Is Smart Growth Just Urban Renewal?

George H. Conklin

Department of Sociology

North Carolina Central University

Durham, NC 27707

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the

Southern Sociological Society

New Orleans


 This paper addresses the issue of whether the so-called Smart Growth movement ends up being just another way of carrying out the old-fashioned process of urban renewal using a new vocabulary to try to undo the reputation of the belief from the 1950's  that urban renewal is simply nothing more than Negro removal.  The author participated in the process of updating Durham, North Carolina’s development plans as a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission, as a homeowner president of a non-profit homeowner association, and as a sociologist with a long-term interest in urban sociology.  Many of the observations made here came as a result of not only participating in the process, but also of attending meetings which were open to the public but poorly attended.

    Durham's push to replace its plans for the year 2020 with those for the year 2030 came about because the city and county merged the planning departments.  With the merger, the development ordinances, they claimed, needed to be merged also.  The arrival of a new planning director of course made this seem very important indeed.  To merge a development ordinance, a new plan was needed to replace one still being worked on.  Naturally a new committee was formed, made up of citizens whose views were politically predictable and well-known.   What emerged was a document (Durham Comprehensive Plan 2004, hereafter the Plan).  This plan focused on the city and county of Durham as if the old downtown were the center of economic activity and Wake County and the Research Triangle Park either did not exist or hardly existed.  For example, Chapter 6, the Economic Development Element, does not even mention the Research Triangle Park, which is in fact mostly located in Durham County, although "agricultural preservation" rates a mention.  (Are  tax-subsidized horse farms for the rich an economic benefit to modern world?)  As noted by the Fayetteville community group, the plan also states that Durham shall "promote and create financial and other incentives for the redevelopment and redevelopment of the Downtown and Compact Neighborhood Tiers… (Plan 2004, Policy 6.1.1e, p. 6-2)."   The plan thus mentions agriculture, but not RTP and quietly puts its focus on a funky downtown, which is supposed to be vibrant.  This is an apparent continuation of the City of Durham's approach to RTP.  When the RTP was founded, the city refused to supply it with a sewer.  Unless the county had built one, the RTP could not have been built.  This specialized sewer plant continues in operation to this day.   Durham city also, by state law, may not annex the RTP.   Further, only a minority of RTP workers live in Durham County.

   The Uniform Development Ordinance or UDO (Duncan Associates 2004) is over 535 pages and was supposed to implement the generalized and vague proscriptions of the Plan.  The goal was apparently to use an outside group to avoid political fallout from its recommendations, which really suggested that Durham had been developed incorrectly historically.  This is not a reference to Durham's segregated past.  Rather, it is a reference to the domination of Duke in Durham's history, which endowed Trinity College (now Duke University) and enabled the founding of North Carolina Central University (NCCU) also.  The tobacco factory formed downtown, but Durham developed mostly as a cellular city, with the black elites living near NCCU and the white elites not far from Trinity College in what today is known as Trinity Park.   Frank Duke, Durham's planning director during UDO revision, actually calls Trinity Park "first ring suburbanization (personal communication to the author)."   But calling single-family residences on city-sized lots "suburbanization" shows the bias in the planning process, because neither area meets today's definition of what is an idealized form of urbanization, "compact neighborhoods," sometimes also known as walkable neighborhood.  Durham's best areas never had mixed land use, even before the automobile was common.

   In order to make Durham conform to the newest standards of Smart Growth, the UDO recommended that the old city lot size of 5,000 square feet (known as R5) be merged with the R3 zone with a 3,000 square foot minimum.    Further, in both areas multiple family housing and apartments would be permitted (Duncan Associates 2004, p. 5-2).  There were also overlay districts for transit stations and other areas such as downtown and for compact communities.    In general, the whole goal was to increase density in all parts of the city and county, except for rural areas, where lot sizes were to be increased to a 5 acre minimum.    New developments were to have recreational areas paid for by required non-profit organizations so the city would not need to build any new parks.  A section on connectivity basically outlawed cul-de-sacs.  One planner announced that was to prevent "neighborhoods from becoming too isolated."  While old rules used to state that a R10 lot was supposed to be 10,000 square feet, the new ordinance computations of density includes streets, streams and other credits, meaning that the real lot size in a suburban zone could be and often is the old city-sized lot of 5,000 square feet.

