hit hard, early, and often on Austin's current political preoccupations. So why go, considering that we read about this stuff every day in the papers? Because in Austin, even as we marvel at the alacrity of Kirk Watson's dealmaking, we still labor under the notion that responsible development -- whether one defines "responsibility" from a business or enviro or neighborhood perspective -- is a holy cause being waged against the infidels.

But within the nationwide Smart Growth scene, Pawlukiewicz notes, "People are finding out that developers aren't a group of monolithic Neanderthals. Our EPA partners were floored that Smart Growth had penetrated so deeply within the Urban Land Institute. But then, environmentalists aren't a group of monolithic Neanderthals either. We're just trying to open the dialogue: Instead of limiting growth, how do we use growth to protect the environment and build better communities, and how do we do it in a way that allows the market to make money? We don't have the answers, but we want to get people talking about it, and talking across their normal lines."

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