Smart Growth/Smart Energy Background Information

Learn about what smart growth/smart energy development is and how it can benefit your community.

Smart Growth

Smart growth is development that protects natural resources, enhances quality of life, offers housing choices, reduces energy consumption, and improves municipal finances by considering the location, design and long-term costs of development.

Smart growth is a principle of land development that:

  • emphasizes the mixing of land uses
  • increases the availability of a range of housing types in neighborhoods
  • takes advantage of compact design
  • fosters distinctive and attractive communities
  • preserves open space, farmland, natural beauty and critical environmental areas
  • strengthens existing communities
  • provides a variety of transportation choices
  • makes development decisions predictable, fair and cost effective
  • encourages community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions

Smart growth is not "no-growth" - development is needed to keep Massachusetts economically and culturally vibrant. We are consuming far more land than necessary to accommodate our growth needs. Almost 9 out of every 10 acres developed go to residential growth, with 65% of that used for low-density, large-lot development. The smart growth/smart energy techniques included in this Toolkit provide communities the tools to work with the Commonwealth to use the remaining land as efficiently as possible, while building vibrant and sustainable neighborhoods and communities.

Smart Energy

Smart energy is the use of clean, renewable resources to create electricity and heat, as well as more efficient use of energy through conservation and high efficiency technologies. These smart energy strategies, which can be applied to buildings and transportation, can  will help reduce emissions and save money as well as energy. Implementation of smart energy practices decreases global warming emissions and other pollutants, enhances public health, and reduces spending on fossil fuels while promoting the use of innovative technologies that enhance economic development in the Commonwealth.

Renewable energy technologies include:

  • Solar: Photovoltaic panels use the Sun's energy to produce electricity.
  • Wind: Turbines utilize the force of the wind to produce electricity or mechanical power.
  • Fuel Cells: Use of the chemical creation and breakdown of hydrogen to produce electricity and heat.
  • Biomass: The use of energy contained in forest and agricultural byproducts as fuel.
  • Hydropower: Harnessing of the power of river flows to produce electricity.
  • Ocean Energy: Utilizing of the power of waves, tides, and ocean temperature changes to create electricity.

Energy Efficiency/Green Building

Energy efficiency is central to achieve our smart energy goals. Reducing our power use saves money for customers, decreases our need for new generating plants, and improves our chances of meeting our future energy needs through renewable sources.

It is important to reduce the energy use of buildings, and fossil fuel consumption in the transportation sector. Green buildings save water and energy, and create higher worker satisfaction and productivity.

Meeting energy efficiency goals through green building involves three distinct phases - siting, design, and construction:

  • When designing and siting a building, factors like regional climate and ecology and the existing conditions of the site must be taken into consideration
  •  During construction, proper insulation is essential to maintain optimal indoor comfort and energy efficiency, as is careful selection of building systems for heating and cooling. The green design elements that a building team decides to incorporate will vary with building type and location, budget, project goals, and other factors.

Smart Growth in Massachusetts

Attractive village and town centers, vibrant urban neighborhoods, historic mill buildings, and fields, forests, and streams characterize many parts of Massachusetts. Revitalizing and protecting these areas is a key smart growth strategy. The character and high quality of life found in towns and cities is a competitive advantage that differentiates us from many other areas of our country. Our vibrant neighborhoods, historic buildings, and scenic open spaces and natural features are attractive to new businesses and their employees.

A major threat to these resources is sprawl, defined as low-density, single-use (only residential or commercial with no mix of uses), and auto-dependent development. Antiquated local zoning, state and federal subsidies, and lack of coordinated planning have historically made sprawl the often required path of least resistance.

Smart growth can help us to build on the competitive advantage of our charming communities instead of encouraging sprawling growth that is typical across America.

The Costs of Sprawl

Sprawl is costly on many levels. Sprawling development requires increased municipal staff and significant and expensive infrastructure investments to provide services such as roads, sewer, and water. When housing is located away from jobs and commercial centers, driving is often the only transportation option, and this reliance on one form of transportation can become a huge burden.

Housing diversity is another casualty of sprawl. Single-family homes are often the only housing option. This one-size fits all approach leaves many without appropriate or affordable housing options. A single person may desire to rent an apartment or an "empty-nester" couple may prefer a condo but these options don't exist in every community.

Dense development also consumes half the energy of sprawl. Sprawl also comes with a heavy environmental cost. Lot clearance for new development contributes to fragmentation of animal habitat, increased stormwater runoff, and loss of biodiversity. Air and water quality are also threatened by increased vehicle trips, increased runoff, and new demand for water. Recent research has demonstrated that less dense neighborhoods have human health consequences as well.

