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Understand the various movements for sustainable urban planning

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YIMBY? Smart Growth? New Urbanism? Understand the various movements for sustainable urban planning

PLANNINGBy David Alpert (Executive Director) December 2, 2019 1

If someone supports more housing in a city, are they a YIMBY? A New Urbanist? A Market Urbanist? Which is Greater Greater Washington? Articles in the popular press throw around these names, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. They’re not all the same, but the differences can often be subtle. Here’s a quick primer.

All of these are philosophies that, generally, want to see housing built, at least in urban areas and near transit if not more broadly. They generally support growth and development, though sometimes coming at the issue from different angles and motivations.


Greater Greater Washington calls itself “urbanist.” This is a fairly broad term which is defined as some places as simply being a field of study, like: “Urbanism is the study of how inhabitants of urban areas, such as towns and cities, interact with the built environment.”

Many activists have increasingly called themselves “urbanists” with a slightly more advocacy-oriented use of the term. Former Seattle mayor Mike McGinn wrote a good definition which Scott Bonjukian summarized as:

Urbanists want more people (of all types) to have equal access to housing variety (apartments, townhomes, backyard cottages, houses, duplexes, etc.), more ways to get around (transit, walking, bicycling, ride-share, vanpool, etc.), more to see and do (parks, cafes, bars, museums, shops, etc.), and to have more grassroots influence on city government.

As Bonjukian notes, this definition of urbanism and the associated advocacy, including from Greater Greater Washington, comes as “the decline of urban populations is reversing and more people are moving back into center cities.” This includes younger adults, empty nesters, and especially in cities that have added universal pre-kindergarten, families with young children.

In his 2007 book The Option of Urbanism, Christopher Leinberger contrasts “walkable urbanism,” a place where “you could satisfy most everyday needs, such as school, shopping, parks, friends, and even employment, within walking distance or transit of one’s home,” with “driveable sub-urbanism,” where “we get in our car for nearly every trip we take.” Walkable urbanism requires more people and jobs per square mile while driveable sub-urbanism requires them to be very spread out.

Leinberger explains that the US and world built cities around walkable urban principles until about 1950, when it switched to driveable sub-urbanism, at great costs to people’s health, happiness, economic productivity, and the environment. Urbanists want to re-focus planning principles around strengthening existing walkable urban places and making unwalkable ones walkable, including adding the homes and jobs that go along with the walkable urban form.

New Urbanism

The term “urbanist” also evokes a school of planning and design which arose in the 1980s, New Urbanism. Before the trend toward rising city populations (at least in a set of high-demand US cities) had asserted itself and the architecture and when planning professions’ attention was primarily on building new suburbs on farms, a group of people said building in the then-standard cookie-cutter style was harmful. Instead, they suggested, create something with attractive design, engaging front porches, stores within walking distance, and other characteristics of classic American towns.

The Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Maryland is an exemplar of New Urbanism. So is Seaside, Florida, where the movie The Truman Show was filmed. In the movie, Truman Burbank doesn’t just hop in a car in his garage and speed down a six-lane boulevard to a parking lot around his office complex, for instance.

New Urbanism is more formalized than general urbanism, with a guiding organization, the Congress for New Urbanism, founded in 1993 by a variety of architects and planners including Peter Calthorpe, Andrés Duany, and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. New Urbanism is more focused on the design of places than on economics, infrastructure, and other factors.

New Urbanist retail and residential in Hercules, CA by Eric Fischer licensed under Creative Commons.

Market Urbanism

Market Urbanism is a more libertarian-focused strain of urbanism. The term arose in 2007 with the founding of an eponymous blog by Adam Hengels. Market Urbanists focus on the ways that regulations have prohibited building the kind of walkable urban places of historic center cities, such as through minimum parking requirements, lot sizes, setbacks, and other zoning rules.

For instance, this tweet (not necessarily by market urbanists) shows how every house on one block of Swampscott, Massachusetts would be illegal to build under current zoning.

While market urbanists and other kinds of urbanists agree that the traditional city and town formats should be legal, they often disagree on many other things. Market urbanists generally do not support explicit zoning rules that require affordable housing as part of a new development, arguing that such rules can make it economically infeasible to build new housing at all. Other types of urbanists, on the other hand, often believe that pure deregulation will not solve most city problems on their own, such as the need for affordable housing.

Smart Growth

Smart Growth generally comes from the environmental movement and takes an environmental protection angle to development. It favors compact, walkable development in center cities and areas near transit, while advocating for restrictions on sprawl development at the edges of regions.

Smart Growthers want to protect the rural farmland and build more densely in the cities. As such, they are often allied with local neighbors in exurban areas who want to stop a new development, while holding the opposite alliances in built-up areas.