   It was very hard for the casual reader to understand the fact that the UDO was a plan to undo the cellular nature of historic Durham and to impose on the city something similar to the Burgess concentric zone theory of development.   Only slowly did the implications of the proposals become clear.   For example, even before formal adoption of the plans, arguments were made before the Planning and Zoning Committee that single-family residences near NCCU should be converted to office uses because the houses were inhabited mostly by senior citizens who, it was bluntly explained, were going to die shortly and the faster infill took place through conversion the better.  The assumption was clear: single-family housing was doomed and the faster it was cleared out of the city, the better.   The proposal to convert two residences to office buildings would have pretty well ruined the block as far as other property values were concerned, but the proposal was in fact recommended by Durham's planners.  This type of recommendation seemed to many of us participating in the process to foretell the future of many the residents in the older African American sections of Durham as predicted by Duncan Associates and Durham's planners.  For the record, the committee voted unanimously to deny the request and the group making the proposal never was able to get the funding together for the changes proposed.

How Reactions to the Plan and the UDO Were Handled

   Most comments about the Plan and the UDO were submitted in writing.  The Planning and Zoning Committee formed a sub-committee to make recommendations for the Plan, which was submitted to the committee without ever asking members of the committee for any input.   The most important recommendation was that steps be taken to prevent intrusion of multi-family housing into single-family neighborhoods.  This recommendation was strongly rejected by Frank Duke, the chief planner.  However, the committee still forwarded the recommendation and over 40 others to the small group of elected representatives considering all suggested changes.   This rejected suggestion figured later in several community responses, discussed below.

   The so-called joint committee to consider changes was formed of the Head of the County Commissioners, who, papers loved to comment, was a Harvard-educated planner  (Biesecker 2005, p.B1), although they neglected to say she and her husband live on a cul-de-sac in a custom house in a golf course community.  The planners boiled down comments down to 1 or perhaps 2 lines with their recommendation.  Having been about the only member of the public attending one such meeting which lasted for approximately 8 hours, the typical comment went as follows:  "Bob Jentsch suggests changing Line 8, page 31 to read as follows….   We suggest denial."  Committee head, "I wonder why he said that."  Planners, "I don’t know."  Committee head, "Well, we are not going to do that."  Next item.

   Bob Jentsch is a retired planner who served at the time on the Planning and Zoning Committee.  The reasons why people suggested something were omitted from the summaries presented to the joint committee, so it was very easy to make the comment, "I wonder why he said that."  The process was about as crude as you could get and really reaffirms the old saying that sausage and legislation are two processes about which the less you know the better.  The comments which were submitted were mostly excellent and carefully thought out.  Personally I found the process degrading to the public, although the elected officials seemed not to notice.

   Some changes were quickly made.  The R3 and R5 distinctions were put back in place, meaning that predominately white areas no longer had to worry about apartments next door to single-family houses.  This removed a lot of pressure from the process.  But large areas of Durham still had the Smart Growth message of more density in place.

Community Responses to the Plan and the UDO

   After the first rounds of comments were handled, a public hearing was held in August 2005 (see Biesecker 2005).  A black-led group, The Fayetteville Street Planning Group (2005a), showed up with supporters, and City Hall was jammed. (The Fayetteville Street area is the black equivalent of Trinity Park, mentioned earlier).   A post card had been sent out saying, "Your Last Chance to Stop Urban Renewal," a comment condemned by Planner Duke as alarmist since "There is nothing in the UDO about urban renewal (Biesecker 2005)."  One responded stated, "Well how about urban removal?  If it's a snake, you better know it's a snake.  You people say one thing, and then you do another."

   The white communities were represented by many people who wanted changes in the R3 category which still encouraged apartments as single-family housing was torn down (infill).  Unfortunately in public Tom Miller, representing the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood was quoted as saying, "It (the UDO) takes Durham's planning from the Jurassic to the modern era."  However, in private, Miller also communicated to me that he thought many changes in the UDO were required, including procedures to stop developers from tearing down single-family houses, especially on corners, and putting up apartments because such a provision would encourage urban decline in East Durham, with a removal of affordable housing.  One quickly learns in politics that what people say in public is not what they say in private.  Calling Planner Duke forward-looking in public while trying to make changes in private is an old political trick.  Although many of the comments by the Fayetteville Street Planning group were goals in common with Watts-Hillandale, Tom Miller chose to work separately.  The Fayetteville Street group made its comments available to all, while Tom Miller's group declined to give its proposals this author, despite several requests.  Only a summary from the planners was available to the public.

The Fayetteville Street Planning Group

   The Fayetteville Street  (FSPG) group concentrated its comments on the Compact Neighborhood, but its comments reveal the general concern that the goal of the UDO was to replace residential area closer to the center of the city with more fashionable high density development to lure in higher income residents.  Affordable housing is not new housing.  As the FSPG stated:

    The Fayetteville Street Planning Group objects to compact neighborhood land use in our community for two main reasons.  First, compact land use encourages redevelopment activities which will ultimately lead to the destruction of our residential neighborhoods and business districts.  Second, compact land use will cause adverse impacts due to increased density in our neighborhoods (FSPG 2005a, p. 1).

