The real greening of cities is possible only if we use a holistic and responsible approach.
We have put too much trust in “smart growth” and now the approach is failing us, say researchers in a new paper in Ambio. Implemented by hundreds of cities globally and recommended by bodies like UNEP and the EU, smart growth policies turned out not to be so smart on nature, after all, the scientists say.
For a more sustainable future, the team of researchers argues, we’ll have to get pickier about the concepts that shape our development. A compact city, friendly to bikes and pedestrians with everything within reach and little impact on nature: who would resist such a green urban dream come true? However, when the dream actually comes true it may not be as green as desired.
While there has been a lot of talk on how good for the environment smart growth is, there is not much data to back it up, say researchers. Comprehensive studies showing clear environmental benefits are lacking, while 34% of publications analyzed by the group have even showed negative environmental effects of smart growth policies, particularly on biodiversity and deforestation.
Meanwhile, positive impacts were witnessed only in succinctly narrow studies, focusing on curbing CO2 emissions or decreasing the use of individual cars. The same studies, however, usually failed to address the wider implications of smart growth or didn’t consider factors such as noise levels, which are crucial for both human and animal wellbeing. This goes in line with another recent report that has shown that cities often underestimate their actual impact on the climate due to outdated measurement methods.
Johan Colding, a co-author of the study, explains that “[t]he aim here is not to debunk Smart Growth but to argue for the need to set research on sustainable urban planning on firmer grounds”.
Researchers suggest city planners and decision-makers widen their focus towards urban resilience in general and not simply particular development concepts and scenarios. The research team also urges scientists to thrive for more comprehensive assessments of smart growth policies. Fragmented thinking will only lead us to incremental improvements and distorted results. Meanwhile, the real greening of cities is possible if we use a holistic and responsible approach to shaping the future of our urban habitat.