Interview: Stewart Schwartz

In 1997, Stewart Schwartz founded the Coalition for Smarter Growth to fight sprawl and support public transit and walkable communities in the Washington, DC region. Schwartz is also an attorney and a retired Navy Captain with 24 years of active and reserve duty. He has served with the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, the Land Trust Alliance and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. EarthTalk’s Ethan Goffman interviewed him in a scenic neighborhood near the Coalition for Smarter Growth’s offices in downtown DC.

EarthTalk: Okay, so what’s a quick definition of smart growth?

Schwartz: Smart growth is about where and how we grow, as a nation, as a region and in our local communities. In the Washington, DC region we see it as the revitalization of our city and our towns, interconnecting these with transit, high capacity transit like our Metro system, and each community is walking, biking friendly, with good access to transit, a mix of different activities so you can walk to school or the store. And of course we have great parks and public spaces and we preserve our rural areas and our stream valley.

E: Okay, great. And what’s the connection between smart growth and sustainability? Why should environmentalists care?

Schwartz: You know they’re sort of hard to separate. I certainly as an environmentalist c think smart growth lies at the core of many solutions to our environmental problems. Because smart growth is about using our land more wisely, not consuming it so we preserve farms and forest. It’s about driving less so we’re polluting less, putting down less asphalt, were helping fight climate change by reducing emissions form transportation. In our view it reduces the total amount of water pollution, storm-water running into our streams, through compact development. Sustainability, you might argue includes, other things, like recycling, green buildings, our energy sector, and so many other aspects of human society, including social equity.

E: Okay, but basically you have attractive compact growth with excellent transit and then you leave more of nature untapped, untrammeled.

Schwartz: Absolutely, and this is, my group the Coalition for Smarter Growth was founded by the region’s leading environmental groups like the Piedmont Environmental Council, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Sierra Club and Audubon. And we were looking at the issue of where and how we grew as a region and how it was affecting the environment. So yes, basically environmentalists have become urbanists. And one person calling the term “save the city to save the country.” And essentially we’re working to save the city and suburbs, to fix them, to make them work better so that we can preserve our natural areas.

E: Great. How about your organization in specific, the Coalition for Smarter Growth? How are you working in the Washington, DC area?

Schwartz: Well, in keeping with our vision of a revitalized city and a network of transit oriented communities we spend a lot of time supporting walkable well designed transit oriented development with a mix of uses including affordable housing, good access to transit, good walking and biking. So that means we’ll be supporting a project at Takoma Metro which would put 160 to 200 units of housing on top of a Metro station. We think that is the most sustainable outcome. Folks who live there will own fewer cars, some might not own any cars at all. And they’ll walk, they’ll bike, and they’ll use Metro. In addition, you can’t have transit oriented development without the transit. We’ve got to fight to save our Metro system which is aging and needs reinvestment. So it needs the funding and the leadership and the fixes to continue to function. We simply can’t survive without Metro and basically giving up is not an option, so we need to fix it. In addition, we need expanded transit in the region, so we’re supporting route 1 and route 7 transit in Northern Virginia, transit in Alexandria, an 81 mile bus rapid transit system in Montgomery County, combined with the Purple Line light rail. We’re also supporting affordable housing, because that’s part of an equitable community. You know, we need to have the ability for all levels of our workforce to live close to transit and to work and with great services. And then lastly with our partners there’s the preservation of our farms and forests and rural areas, that we work with them on those issues. We also work on the benefits of redeveloping our commercial areas with their parking lots in the suburbs. There’s a great advantage to that in terms of reducing storm-water into our streams and so that’s another thing we’re working on as well.

E: The DC region has ambitious goals of at least halving carbon emissions by 2040. How is transportation affecting these goals and what impact might smart growth policies have on progress?

Schwartz: You know, honestly the transportation sector is not doing its part in the DC region. We’ve made a lot of progress in the energy sector as well as green buildings, largely because of state policies more than local policies. Some good local energy administrators however, and we lead the nation in LEED certified green buildings. We still have a transportation plan for the region that causes more spread out sprawling development, more driving, and doesn’t invest enough in transit. So we’re very critical of that plan. We pushed hard for a climate study this past year, and while they’re considering including a range of energy issues, they are making better land use changes to live and work near transit, they’re really not shifting the amount of funding we’re spending on highways over to transit, biking and walking like we should. So we have to do much more to address the transportation emissions that contribute to climate change in the DC region. I mean it is fortunate that we’re standing where we are. I have a capital bikeshare going by behind me right now, we’re standing by a bunch of bike racks at an elementary school in the city, and as we’ve been doing this interview we’ve had lots of people biking and walking past us. And so each one of the folks that are here that are going about their daily activities without driving are contributing to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. So that’s a positive.

E: All right, well thank you very much.

Read and Watch on EarthTalk >>