Faculty Profile

Gerrit-Jan Knaap
January 1, 2004

Gerrit-Jan Knaap is an economist, professor of urban studies and planning, and executive director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education at the University of Maryland, in College Park. His research interests include the economics and politics of land use planning, the efficacy of economic development instruments, and the impacts of environmental policy. His research in Oregon, Maryland and elsewhere has made him a recognized expert on land use policy and planning. He is the coauthor or editor of several books, including two published by the Lincoln Institute: The Regulated Landscape: Lessons on State Land Use Planning from Oregon (1992); and Land Market Monitoring for Smart Urban Growth (2001).

Land Lines: As director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education, what land policy issues are you addressing now?

Gerrit-Jan Knaap: This Center has been in existence for only three years, but this year it is finally getting established and recognized. In the past year we have been able to pull together a core group of national and international researchers who are now working in three key areas: land use and environment; transportation and public health; and international urban development. The Center is also recruiting a faculty researcher to concentrate on housing and community development.

LL: What are the Center’s most difficult challenges?

GK: Ironically, the Center’s name is a problem. While the phrase “smart growth” is helpful shorthand for describing an approach to land use planning and management, some people identify the term with liberal causes or with former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening or the Clinton-Gore administration. As a result, the phrase has been politicized in a way that causes confusion and polarized reactions. The Center does not support or oppose smart growth; it is just an adjective modifying what we do: research and education.

We have found, however, that it is more difficult to obtain funding for objective research on growth management and planning issues than it is to obtain funding for activities that advocate either for or against smart growth. The Lincoln Institute’s willingness to fund independent, objective, high-quality research in this field fills an important niche.

LL: What are some of the Center’s most significant projects?

GK: We are doing a lot of work to develop quantitative measures of urban form. We are not alone in this enterprise, but we think we’re still a step ahead of other research centers in applying such measures to policy issues. Reid Ewing, a nationally recognized expert on growth management, community development and traffic management, recently joined the staff. He and others, for example, have developed a sprawl index that they use to explore the relationship between sprawl and obesity, which is part of our public health focus.

Yan Song, a former post-doctoral fellow in the Center and now an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, developed quantitative measures of urban form and used them to explore whether Portland, Oregon, was winning the battle against urban sprawl. She also used them to determine whether characteristics like street network connectivity, residential density, land use mix and pedestrian accessibility to commercial uses were capitalized into property values. Most recently, she has used the measures to classify neighborhoods into clusters with similar design characteristics as a means of classifying the types of neighborhood that are currently being built.

Another major focus of our work is land policy and growth management in the People’s Republic of China. As a result of recent economic growth and reforms, China’s 1.3 billion people are urbanizing at an astonishing rate, creating an unprecedented growth management challenge. The Chinese are struggling to find a way to accommodate urban growth and, at the same time, preserve their ability to feed their people. Though we certainly do not have all the answers, Chinese scholars and public officials are interested in learning from our experiences in confronting and balancing these challenges. Chengri Ding, another member of the Center’s faculty, is leading this work with support from the Lincoln Institute. He and Yan Song are editing a book on the evolution of land and housing markets in China that will be published by the Institute later this year.

Our third major focus area is land market monitoring, which grew out of my work in Oregon. Land market monitoring is based on the idea that urban growth management is partly an inventory problem: too much land can lead to urban sprawl, but too little land may create land and housing price inflation. Maintaining balance requires accurate and timely information about land supplies, development capacity, land and housing prices, natural resource constraints and urban development demands. We have conducted several workshops around the country on land market monitoring, and now we are working with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Lincoln Institute to establish a national demonstration project.

LL: How did you develop this concept of land market monitoring?

