Friday, September 2, 2011

Lisa Grow Sun on When Smart Growth Is Dumb

Lisa Grow Sun recently posted her very interesting article, Smart Growth in Dumb Places: Sustainability, Disaster, and the Future of the American City, on SSRN.  It very well could prove to be the most significant law review article written on sprawl up to this point and regardless deserves to be on the reading lists of those interested in environmental, disaster, and land use law.  It highlights an undeniable but often ignored tension between the disaster planning and environmental planning--a tension that she makes a compelling argument deserves our attention.

Often when policy makers and scholars talk about new urbanism, smart growth, or sustainability, the policy advice that follows is to reinvest or return to urban areas, to grow up and not out, or promote infill development.  Often overlooked in this discussion, however, is that density itself might magnify certain types of risks, and even when density alone does not cause problems, many urban areas are built in places particularly prone to disaster—be it by the ocean, along a river, at the base of a mountain, or at the edge of a forest.  To make matters worse, if we look at things on a micro scale very often revitalization efforts often are built around and focus development in places that have disaster risks associated with them.  Seriously outside of cities in arid climates, almost every big redevelopment effort I can think of is built around a large water body. 

Despite the challenges that she identifies, she does not want to put an end to smart growth.  Rather, as the title of her article reflects, she just worries when it is happens in dumb places.  The problem for environmental planners, however, is that because so much of our development has occurred in dumb places, it does not leave a lot of smart places for smart growth to occur—at least as redevelopment.  Figuring out how much we should care about disaster risks seriously increases the complexity of the smart growth/dumb growth line of thinking.

Of course, however, complexity is not something that environmental law and policy have shied away from.  I am convinced that she has identified an important tension that we need to take into account if we want to get development/redevelopment right.  I hope we are up to the challenge.   

Here is the article’s abstract:

One of the many lessons of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan is that we cannot mitigate disaster risk through building codes and other structural solutions alone. Location is key to a community’s natural hazard vulnerability. Consequently, the most far-reaching and important question for disaster mitigation today is where we will channel the growth that will be needed to accommodate our expanding population. Yet, both environmental scholars and policymakers are promoting sustainability initiatives that will channel our country’s future growth into existing urban areas that are already extremely vulnerable to disaster. Indeed, many of these policies - and the legal tools used to implement them - are channeling growth, not only into particularly vulnerable cities, but into the riskiest areas of those cities. This Article is the first to identify and explore this critical tension between disaster mitigation and current sustainability policies.

-- Brigham Daniels

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