On Friday 25 September, I served as a panelist for the Hawaii Leeward Planning Conference, an industry roundtable of large landowners on the west side of Hawai’i Island.  The panel was asked to share their experiences and thoughts on Smart Growth, what it means for Hawaii, and how it applies within a rural, small town context.

At its essence smart growth is about two things:

  • Efficiently using resources, and
  • Creating and implementing a shared vision

Resources includes water, infrastructure, energy and most importantly, economic resources.  Smart growth policies challenge historic patterns of growth, stating they cost the public a lot more than they add to public coffers.  Shared Vision emanates from the realization that ultimately sustainability – economic, social and environmental  – will not be achieved through a single building, a single neighborhood, or a single community.  It will only be ultimately accomplished if we work at a watershed level, which has reinforced the notion of regionalism – thinking and managing growth and the attendant policies at a regional scale.

There is much overlap between smart growth ideals and sustainability, new urbanism, and conservation development.  But more than any, smart growth is probably the only one to make collaboration and shared vision an explicit requirement.

Rural vs. Urban Context

Smart growth is typically viewed as the antagonist of suburban sprawl, not as a question for rural America. I was thinking about how it might apply to Hawaii, where small towns, neighborhoods and rural landscapes are really the predominant urban form.  A great resource for those interested in the nexus of smart growth and rural America can be found in a recent publication by the EPA – Putting Smart Growth to Work in Rural Communities.

The issue of growth and community form is particularly relevant when viewed through the lens of the publication Where America Wants to Live released spring of 2013 by ULI.  “Much of the American public prefers a small town or rural lifestyle, and nearly half describe the place they now live as such (32% small town, 15% rural area). If people could live where they wanted in the next five years, half would live in either a small town (26%) or a rural area (24%). Suburbs appeal to 17% of the population, medium-sized cities to 16%, and big cities to 12%.”

In two locations I’m currently working, we’re trying to apply the principles of Smart Growth to rural areas. The first challenge that is particularly deep in rural America is economic development.  While a handful of rural areas have developed a lifestyle and image that is desirable, a lot of rural areas are challenged to keep up a good, let alone high quality-of-life.  Industry has vacated, infrastructure is failing, and leadership is lacking.  In both of the projects I’m involved, the project principals are key to helping the town define a new potential.  As large landholders, they act as the de facto economic development engine – developing strategies and making the pitch to bring jobs to the town.  They are the de facto forward planning office – thinking about land use and growth beyond their parcel boundaries to make sure a rising tide will lift all boats.  And they act as the public works planner, helping to solve particularly complex water supply and sewer treatment challenges where technology is antiquated and the capacity to fund or explore innovative partnerships just does not exist.

The road forward is not easy.  It’s hard for a developer to convene a collaborative process when the very nature of those living in rural areas is distrustful of outsiders.  The typical psychographic of individuals living in rural areas are people of great independence, who don’t want help, and don’t trust anyone who hasn’t lived there forever.  This results in spending a long time investing in the community and building relationships before a single revenue dollar can be created.

In the end, this means a significant change to the way land development and developers work.  It’s about much more than just physical planning and writing principles. It’s about making a long term commitment and being a part of the community in a way that is often counter to the process of real estate development as it has been practiced in the past few decades – swoop in, paint a vision, get in and get out. Smart growth – when catalyzed by private developers working at scale, means the developer has to take on a role as facilitator more than founder.  We’ve been arguing on one project that as the downtown lives or dies in the town, our client will either realize great value or lose value on their 10,000+ acre holdings which frame the town.  So even though they own no downtown real estate, getting involved in its regeneration is a key strategy for maintaining value in their land holdings.  And making a conscious decision to preclude cannibalistic transactions – such as selling off corner sites for strip commercial that will put the final nail in downtown’s coffin – takes great fortitude and commitment.

All the hallmarks of smart growth – compact footprint, efficient use of resources, transparent and community based processes – are universal regardless of where you work along the transect.  But other issues such as the implicit move for density and transit – can be non-applicable when working in a rural or small town environment.  The key to smart growth in rural Hawaii will be understanding how to apply the basic principles that have been with us since the term was first used in 1987, and adapting it to the realities of their market, political capacity,  and the unique personalities and lifestyles that define this rural place – while still achieving a more efficient use of all resources.