PODCASTEnvironmentally Speaking EP 27: Smart Growth

March 17, 20220

This week we are talking about Smart Growth. Sounds like something you add to your plants at home. No, not what we’re talking about. Recently Clarice went to Ohio, and a few months ago Marisa took a trip to Montana. Both states are pretty wide open compared to what we see around Rhode Island. What happens when all the land is gone? You can’t grow outward anymore, you have to grow up. So the idea behind smart growth is that you get developers to start looking at particular areas where they can mix uses, commercial and residential, retail and residential in a setting that already has some infrastructure. So you’re not necessarily even talking about new development. You could be talking about redevelopment. Take a listen.


Transcript: Smart Growth

CLARICE: All right. Hello, everybody. Welcome to Environmentally Speaking.MARISA: Hey, everybody. I’m Marisa Desautel an environmental attorney with a few decades of experience.

CLARICE: And I’m Clarice. I’m coming in with questions, comments, and topics for the week. So we took a bit of a breather. I went out to Ohio. And I know the first thought in everybody’s mind is, one, why –


CLARICE: — did you go to Ohio. Nobody goes for Ohio. They go to visit family. So I went to visit some family. And I know a couple months ago over Christmas, Marisa, you went to Montana and you said that you had a beautiful experience.

MARISA: Oh, amazing.

CLARICE: I still went to Ohio just to visit family.


CLARICE: It was not like an environmentally majestic area. But one thing I did take away having never been that far inland was everything was really sprawled out and everything was really flat. Like the city of Columbus was – it didn’t have as many skyscrapers as I thought. Everything had more land around it. And being from – you know, my closest cities are Providence and Boston and the only other real city that I’ve ever made frequent travel to is New York City. All of those cities are compact. They’re tall. And I just thought it was really interesting looking at the way that folks are using their land. And it was really apparent that out in Ohio there was more land to use, so there wasn’t that need to build up. They built out. And I thought that would be interesting to talk about today.

MARISA: So wait a minute. When I got back from Montana we did a podcast on land use and there was lots of giggling that went on because I said I was on this Christmas vacation type trip and I ended up thinking about land use. We laughed because who goes on vacation and thinks about land use, but you did the same thing.

CLARICE: I’m getting my comeuppance. I can hear it.

MARISA: Yeah. Oh, yeah. See, I’m not such a weirdo.

CLARICE: I like to think maybe you’re being an environmentally positive influence on my life. I’m going to take that roasting and throw it back to you as a compliment.

[0:02:30] MARISA: That makes me really uncomfortable. I don’t like compliments. I meant it as a jab. So, yeah. I thought this was an excellent topic for us to talk about because every day you get up. You go to work. You come home. You’re used to seeing the same landscape. It takes you getting out of your comfort zone, so to speak, to see how other people are living, how other development is occurring, and the observation that you made about buildings growing out instead of up is a concept captured by a theory known as urban sprawl.

And the counter to that theory is called smart growth where you’ve got the propensity by humans to want to develop. We call that progress. And that propensity also carries with it a development that consider growth out and not necessarily up at its origination. Buildings start to increase in level and height as land becomes less available. So it sounds to me like what you’re saying is that in Ohio folks have not gotten to that point where they need to build up.

CLARICE: Not even a little bit. We drove maybe ten, 15 minutes out of the city and it was rural farmland, tons of corn and soy fields. There was flat land in excess. There was so much space. Whereas if, you know, most of our listeners are New England based, if you leave Boston you go into either Chelsea and Everett which is still a city, or you’re going into Quincy and it takes a fair amount of time before you start seeing that spread and space. It’s still pretty condensed.

So to see that they really haven’t yet touched a lot of the land that they have was really interesting for me. And it’s not to say that they’re not using that land in other ways because most of that was farmed, but where don’t think that need to go up has hit yet. And I think what’s really interesting like you said a couple minutes ago is part of that progress in that development, people are thinking progress is building out. And, you know, even going back to your basic history class with that manifest destiny, going out, going as far out as you can, it sounds like building up is need based. It’s not considered progress.

MARISA: That’s right.

[0:05:33] CLARICE: How does that shift occur in urban sprawl? What does that look like?

MARISA: Urban sprawl looks like residential housing that doesn’t consider conservation design. It’s your traditional subdivision development. Smart growth looks a lot different because it promotes a mix of uses on the same lot or in the same neighborhood. So you might have a retail space on the bottom floor with residential space above it and lots of opportunities for public transportation, bicycle lanes. The consideration there is you’re trying to avoid usage of automobiles and you’re creating livable communities so that folks can live, work, shop, exist in a smaller space and don’t need to take up an entire residential lot and then get into their car and drive – you know, make a commute to work, then drive to the supermarket, then drive wherever else their life takes them. It’s not super popular, the concept of smart growth because –

CLARICE: I have to be honest. I’ve never heard of it.

MARISA: Yeah. Yeah. I’m not surprised. There’s an organization in Rhode Island called Rhode Island Grow Smart and they do excellent work. They have a very functional website. They have events now that things are starting to open up again. They might start scheduling more events, but they’re very helpful if you’re interested in learning more about it. They’re an educational source. They also advocate for this type of smarter growth. And if you’re interested I’d say go check out their website because, you know, they’re the expert on the topic. But it’s not super popular because understandably people like privacy. They want a white picket fence and a home with some land where their dog can be outside and that’s – you know, that’s kind of the American dream.

