Growing Wealthier
Smart Growth, Climate Change and Prosperity

Center for Clean Air Policy 2011
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Economic Benefits: Real-world Snapshot

  • Creating a range of housing opportunities in proximity to jobs saves households money. Washington DC region households living in the jobs-rich core spent about 30% of their income on housing and transportation, while those in the car-dependent outer suburbs spent over 40%.

  • Improving neighborhood “walkability” enhances property values. rates locations according to a walkability index from 1 to 100. One study found that, in general, every one-point increase in a home’s Walk Score raised its value by $700 to $3,000.

  • Walkability also enhances health. In Seattle, a 5% increase in the overall level of walkability was linked to a 32% increase in minutes of walking or biking and a reduction in Body Mass Index.

  • Creating a range of transportation options can increase property values, investment and jobs. In Denver, homes within a half mile of stations on the Southeast light rail line rose in value an average of 17.6% between 2006 and 2008; other Denver homes declined by an average 7.5%. American Recovery and Reinvestment Act investments in public transportation created almost twice as many jobs per billion dollars invested as highway projects – 16,419 vs. 8,781 job-months. A $100 million investment in Portland streetcars helped attract $3.5 billion in private investment.

  • Directing development towards existing communities can reduce infrastructure costs. Sacramento calculated the infrastructure price tag of their Blueprint Smart Growth scenario to be $9 billion less than conventional development.
  • Building within a smaller footprint can reduce water use and improve storm water runoff management. A 2006 EPA report found that in a compact subdivision in Sacramento, California, water demand was 20-30% less than conventional subdivisions in the same city.

  • Reducing the need to drive saves big money. The Vision California project calculated that a “green” compact growth scenario could save California residents $8,600 in driving related costs per household by the year 2050, or more than $170 billion annually statewide.


The preponderance of the evidence leads us to conclude that smart-growth strategies can help communities, businesses and individuals make money, save money and enhance quality of life. An approach to development and urban design that encourages travel efficiency and improves accessibility while also providing more housing and travel options is not an experiment that will harm the economy. Rather, these are time-tested principles that provide multiple economic and quality-of-life benefits while helping to ensure that natural systems can sustain life and human health.

These planning and design concepts, and the policies to support them, can help to create communities where people not only can find the homes, neighborhoods and lifestyles they desire, but also accomplish more with less time, energy and investment per person. People can save money while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Developing in ways that provide amenities people want – parks and open space, walkable neighborhoods and plentiful housing and transportation choices – attracts residents and businesses, maximizing public investments while creating opportunities for the private sector. Opening up the planning process to include more people in evaluating the big picture makes for smarter and more predictable decision-making, while empowering stakeholders to make decisions that will affect their lives now and long into the future.

Even under optimistic assumptions about the progress of motor vehicle technology, we cannot meet targets for mitigating global climate disruption – nor achieve energy security – without also finding a way to accomplish more while driving less. Achieving the required 9% reduction in per capita VMT might happen on its own, involuntarily, if we find ourselves subjected to stratospheric fuel prices. Or we could reach the target over time by choice, as accessible, travel-efficient communities become more prevalent. While the former would have serious effects on our economy, the latter can lead to new jobs, consumer savings and improved quality of life.

Each individual principle of smart growth on its own provides a mechanism for development to have a positive economic impact. We have presented a number of examples in this report and there are many more in the appendix. Yet the holistic urban fabric that arises when all the principles are invoked should be our ultimate goal.

Understanding how to design urban forms for the 21st century that address the multiple goals of economy, environment and equal opportunity is a challenge that we can meet head on. The opportunity is here to build upon our knowledge of successful places and create more of them. Success begets success. It is our hope that Growing Wealthier will aid policymakers, planners, developers and citizens in creating more prosperous communities while conserving financial and natural resources.

There are many steps we must take to ensure that our children inherit a planet and an economy with a bright future. Investing the time and money to grow our communities to be more resilient, more efficient and more satisfying to the soul surely offers a tremendous payoff.


  • Do. Measure. Learn. To realize the full prosperity benefits of smart growth, we need incentive-based policy programs centered on the themes of action, measurement, and analysis.

  • Equip and Empower. Transportation practitioners need new tools and technical assistance to enhance their ability to implement and evaluate smart growth and travel efficiency policies and their economic impacts. This would be an important role for federal agencies, such as US DOT.

  • Do More Get More. Government programs should reward communities that make efficient use of resources to promote economic and environmental sustainability.

  • Empirical Research. There is a solid foundation of research on the economic effects of smart growth but much remains to learn. The federal government should increase funding for such research and provide support for evaluating pilot projects and innovative policies.

  • Ask the Sustainability Question. Ask ourselves, “Does this infrastructure or land development decision promote long-term environmental and economic health in an equitable way?”

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