GK: It started with my dissertation work on the price effects of the urban growth boundary (UGB) in Portland, Oregon. Later, at the University of Illinois, Lew Hopkins and I worked on a project we called, “Does Planning Matter?” We sought to develop planning support systems that not only helped to improve land use decision making, but also helped identify the effects of land use plans and regulations on urban development patterns (Ding, Hopkins and Knaap 1997). Building on this work, I organized a conference at the Lincoln Institute in Cambridge in 2000 and invited a group of leading scholars to present papers on this issue. These papers were published by the Institute in the book Land Market Monitoring for Smart Urban Growth, which was recently translated into Chinese. The idea of measuring development capacity and the need for housing is actually as old as planning itself, but recent advances in GIS technology and digital data bases makes it possible to monitor development capacity on a nearly continuous basis.

LL: How are these ideas being used by planners in the U.S.?

GK: Well, to a large extent, they are not. Typical planning practice in the U.S. still involves the formulation of a comprehensive plan—usually for a 10- to 20-year period—then implementing the plan, and then, after 5 to 10 years, formulating a new plan. With a land market monitoring system it is possible to shorten this cycle considerably. In the extreme, it is conceptually possible to monitor development capacity and urban development trends on a continuous basis and make adjustments as needed. Most planners, however, are not trained to think about growth management issues in this way.

LL: What are the obstacles to using land market monitoring in different locales?

GK: The major obstacles are: (1) the lack of quality data; (2) the lack of intergovernmental cooperation; and (3) the lack of political will to place this issue high on the agenda. The primary problem is not money. To do land market monitoring correctly requires a certain level of resource commitment, but since virtually every local government is developing GIS data and has the necessary technical capacity, it is not difficult to develop an operational monitoring system.

There are some positive examples, however. Monitoring of some kind has been required in Oregon for many years; for this reason, Metro, the regional government for the Portland metropolitan area, has developed an extensive monitoring system (Knaap, Bolen and Seltzer 2003). In its Growing Smart Guidebook, the American Planning Association recommends that any local government that adopts an urban growth boundary also should develop a land monitoring system. Most recently, Maryland Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed an executive order that will initiate a pilot program of land market monitoring in five cities and five counties, and I will serve on the task force that oversees that demonstration project.

LL: What are your plans for the future?

GK: We have two demonstration projects under way. In the first, we are working with the Maryland Department of Planning to develop a series of indicators to assess the progress of the state’s Smart Growth program. These indicators will measure development capacity as well as housing starts and prices, acres of land protected from development, vehicle miles traveled, transit ridership and other trends that will help state officials and the public judge the effectiveness of smart growth policies.

Second, we have just completed phase one of a national demonstration project that was jointly funded by HUD, the Federal Highway Administration and the Lincoln Institute. We identified a generic protocol for conducting a development capacity analysis, applied this protocol to 15 counties in Maryland, and held workshops on monitoring in several metropolitan areas around the country. With Zorica Nedovic-Budic, we also conducted an assessment of the capacity of regional governments to use GIS for land use and transportation planning (see http://www.urban.uiuc.edu/faculty/budic/W-metroGIS.htm). We hope to begin the second phase of that project early in 2004 in five selected sites around the country. Phase two will focus first on residential development capacity, then on employment development capacity, then on how to tie together land use forecasting with transportation planning.

We’re also exploring the possibility of setting up a land market monitoring demonstration project in China, in conjunction with the Lincoln Institute’s new China program.

LL: So where does smart growth go next?

GK: What will happen to the expression “smart growth” is difficult to say. Governor Ehrlich has started calling his version of Maryland’s land use program “Priority Places,” but all of the newspapers still refer to his effort as smart growth. So, it remains to be seen whether the phrase becomes part of the national lexicon or fades like the Macarena. There is no doubt, however, that the issues associated with the term “smart growth” will not go away, in Maryland, around the country, or even overseas. We think this Center is now well-positioned to become an important and objective source of information and education on these issues well into the future.


Ding, Chengri, Lewis Hopkins and Gerrit Knaap. 1997. Does Planning Matter? Visual Examination of Urban Development Events. Land Lines 9(1): 4-5.

Knaap, Gerrit, Richard Bolen, and Ethan Seltzer. 2003. Metro’s Regional Land Information System: The Virtual Key to Portland’s Growth Management Success. Lincoln Institute Working Paper.