So it’s been difficult to get people to start understanding that what you reference with manifest destiny at some point that’s just not going to be a viable option anymore because there’s not going it be any land left. So the idea behind smart growth is that you get developers to start looking at particular areas where they can mix uses, commercial and residential, retail and residential in a setting that already has some infrastructure. So you’re not necessarily even talking about new development. You could be talking about redevelopment.

I’m a huge proponent of redevelopment. I think there are lots of properties that are either environmentally contaminated or have other issues associated with them. But there is a beneficial reuse for those properties and I love working with entities and individuals that are doing that kind of work because there are major financial opportunities and state-driven opportunities that people don’t necessarily know about unless they want to take on that type of redevelopment work.

[0:09:33] CLARICE: Would redevelopment – it sounds like redevelopment talks about a reuse of the whole land space. Does it have to be a remodeling of the whole space, or could it be a recycling of the buildings on the space? Does that count, as well?

MARISA: Yeah. Either.


MARISA: A really good example that people in Rhode Island are probably familiar with are old mill buildings.

CLARICE: That’s exactly what I was thinking of.

MARISA: We have a ton of them and they’ve just sat stagnant for a long time, but now with state-funded Brownfields Programs or federally-funded environmental cleanup programs, there’s some tax financing that you can apply for and receive at the municipal level where you’re a developer or redeveloper and you take a look at a particular property and let’s say it’s got some historic arsenic contamination or environmental contamination that needs to be cleaned up.

The government will work with you to provide for grants or other funding sources that can assist with the clean up because otherwise, as we’ve talked about in other podcasts, if you buy a piece of contaminated property you’re on the hook for its cleanup unless you can go through this particular process with the government and work with them instead of against them to clean up the property to a certain level so that you can then redevelop it. So we’re seeing a lot of these old mill buildings that are being converted or have been converted to residential use. And the property is contaminated, but it’s been cleaned and certified by the government as being safe for habitation.

CLARICE: That’s becoming really, really popular in my area. And I have to say, looking into some of those apartments, they’re pretty beautiful. They’ve got that –

MARISA: Absolutely.

CLARICE: Yeah. They’ve still kept some of the original floorings or the exposed brick. I mean, aesthetically not a bad option.

MARISA: Yes. And –

CLARICE: [inaudible] recycling.

MARISA: — people can take comfort knowing that the property is safe to live in because in all states and at the federal government level you’ve got different criteria for property cleanup. Your commercial industrial criteria is the most lax in terms of what you need to meet for cleanup and redevelopment. And then residential is the most stringent which makes sense because folks are going to be physically in that building for longer periods of time and over an extended period of time, so the cleanup criteria has to be more protective of human health and the environment in a residential setting. So these buildings that are being converted to residential are exceeding the cleanup levels as compared to if the property was going to be reused for another commercial industrial activity.

[0:13:01] CLARICE: Knowing that that extra care is kind of built into the statute and thought about is some good comfort to people. But speaking of the residential, I know we’ve talked in past podcasts about subdivisions and I know there’s a thing called a conservation layout in a subdivision. Is that also considered smart planning, or is that just a different arrangement of land use?

MARISA: The municipal concept of conservation development, I don’t know if it’s a direct outgrowth from – excuse me – the Rhode Island Grow Smart movement, but it is intended to provide for more green or open space if properties are being developed for the first time. A subdivision necessarily contemplates the fact that the property is currently not developed. So I guess yes and no is the answer to that question.

CLARICE: Oh, good. The it depends.

MARISA: Yeah. Right.

CLARICE: It wouldn’t be a legal podcast without it depends. I think it’s interesting overall to hear that smart growth utilizes vertical space much more efficiently and much more in general than just general outgrowth. And I think there’s something – I’m not sure if I’m the only person who has this, but a lot of times when you see big skyscrapers and big buildings that are really tall and different layered uses you don’t necessarily think of them as environmentally friendly or as environmentally the best use of that space. So to look at it as a compact version to save space in other areas is a different perspective that we might not all usually think of.

MARISA: Yeah. And I wouldn’t think of Manhattan as smart growth.


MARISA: That’s just a nightmare –

CLARICE: That’s a mess.

MARISA: — environmentally speaking.

CLARICE: That’s just a mess.


CLARICE: Especially on trash day whenever their trash day is. All right. Is there anything else that we should talk about in smart growth or any big takeaways?

[0:15:28] MARISA: No. It’s a great concept and I highly recommend checking out the Rhode Island Grow Smart website for more information on it.

CLARICE: Yeah. And for folks living in the New England area, take a minute and appreciate the varying landscape. Ohio was one level. So I don’t know, if you live near a hill, a mountain, appreciate it. The ocean, go appreciate it.


CLARICE: It wasn’t a field. All right, guys. If you have any thoughts on this, questions, comments, things you’d want us to know, please reach out to us on our socials, or you can reef out to us at Help@DesautelESQ.com.

Leave a Reply