The Birth of Smart Growth

Sustainable development is the precursor to smart growth and it has become the international blueprint for living in the 21st Century.

In 1992, at the Rio de Janeiro United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) Earth Summit, Agenda 21* was introduced as the comprehensive global plan that would eradicate the communal threats of social, economic and environmental injustice. The plan was adopted by more than 178 governments including the United States of America. President George H. W. Bush pledged, on behalf of the American people, to commit to a plan of action that would be implemented in every area in which humans have an impact on the environment. To ensure “effective follow-up of UNCED,” and to provide assistance, the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was created “to monitor and report on implementation of the agreements at the local, national, regional and international levels.”

In 1993, President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order No. 12852 and created the President’s Council on Sustainable Development. In addition to working with ‘Captains of Industry’, he contracted with the American Planning Association (APA,) an independent, non-profit educational organization that “provides leadership in the development of vital communities”, to create a blueprint for sustainable development and implementation strategies. The subsequent manual was called: Growing Smart and incorporated President Clinton’s request to develop “bold, new approaches to achieve our economic, environmental, and equity goals.” The blueprint which took seven years to complete became the legislative guidebook for local governments and was named: Sustainable America: The New Consensus.  By 1999, President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore had the framework they needed to address the “increasing public interest in “sprawl” and other land policy challenges.” With the support of the Clinton Administration, Al Gore spearheaded the Livability Agenda and the Lands Legacy Initiative. These new U.S. initiatives promoted the concept of Smart Growth. “The aim of the agenda [was] to help communities across America grow in ways that ensure[d] a high quality of life and strong, sustainable growth.”

In 2001, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) generated a report stating that man was responsible for global warming. The IPCC is the leading international body for the assessment of climate change. It was established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts. The UN General Assembly endorsed the action by WMO and UNEP in jointly establishing the IPCC. (See Table 1)


TABLE 1 IPCC Third Assessment Report—2001“The Third Assessment Report (TAR) provides an assessment of new scientific information and evidence as an input for policymakers in their determination of what constitutes “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” “(Excerpt taken from the IPCC website— famous “hockey stick” graph, created by Michael Mann, was central to the IPCC’s 2001 report. In this report, “the Medieval Warming and the Little Ice Age had been expunged from history and a significant warming from 1910 onwards was the highlight of the diagram.”  “The IPCC uncritically accepted the “hockey stick” and rejected, without explanation, the thousands of scientific studies on the Medieval Warming and the Little Ice Age.” “The IPCC then claimed that there was unprecedented warming in the 20th Century.”  (Excerpt taken from Ian Plimer’s book, Heaven and Earth:global warming the missing science—p. 88)IPCC Fourth Assessment Report—2007“Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations.[7] It is likely that there has been significant anthropogenic warming over the past 50 years averaged over each continent (except Antarctica).” (Excerpt taken from the IPCC website— most recently published IPCC Report “…omitted the “hockey stick” without explanation.”“…the Medieval Warming and Little Ice Age mysteriously reappeared.” (Excerpts taken from Ian Plimer’s book, Heaven and Earth: global warming the missing science—p. 88 and p. 91)


In June 2001, President George W. Bush requested the U.S. National Research Council to research and report on the societal and ecological impacts of global warming on America.

 “President Bush made a policy statement on June 11, 2001, following release of the NRC report and completion of a cabinet-level review of climate change options. In that statement, the President acknowledged that the world has warmed and that greenhouse gases have increased, largely due to human activity, but emphasized that the magnitude and rate of future warming are unknown. The President then outlined the U.S. approach as rejecting the Kyoto Protocol and favoring voluntary actions, increased scientific research, better technology, and market mechanisms.”

Despite Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, numerous congressional acts were proposed and many approved that would support the treaties greenhouse gases reduction targets. On June 8, 2001, Senator Byrd proposed S. 1008 which amended the

“Energy Policy Act of 1992 to develop the U.S. Climate Change Response Strategy, with the goals of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, minimizing adverse short-term and long-term economic and social impacts, aligning the Strategy with U.S. energy policy, promoting sound national environmental policy, establishing a research and development program that focuses on bold technological breakthroughs that contribute significantly toward greenhouse gas stabilization, establishing a National Office of Climate Change Response within the Executive Office of the President, and for other purposes.”

The act was approved by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee on August 2, 2001.

Since then, with the renewed support of the Obama Administration most federal agencies including the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Transportation (DOT), and numerous non-profit organizations such as Smart Growth Network, Smart Growth America, Local Government Commission, Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy and the National Association of REALTORS have used smart growth principles and the threat of global warming to influence local and state governments to adopt progressive paradigms for change.

*A comment on Agenda 21~The U.S. Congress never ratified Agenda 21 so there is no direct mandate coming from the United Nations or loss of American sovereignty. Growth management is not a new idea and many planners and US cities were adopting these schemes prior to the Rio Summit in 1992. The topic of Agenda 21 often becomes a distraction when smart growth’ers’ debate pro-growth’ers’ on land use, transportation and environmental issues. But let us not be naïve and ignore the supreme influence the principles of sustainable development had on the American Planning Association and President Clinton when he approved Sustainable America: the new consensus back in the 90s. It is also difficult to ignore the fact that the US reports to the UN on its progress implementing sustainable development in America. (Go here.) This is the reason why I mention Agenda 21 when I describe the birth of smart growth in the US.

To read more from my Smart Growth Conference Report read the following:

The Birth of Smart Growth

What is Smart Growth?

Why Smart Growth?

How is Smart Growth Being Funded?

The American Smart Dream, Part 1

The American Smart Dream, Part 2


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