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SubjectsPlanning › Smart Growth and Sustainable Development
Updated 05/2014

Smart Growth and Sustainable Development



Smart growth is development that is environmentally sensitive, economically viable, community-oriented, and sustainable. It is an approach to land use planning that promotes compact, transit-oriented urban communities that are attractive and liveable. Smart growth focuses on the planning and layout of communities and the efficient use of land to maximize community goals and avoid wasteful sprawl. It involves policies that integrate transportation and land use decisions by encouraging more compact, mixed-use development (infill) within existing urban areas and discouraging dispersed, automobile-dependent development at the urban fringe. Smart growth and sustainable development are often used interchangeably. Sustainable development is a strategy by which communities seek to balance environmental protection, economic development, and social objectives and to meet the needs of today without compromising the quality of life for future generations.

Smart growth principles include the following:

  • Mixing land uses
  • Employing compact building design
  • Creating a range of housing opportunities and choices
  • Creating walkable, bicycle-friendly neighborhoods
  • Designing distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place
  • Preserving open space, farmland, and critical environmental areas
  • Directing development towards existing communities
  • Providing a variety of transportation choices
  • Making development decisions fair, predictable, and cost-effective
  • Encouraging community and stakeholder collaboration.

The Washington Growth Management Act (GMA) encourages smart growth in that state law mandates that growth be directed into urban growth areas where urban services already exist. The GMA also promotes many other smart growth principles, such as affordable housing, preservation of critical areas and farmland, providing transportation choices, and predictable permit decisions; see GMA planning goals (RCW 36.70A.020).

Because smart growth is a broad subject that cuts across many different areas, this page offers links to MRSC pages that address related topics and to resources on other sites.

Smart Growth

  • Smart Growth Online - Website of Smart Growth Network with extensive information including news and useful resources. A network to encourage metropolitan development that is environmentally, fiscally, economically, and socially smart
  • Smart Growth America - Nationwide coalition promoting a better way to grow; one that protects farmland and open space, revitalizes neighborhoods, keeps housing affordable, preserves scenic and historic resources, and makes communities more livable 
  • Smart Growth, U.S. EPA - EPA's portal to extensive resources on smart growth and related issues
  • Smart Growth, Washington State Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development (now Department of Commerce) - Brochure, discussion papers, and links
  • Center for Livable Communities, Local Government Commission (CA) - National initiative of Local Government Commission in California. Developed the Ahwahnee Principles for Resource-Efficient Communities
  • Natural Resources Defense Council, Smart Growth - Includes visions for how 70 U.S. communities could apply smart growth principles
  • Funders' Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities - Resource to assist funders and organizations interested in advancing more livable communities through smart growth policies
  • Futurewise - Statewide public interest group working to promote healthy communities and cities while protecting farmland, forests, and shorelines
  • Local Government Environmental Assistance Network Smart Growth - Links to many smart growth resources
  • ULI and Smart Growth, Urban Land Institute - Resource for information, advice, and concrete ideas on implementing smart growth; emphasis on the development community
  • ICMA Smart Growth - Links to blog, documents, and publications about Smart Growth


  • ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability USA - The recognized leader in local sustainability. Offers a comprehensive approach to help local governments achieve sustainability, climate protection, and clean energy goals
  • Sustainable Communities Online - Comprehensive site for information exchange about sustainability; includes case studies from Washington State. See also Inventories and Indicators
  • Sustainable Washington 2009: Planning for Climate Change, Washington Chapter, American Planning Association - Award-winning resource document for planners involved in sustainability and climate change issues; emphasizes actions that planners can take to mitigate the effects of climate change and to adapt to unavoidable impacts associated with global warming
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture - Sustainable Development
  • Center for Sustainable Communities and Sustainability topic page, ICMA - Features blog, best practices, and tools for local governments
  • 2012 Emerging Sustainability Strategies in America’s Counties, National Association of Counties, 10/2012 
  • Sustainability, U.S. EPA - EPA efforts in the area of sustainability practices and approaches
  • Sightline Institute - An independent, not-for-profit sustainability research center based in Seattle. Sightline's mission is to promote an environmentally sound economy and way of life in the Pacific Northwest
  • Sustainability Best Practices Framework, California Institute for Local Government , 06/2013 - The suggestions are drawn from practical experiences of cities and counties throughout California. They vary in complexity and are adaptable to fit the unique needs and circumstances of individual communities
  • SustAIAnability Toolkit 2030, American Institute of Architects (AIA) - What policy makers can do to get started. Information on local government sustainability and green building programs
  • Sustainable Cities Collective - Innovative thinkers on the urban future
  • Sustainable Cities Institute - Project of the National League of Cities to provide cities with practical resources to identify and implement solutions to enhance their goals and strengthen their communities
  • Global Reporting Initiative - Goal to make sustainability reporting standard practice for all organizations; includes G4 Sustainability Reporting Guidelines - Offers Reporting Principles, Standard Disclosures and an Implementation Manual for the preparation of sustainability reports by organizations, regardless of their size, sector, or location
  • USDN Urban Sustainability Directors Network - Private professional network of municipal government sustainability professionals

New Urbanism

New urbanism (also known as traditional neighborhood development) is an approach to developing community based on traditional town patterns. New urbanism also reflects many principles of sustainable development.


Washington Local Government Sustainability Programs

This section includes information on local government sustainability programs and offices.



Smart Growth and Sustainability in Other States

Smart Growth Information by Topic

The following information is organized by specific subject areas that relate to smart growth issues.


Economic Development




Land Use

  • Innovative Land Use Planning Techniques: A Handbook For Sustainable Development, NH Department of Environmental Services
  • Land Use, Sustainability and Healthy Communities, California Local Government Institute - Handbooks, guides and other publications on a variety of land use and sustainability topics
  • Smart Land Use, Victoria Transport Policy Institute - Links to related articles 
  • Sustainable Land Use Code Project, Model Land Use Regulations, Capitol Region Council of Governments (CT), Clarion, 2014 – Includes topics such as solar, geothermal & small wind energy, inclusionary workforce housing, and mixed-use transit-oriented development

Natural Resources


Healthy Communities


Related MRSC Pages

Need more information?

Feel free to Ask MRSC. Washington cities, counties, and our contract partners can call or email MRSC for more information and advice - free of charge.