The following letter to the editor originally appeared in the Collegiate Times on Oct. 14, 2009:
What does “smart growth” mean, anyway?
In 2002, developer Bob Pack made plans for a 100,000-square-foot, two-building complex known as Kent Square. He envisioned office, retail and residential spaces in close proximity and sought $2 million in public funds for a 380-space parking garage for downtown shoppers and residents.
While some described the compact, mixed-use development as a prime example of “smart growth,” not everyone supported Pack’s vision for downtown Blacksburg. Opponents argued that the three-story structure would erode Blacksburg’s small town charm. With time the controversy subsided, and the two Kent Square buildings opened in 2004 and 2005, respectively.
But the tug of war between developers who stand to profit from new construction and residents who wish to protect the character and property values of their neighborhoods continues, with the renewed debate over a big-box store in Blacksburg as the latest struggle. The term “smart growth,” which has particular importance as Virginia Tech and the town of Blacksburg celebrate Sustainability Week, appears as both rallying cry and pejorative in the public debate, often without sufficient explanation.
Before the 1970s, most community leaders took an approach to urban planning that moved neighborhoods farther and farther from the city center, relied on automobiles as the primary form of transportation and divided commercial and residential areas based on use. Smart growth – which favors long-range planning, regional needs, public health and environmental stewardship – emerged as an alternative to urban sprawl.
Smart growth does not mean “no growth,” but it does mean that we should encourage economic development and maintain our quality of life at the same time. We must elect leaders to the Blacksburg Town Council who will support mixed-use development, preserve our neighborhoods, offer housing opportunities for residents of all income levels, conserve green and open space and improve access to public and alternative transportation.
Yet, smart growth is not the only way to ensure that Blacksburg has a sustainable future. For starters, we must find a way to extend the downtown recycling pilot program to the rest of Blacksburg, reduce greenhouse gas emissions as promised under the Cool Cities initiative and Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, and lead by example with green, energy-efficient building practices.
Most importantly, though, we must educate citizens about how their decisions affect the community at large and empower them to make choices that, using the United Nations’ definition of sustainable development, “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Town council candidate
Alumnus, communication ’06
Reprinted with permission.