While Smart Growth has strong historic and current environmental ties, it can also be at odds with a subset of local environmental groups, like the California Sierra Club, which opposes most development even in dense urban downtowns (while DC’s Sierra Club is very pro-Smart Growth). Some environmentalists, especially ones from an older generation, see an apartment building without trees or grass as inherently “not green,” but a suburban house with a tree and small lawn as “green.” Smart growth-oriented environmentalists would counter that the house’s occupants are generating more pollution from driving long distances and more runoff from fertilizing that lawn. We discussed this divide more in this article.

Smart Growth was popularized, and likely coined, by Maryland Governor Parris Glendening and his Secretary of Planning, Harriet Tregoning, who wrote and passed a pionnering Smart Growth law in Maryland in 1998.

Smart Growth has an official organization, Smart Growth America, founded in 2000 (and which is GGWash’s 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsor), and an official EPA Smart Growth program. Many local Smart Growth organizations have varying names and brands some of which predate the “Smart Growth” term, like 1000 Friends of Oregon (founded 1974 and named that in 1985). The Washington region’s smart growth group is the Coalition for Smarter Growth (founded 1997).

Image by YIMBY Action.


The newest and most hype-receiving moniker is YIMBY, for “Yes In My Backyard.” YIMBY organizations more confrontationally cast themselves as the direct opponents of NIMBYs, the “Not In My Backyard” neighbors who fight development projects as “out of character with the neighborhood” or the like.

YIMBY as a movement is most often traced to California activists, who started doing very visible street organizing in response to the San Francisco Bay Area’s massive affordability crisis. YIMBY focuses primarily on the pure need to build more housing, especially in high-demand metro areas. Some YIMBYs have been less focused on rural preservation than Smart Growth, while others are very much following the Smart Growth ethos with new labels and organizing techniques.

YIMBY has also formed in a decentralized way. There has been an annual conference, organized variously by self-identified YIMBYs in various cities and next happening in Portland in April. There is, however, no formal YIMBY umbrella group like the Congress for New Urbanism or Smart Growth America (though there have been discussions about the idea). YIMBY groups have not, to date, tried (or not very hard) to agree on a YIMBY Platform or anything of that nature.

Some of this also comes from the current environment of social media organizing, where people don’t need any resources to simply put up a Twitter handle with YIMBY in it. Some of it may come from the West Coast’s more anarchist bent compared to the east.

Groups and activists in some cities have been moving away from using the YIMBY label per se. YIMBY as a term has garnered some criticism for being too defined as simply the opposite of NIMBY. Many groups that connect to the YIMBY ethos have been embracing “sharing” oriented brands rather than YIMBY. There’s Portland For Everyone (hosted at 1000 Friends of Oregon); East Bay For Everyone in the Oakland/Berkeley, California area; and Austin for Everyone, the tagline of a group called AURA, Austin for Urban Rail Action, which broadened beyond transit.

The best group name, in my opinion, is Minneapolis’ “Neighbors for More Neighbors.” That name would also work well as a counterpoint to a short-lived anti-housing group in DC, “Neighbors for Neighborhoods,” which I quipped should be called “Neighbors Against More Neighbors” way back in 2013.

How these fit together

For the most part, members of all of these groups share a common view about supporting new housing or jobs in urban areas and near transit. Most individuals don’t explicitly identify with one or another, and don’t think all that much about the differences. You most see the differences in organizations, whose names and mission statements may well reflect the era in which they were created, but organizations also have shifted among these terms and certainly draw in supporters from multiple categories.

Above all, they tend to disagree with neighborhood activists who mobilize to oppose changes. Adherents of any of the above philosophies would say — if perhaps using slightly different terms or emphases — that given rising housing costs, a segregated housing market, and growing pollution from transportation, things can’t simply stay the way they are, either in their own neighborhoods or regionally, nationally, or globally.

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I like to think the biggest urban movement in the 21st century is low carbon or carbon neutral cities. To expand, in the context of climate change, intergovernmental panel on climate change has recommended that we keep temperature rise below 1.5 C. Cities account for 50% of carbon emission globally; buildings account similarly for 40 to 50% carbon emission globally. When we look at urban areas – like Montreal, because of our impressive extensive public transportation, the % of carbon emission from buildings will jump to 70%. Therefore, any plans to address climate change involve pushing for buildings to be carbon neutral. Part of that will be increased density,  and another part will be better planning of public transportation, but most importantly, there should be an aggressive legislation to retrofit existing building to become close to carbon neutral, and new building to be built to carbon neutral standards. Any urban plans must incorporate these issues.


A good example is NYC's 80x50 [what UN recommends is 80% of carbon emission reduction to 2004 levels by 2050] which was adopted this year. 


https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/sustainability/downloads/pdf/publications/New York City's Roadmap to 80 x 50_20160926_FOR WEB.pdf

Edited by Ashok
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