The Commonwealth's Sustainable Development Principles

The state has worked hard to encourage planning and development that protects land, promotes social and economic health, conserves energy and resources, and meets the needs of our residents.  However, as a basic guide to local officials, developers, and citizens, the Commonwealth has released the following ten Sustainable Development Principles that express desirable smart growth/smart energy goals.

  1. Concentrate Development and Mix Uses.
    Support the revitalization of city and town centers and neighborhoods by promoting development that is compact, conserves land, protects historic resources, and integrates uses. Encourage remediation and reuse of existing sites, structures, and infrastructure rather than new construction in undeveloped areas. Create pedestrian-friendly districts and neighborhoods that mix commercial, civic, cultural, educational, and recreational activities with open spaces and homes.
  2. Advance Equity.
    Promote equitable sharing of the benefits and burdens of development. Provide technical and strategic support for inclusive community planning and decision making to ensure social, economic, and environmental justice. Ensure that the interests of future generations are not compromised by today's decisions.
  3. Make Efficient Decisions.
    Make regulatory and permitting processes for development clear, predictable, coordinated, and timely in accordance with smart growth and environmental stewardship.
  4. Protect Land and Ecosystems.
    Protect and restore environmentally sensitive lands, natural resources, agricultural lands, critical habitats, wetlands and water resources, and cultural and historic landscapes. Increase the quantity, quality and accessibility of open spaces and recreational opportunities.
  5. Use Natural Resources Wisely.
    Construct and promote developments, buildings, and infrastructure that conserve natural resources by reducing waste and pollution through efficient use of land, energy, water, and materials.
  6. Expand Housing Opportunities.
    Support the construction and rehabilitation of homes to meet the needs of people of all abilities, income levels, and household types. Build homes near jobs, transit, and where services are available. Foster the development of housing, particularly multifamily and smaller single-family homes, in a way that is compatible with a community's character and vision and with providing new housing choices for people of all means.
  7. Provide Transportation Choice.
    Maintain and expand transportation options that maximize mobility, reduce congestion, conserve fuel and improve air quality. Prioritize rail, bus, boat, rapid and surface transit, shared-vehicle and shared-ride services, bicycling, and walking. Invest strategically in existing and new passenger and freight transportation infrastructure that supports sound economic development consistent with smart growth objectives.
  8. Increase Job and Business Opportunities.
    Attract businesses and jobs to locations near housing, infrastructure, and transportation options. Promote economic development in industry clusters. Expand access to education, training, and entrepreneurial opportunities. Support the growth of local businesses, including sustainable natural resource-based businesses, such as agriculture, forestry, clean energy technology, and fisheries.
  9. Promote Clean Energy.
    Maximize energy efficiency and renewable energy opportunities. Support energy conservation strategies, local clean power generation, distributed generation technologies, and innovative industries. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions and consumption of fossil fuels.
  10. Plan Regionally.
    Support the development and implementation of local and regional, state and interstate plans that have broad public support and are consistent with these principles. Foster development projects, land and water conservation, transportation and housing that have a regional or multi-community benefit. Consider the long-term costs and benefits to the Commonwealth.


By applying these principles, towns, planners, and developers can evaluate regulatory techniques and project proposals for smart growth/smart energy consistency.

Planning, Implementation, and Success

 A critical component of smart growth is identifying areas that are appropriate for development and those that should be protected and preserved.

Examples of areas that are likely bad candidates to be appropriate development locations are:

  • prime farmland
  • wetlands
  • steep slopes
  • areas with rare or endangered species

Good candidates for smart growth development include:

  • downtowns
  • village centers
  • areas adjacent to these centers
  • brownfields
  • sites with access to public transportation and other infrastructure

Planning is an important step in smart growth/smart energy development. Using any of the Toolkit's techniques will require customization, and communities should not simply copy and use model bylaws, either those provided here or found elsewhere, without modifications to address circumstances within the community. It will be important to host community meetings to answer basic questions about how the model that you decide on will be customized to meet local needs and goals.

Cities and towns have important choices to make when implementing any of these techniques including the areas within the community where a technique will be applied and the appropriate permitting authority and mechanism. Communities should check with public opinion before implementing any of these techniques. Especially considering that a two-thirds vote at town meeting or by city council will be required for zoning approval, understanding or arriving at a consensus about community objectives and planning techniques is important early in the adoption process. The public process associated with planning greatly increases the odds of adoption.

An important thing to keep in mind is that the best smart growth/smart energy planning will require more than just one technique. Your community will need to utilize multiple techniques to get closer to your goals of energy efficiency and smart development.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts offers several incentives to implement smart growth/smart energy plans, regulations, and site and building designs. MGL Chapter 40R provides incentive payments when "smart growth zoning districts" are adopted and, again, when building permits are issued. In addition, agencies of the Commonwealth, including the Department of Housing and Community Development and the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, offer technical assistance.