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Rural Health Information Hub

Smart Growth Models

Smart growth models typically promote long-term economic development while preserving the natural environment. These models can involve both building new infrastructure and revitalizing existing assets to promote the growth of vibrant rural communities. Smart growth addresses multiple social determinants of health (SDOH), including economic stability, transportation, and housing.

Many smart growth projects adhere to a set of 10 principles:

  • Mixed land use – Smart growth emphasizes the importance of locating residential, recreational, and business opportunities in close proximity. Rural communities have found that mixing land use can contribute to increased numbers of residents who bike and walk instead of driving, which can ultimately decrease greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Using compact design – Compact design allows communities to promote high-density, walkable neighborhoods while conserving open space. In rural communities, compact design could be an important consideration in the development of new, higher-density affordable housing.
  • Creating different housing opportunities – Rural communities may need to consider a range of housing choices to meet the demands of economic development. For example, some rural communities may need to accommodate migrant farmworkers, while others may need to consider housing for tourists or seasonal visitors. In addition, many rural communities are constructing or adapting housing that meet the needs of older adults.
  • Developing walkable communitiesWalkable neighborhoods provide accessible opportunities for physical activity and decrease the negative health consequences of pollution from vehicles. Rural communities are implementing complete street initiatives to improve walkability and bicycle and pedestrian safety.
  • Creating attractive communities with a distinctive character – Rural communities are engaging in economic development while preserving the rural character and heritage of their communities. This could involve defining a vision for future development with members of the community.
  • Preserving open space and maintaining the integrity of the environment – Open spaces can be critical to the physical and economic health of rural communities. Tourism, agriculture, and recreation can all depend on access to well-maintained open spaces. Rural spaces also play an important role in making communities more resilient to climate change.
  • Strengthening existing communities – Rural communities are leveraging existing infrastructure to promote economic revitalization and healthier communities, while preventing further development of scenic or ecologically important land.
  • Investing in a range of transportation options – Multiple transportation options allow rural residents to address key SDOH, including improving access to employment opportunities and healthcare services. Rural communities can implement a range of strategies to improve access to and the quality of transportation.
  • Making the development process fair and streamlined – Barriers to community development include permitting and approval processes that can be burdensome and difficult to navigate. Rural communities can establish clear processes for development to encourage smart growth.
  • Engaging community members in smart growth – Rural community members may have different visions of development needs. Rural communities can encourage the participation of the community in sustainable development to build support for lasting change and ensure that growth strategies address local priorities.

Examples of Rural Smart Growth Programs Addressing SDOH:

  • In rural Lafayette County, Mississippi, communities are developing housing options to meet the needs of residents at different stages of life — from students, to young families, to older adults. For example, in Starkville, Mississippi, an abandoned factory has been converted to mixed-use housing and commercial space. The development provides sought-after walkability for young professionals, while also addressing transportation barriers for older adults.
  • Rural Vienna, Maryland implemented various smart growth principles in shaping its community vision and comprehensive plan. The community worked with a wide range of partners to preserve coastal land, protect water quality, and maintain the character of the Chesapeake waterfront. Vienna officials are committed to investments in sustainable growth and economic development that protects valuable natural resources.
  • The city of Emporia, Kansas in rural Lyon County has engaged in many revitalization efforts to combat declining population rates from loss of local industry. Emporia officials promoted mixed-use development of its downtown district to foster job growth and create spaces for arts and entertainment. Emporia also encouraged investments in active transportation, affordable housing, and small business development.

Implementation Considerations

In partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Rural Development, Smart Growth America offers Rural Development Technical Assistance to help rural communities plan for and implement smart growth strategies. Rural communities may benefit from tailored technical assistance or capacity-building workshop opportunities.

Many smart growth principles may need to be formally codified in local, municipal, or county comprehensive plans. These plans describe goals and objectives for community development and typically include elements that specifically focus on land use, housing, transportation, public facilities, and the environment, among others.

Program Clearinghouse Examples

Resources to Learn More

Coastal and Waterfront Smart Growth
Describes smart growth principles in the context of coastal and waterfront communities.
Organization(s): National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce

Creating Equitable, Healthy, and Sustainable Communities: Strategies for Advancing Smart Growth, Environmental Justice, and Equitable Development
Provides comprehensive strategies for promoting sustainable communities and implementing smart growth principles.
Author(s): McConville, M.
Organization(s): U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Sustainable Communities and Office of Environmental Justice
Date: 2/2013

Rural Walking in Massachusetts: A Tool Kit for Municipalities
Describes strategies to promote walkability of rural communities, lessons learned and health outcomes of walking initiatives, and case studies of rural communities in Massachusetts.
Organization(s): The Massachusetts Department of Public Health
Date: 3/2013

Smart Growth in Small Towns and Rural Communities
Provides several resources to help rural communities learn about smart growth and implement their own visions.
Organization(s): U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Smart Growth Self-Assessment for Rural Communities
Provides checklists to help rural communities identify their progress on goal areas related to smart growth.
Organization(s): U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Date: 7/2015

Small Town and Rural Design Guide
Discusses considerations for designing multimodal travel networks in rural America, with a focus on walkable and bikeable communities.
Organization(s): Alta Planning + Design, Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota