Smart is more than a buzzword


Noun: Buzzword. Definition: “a word or phrase that is fashionable at a particular time or in a particular context.”

One buzzword of the day is “smart” – smartphones, smart cities and now, the latest addition to the local discourse, smart growth.

As a member of the Roadmap to Recovery: Construction Sector Sub-Committee, I felt that Smart Growth was an apt urban planning term that would resonate with those outside and within the field. Introducing the Smart Growth framework for development into the local discourse was a deliberate move to make planning feel “sexy” and relevant to those who may have seen it as no more than a sometimes-necessary bureaucratic nuisance.

The move has perhaps been partially successful, even if only at planting a seed that may produce fruit in the years to come. I was pleased and – momentarily – in awe as I heard the language of smart growth being recited during the reading of the 2021 national budget statement. It is not too often that one hears planning jargon in a budget statement.

That awe was, perhaps unsurprisingly, short-lived. We were first treated to the groundbreaking words that the national construction programme would be anchored on a “Smart Growth Scorecard made up of key performance indicators (measuring) the adherence of development projects to the desired planning and design principles and (ensuring) that the country transits from the status quo of purely shovel-ready projects towards shovel-worthy projects.”

Then, in the next breath, we were back to hearing about the continuation of plans for status-quo highway construction projects to feed our – planning-and-policy-induced – appetite for imported cars.

Section 7.2.4 of the Roadmap Phase 2 Report presents the ten principles of Smart Growth – adapted to our local context – that are to guide national development. Ill-planned, ill-timed, and ill-executed highway construction can easily contradict at least five of these principles, including:

1) Principle one: direct development towards existing communities

Roadmap recommendation: “The focus should be on maintenance and upgrade of existing infrastructure over new construction.”

2) Principle three: increase variety of sustainable transportation choices

Roadmap recommendation: “ensure an integrated land use-transportation planning approach that…creates communities that can be efficiently serviced by public transit and traversed on foot or bicycle.”

3) Principle five: use compact designs

Roadmap recommendation: “allow neighbourhoods to grow and change over time, growing vertically rather than through ‘sprawl.’”

4) Principle six: create walkable neighbourhoods

Roadmap recommendation: “plan and design for people, not automobiles, and prioritise active transportation like walking and cycling, by ensuring comfortable, practical, safe and attractive street conditions for these modes of transportation.”

5) Principle eight: preserve open space, agricultural lands, and sensitive environments

Roadmap recommendation: “Ensuring that regulations facilitate necessary development in a land-efficient manner, in suitable and desirable locations.”

Billion-dollar highway construction draws funds away from the maintenance of degraded existing infrastructure in communities all over the country. It also creates a clear financial and operational prioritisation of (private) vehicular movement at the expense of sustainable forms of transport like walking, cycling, and mass transit.

Any observer of development patterns in this country will recognise that highway building goes hand-in-hand with the development of the land alongside the highway for residential, commercial, and other urban uses. This development almost always takes the form of more low-density, automobile-dependent suburban sprawl.

Unless dutifully protected, any fertile agricultural land or sensitive environments that lie adjacent to the highway are typically soon devoured by the bulldozers and paved over by land-development interests. That is, if the highway is itself not being built on, and thus destroying, those invaluable gifts of nature that are a part of our national heritage.

The inconsistencies between the agreed-upon framework and many of the prioritised projects are evident. While one has to acknowledge that many of these initiatives would have been in train – in planning or actual construction – before the Roadmap recommendations were made, acting “smartly” many times requires reflection and reassessment.

If we are committed to charting a “smarter” course for our nation, and not just unashamedly continuing the buzzword tokenism and virtue-signalling, then we will have to find the true meaning of the term “smart” as it pertains to national development.

“Smart,” to me, means formulating solutions and interventions to our most pressing issues using a complex problem-solving approach.

In other words, looking for, acknowledging, and understanding, the interconnectedness among nearly all facets of our society, economy and environment, and pursuing a strategic decision-making process that targets the interventions that produce the most transformative positive change.

That strategic thinking underlies and informs the ten interrelated principles of Smart Growth.

After two years of writing for the Newsday – with this being a recurring central theme – I hope that I have succeeded at convincing readers of the need for a complex-problem solving approach to development and, dare I say, much of life.


"Smart is more than a buzzword"

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