   The goal of the UDO and the Plan, FSPG found, is to define redevelopment as demolition, as mentioned above, the exact term being "targeted redevelopment."  In addition, current single-family residences are to be replaced with infill to get high density pods which will allow a rail-based transit system to be newly established by the Triangle Transit Authority (TTA).  Such plans would virtually require removal of current residents.  As FSPG states, "The compact neighborhood overlay is not sensitive to the underlying land use of this area and the residents who live there now (FSPG, 2005a p. 2)."

   In common with the white-led objections as portrayed to the current author verbally, the FSPC noticed that the UDO rules encourage developers to try to buy whole neighborhoods in order to increase density.  In East Durham land was developed originally on irregular lots and only later were good property lines drawn when mill owners and others sold their units.  East Durham still has many dirt streets which none of Durham's elites, black or white, can find the time or money to pave.  In East Durham the UDO was written with subtle encouragement of 'quadplexes' which would motivate land owners with corner lots to let their units fall down and then be rebuilt as four residences on what used to be one lot.

   The FSPG brought to the public's attention that "Compact neighborhoods encourage the creation of public places, plazas and open space (meaning parks) which are usually associated with downtown business areas and employment centers.  These characteristics are not appropriate for the single-family neighborhoods in this area (FSPG 2005a, p. 2)."  One of the principles of Smart Growth is that a city is judged by is public space, not private space.  Thus private yards do not count as open space, but only that space owned by a government counts.  Thus compact neighborhoods would have dwellings with no yards and open space would become public.  Some even contend that private houses are a selfish and wasteful use of land.

   FSPC pointed out that single family homes and family cars are discouraged in the UDO in areas of the city not designated as suburban.

   Lastly, the UDO and its encouragement of multiple-unit dwellings would have a strong negative influence on single-family houses which exist throughout the older sections of Durham.  What young family is going to invest in a house in the city knowing that right next door as a matter of right, not special use, an apartment could be easily built?  In the white-dominated and suburban areas, even duplexes are forbidden.  Yet in the older, black-dominated parts of the city single-family housing would be heavily discounted and younger people would be effectively told "do not move here."  Large buildings next to single-family housing mean that single-family housing becomes unsustainable.  As the FSPC states, "If a multi-unit building is built on a vacant lot in a compact neighborhood next to a single family home, this provision means that the building can be built right up to the property line of the vacant lot (FSPC 2005a, p. 3)."

Some of the Results of the Criticism of the UDO

   The author was only one of two members of the public present when the criticisms of the UDO were presented to the joint committee which was to put together the final document for voting of the public bodies.  Planning Director Duke made a very strong presentation against changing the key recommendations about single-family housing because it would discourage duplexes, triplexes and quadplexes, which he strongly supported.   The argument that people would not buy a single-family city house with apartments being encouraged next door ended up resulting in a recommendation from the elected officials that only duplexes be allowed.  Several other technical changes were made.  The UDO was passed later without a single dissenting vote from either the city council or the county commissioners.   Tom Miller, the other member of the public at the key meeting, was allowed to argue point by point with the committee, but the FSPC was not present.   The present author found out about the meeting while it was in progress.  Only two copies of the recommendations from staff had been made available to the public.  The local newspaper had been recently sold to an outside company and the reporters simply had no idea what was going on, other than official propaganda.  It turned out that the transit overlay for compact neighborhoods could be and was placed over the neighborhood without notice, even though the County Commissioners had publicly stated that is was not supposed to happen.  Before the city council the author personally heard Frank Duke state, "I have broken no law."  This was correct, but Mayor Bell waved his hand and showed how annoyed he was.  Such events never make the public minutes.

Discussion and Conclusions

   The contentions of the Fayetteville Street Planning Group were never refuted.  But since the UDO recommended what is fashionable, and since the Triangle Transit Authority was supposed to benefit from the compact neighborhoods, it looks very much like the current residents are going to be encouraged to leave the area for the public benefit.  So is Smart Growth the modern version of "negro removal?"  The jargon has changed, the reasons have changed, but in the end the result seems similar.  As Delores Eaton noted in her comments to the city council (cited above), urban removal is very much the predicted result.  This is for the public good of course.

   But is it?

