Federal program excites smart growth advocates
DOT and HUD announce a joint effort to merge land use and planning to improve livability.
The US Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development are establishing a “Sustainable Communities Initiative” that will make planning grants to metropolitan areas, coordinate land-use and transportation planning, and promote “livability” and transit-oriented development.
DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan announced the creation of a high-level interagency task force in March with the following goals:
• Integrate land-use and transportation planning. Through grants, the goal is for every major metropolitan area in the country to conduct integrated housing, transportation, and land-use planning in the next four years. More specifically, HUD and DOT planning, which is currently done separately in four- and five-year time frames, will be coordinated to “make more effective use of Federal housing and transportation dollars.”
• Redefine affordability to include transportation costs. The task force will develop an online tool that calculates the combined housing and transportation costs for families choosing a home. Such a tool has already been created for specific metropolitan areas with the expertise of the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago.
• Develop ways to measure livability that can be used to implement land-use and transportation initiatives. The agencies will conduct joint research to measure performance of programs and identify best practices.
• Coordinate HUD and DOT programs. Beyond planning, the departments seek to coordinate programs to encourage location efficiency in housing and transportation.
New urbanists and smart growth advocates are encouraged by the project, which echoes many of the arguments they have been making for years.
“I think our movement saw a major milestone last week when the secretaries of HUD and DOT appeared in the House to talk about pairing up to support smart growth and promote affordable neighborhoods near transit,” David Goldberg, communications director for Smart Growth America, said in late March.
The initiative sets higher goals for federal policy, John Norquist, president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, told New Urban News. “They are looking at how transportation and housing can fit together to create more value for people’s lives, not just how to make traffic move faster,” he said. “It’s a big step forward. The details have to be worked out.”
Joint planning, finally
Perhaps the joint planning is the most remarkable aspect of the announcement, Norquist pointed out. “It’s absolutely shocking that DOT and HUD did not talk each other,” he said. “Their buildings are right next to each other, and there was almost no communication at all. It looks like LaHood and Donovan like each other and they set a marker that they will have to meet.”
The key to the program’s success will be the metrics used to measure the vague term “livability,” Norquist adds. CNU hopes that LEED for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND), developed jointly by the US Green Building Council, CNU, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Urban Thoroughfares manual developed by CNU and the Institute of Transportation Engineers will be key resources in that effort.
CNU has a record of success with HUD in developing the design guidelines for HOPE VI in the 1990s, but the Sustainable Communities Initiative will probably involve a more complex political process, Norquist said. “There’s going to be a committee and every smart-growth and environmental group will want to be on it,” he said. “I don’t know if any CNU members will be on it but we will try. I’m sure people that agree with us will be on it.”
“We’re all working to get in and influence what we can, and it does appear the door is open in many respects,” Goldberg said.
There’s one aspect to the initiative, the idea of funneling planning grants to metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), that Norquist is skeptical about. “Some MPOs are fabulous,” he said. “Most aren’t. Some are heavily in favor of highways” and essentially operate as adjuncts to state departments of transportation. If the right standards are set, such as requiring highly interconnected street networks, there could be ways to influence the culture at MPOs, he added.
Another question is whether the US DOT, with its long history of supporting highways, can change its thinking on mobility. “DOT is a department with a culture that is heavily invested in sprawl models,” says Steve Filmanowicz, CNU communications director. He notes, however, that DOT has sometimes supported alternative programs. Through the Federal Highway Administration, for example, DOT was an underwriter of the CNU-ITE urban thoroughfares manual.