   The goal of running a train from downtown Durham to the RTP and on to downtown Raleigh is designed to get RTP workers to work faster without traffic problems.  The TTA has published pictures of how transit stations need to look, and of course single-family housing is out of the question.  So is rail transit an upper class subsidy, rather like bringing in the huddled masses of poor people from Westport, CT, to Manhattan?   Regardless, the TTA has learned that the rail scheme is not even in the current federal budget due to its poor financial prospects.

   Durham's plan for 2030 seems more like one which made sense in 1920.  The first ring suburban areas are what is known today as affordable housing, and are growing in population (Katz 2006).  Rather than encouraging abandonment of large parts of the city to try established an outdated concept of a core downtown, Durham might well heed the cries of the Fayetteville Street Study Group and find ways to encourage young families to move into the houses already built in the area, i.e. affordable housing.  The arguments cited above that because many old folks live in such housing today means that the faster we move them out the better is dysfunctional.  Durham, after all, has as its employment center not only Duke University and North Carolina Central University, but also the Research Triangle Park, which, as cited above, is totally absent and not even mentioned in the economic development section of Durham's 2030 plan, an omission which survived requests that it be considered.  As the FSPC shows, and Katz (2006) comments, "The first suburbs are in physical form, in cultural attitudes, are quintessential suburban."  They are also affordable, and gaining in population.  Durham never really had what is known today as mixed use, and trying to impose that model on an existing neighborhood is impossible without the ruination of existing homes.

   And what about Durham's elites?  Durham's elites represent elite values, not those of the middle class.  In the end they were presented with a classic case found in governmental decision-making issues: support staff or fire the planning director.  In the end, they supported a plan which critics have shown to be anti-middle class and elitist in form.  Downtown receives a lot of energy, as does transit.  The fact that the economic center of the region as a whole is not downtown did not even figure into the equation.  The focus on downtown ignores the needs of the first ring suburbs, and the FSPC has shown how difficult it can be to speak for a middle class group of people who are also people of color.  Durham's elites pretty well took care of the white areas, however, as is to be expected.  It is a tragedy that the elites once again came up with a scheme which will cause loss of property values and places of residence for the black middle class, which, of course, must continue to move to suburban areas if they are to be counted as important in the political scheme.  This is happening in Durham.  With a focus on compact neighborhoods and downtown, Durham's plans for the future and the relocation of single-family residences in black areas reflect the failed values of urban removal from the 1950s.   The principles of Smart Growth themselves, and not just local applications, are the problem.  We need to encourage young people to move into the older communities, and Durham's plans ignore completely not only the area where the high-tech jobs are (RTP), but waste time on pushing a funky downtown while ignoring the needs of the  first ring suburbs where affordable housing exists.  As one local former county commissioner stated privately to me, "We will pass the UDO and spend the next 20 years undermining it."  That is a correct statement.  Unfortunately people of color once again are being asked to bear the burden of planning fads.


Bisecker, Michael (2005).  "Development Plan Stirs Worry."  Raleigh, NC: The News and Observer, August 30, 2005, p. B1

Duncan Associates (2004).  Durham, NC Unified Development Ordinance Draft of May 2004, Public Hearing Draft.

Durham City-County Planning Department (2004).  Durham Comprehensive Plan Public Hearing Draft of June 24. 

Fayetteville Street Planning Group (2005a).  "Why Compact Neighborhoods Are Bad for Our Community."  Handout.

---------  (2005b). Neighborhood Master Plan:  A Plan for Preservation and Renewal. No publisher listed.

Katz, Bruce (2006).  "One-Fifth of the Nation. A Comprehensive Guide to America's First Suburbs."

Post-Conference Updates

   One of the advantages of a conference presentation are the feedback and comments on a paper.  A frequent remark at the conference was "Bill was Bill's favorite sociologist."  This translates as follows, "William Julius Wilson was President Bill Clinton's favorite sociologist."  The more specific reference is to the Hope-VI projects which replace public housing with so-called mixed-use housing.  The theory is that moving middle-class people into apartments next to those who are or used to be on welfare is that the middle-class values will rub off on the poor.  (Note: it is NEVER assumed that the values of those on welfare will rub off on the middle class, but that is another story).  

   Former residents of public housing, it is assumed, will move back into their former areas after the Hope-VI project is replaced by compact neighborhoods with relatively high density row houses.  But this, it seems, usually does not happen.  In Durham, NC, it turns out, perhaps only 1% of former residents are even qualified to return.  So revitalized neighborhoods will consist of all new residents.

   Who will they be?  Well, after the old residents are moved out, no one seems to want to know or guess what happened to the others.  This is nothing new.   Planners want to replace formerly single-family areas with compact areas, assuming that somehow more density brings you more opportunity for finding close friends nearby.