CNU and federal leaders seek to advance sustainable communities

Friday at CNU 18 certainly lived up to its billing as “policy day.” To lead off the day, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan pleased the audience of urbanists with a news making announcement that HUD would begin using location efficiency criteria and the LEED for Neighborhood Development system in reviewing all applications for grants administered by the federal department.

Donovan also had considerable praise for the CNU community’s innovative work creating models for sustainable communities. “CNU has helped change the way we think about our communities — helping us more closely see the connection between the blocks we live on and the neighborhoods and regions we live in,” said Donovan. “Our challenge now is to bring that holistic view of community development into the mainstream.”

Supporting that move to the mainstream was a prime topic of a major panel discussion later that day, “Advancing Federal Policy and the Sustainable Communities Partnership.” With new CNU board chair Victor Dover moderating, nearly a dozen urbanists from the CNU board and other leadership positions shared the stage with two federal officials. Tim Torma, from the EPA’s Smart Growth Program, and Salin Geevarghese, from HUD’s office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, asked for the groups’ ongoing assistance as it incorporates CNU principles into federal programs and grant award criteria.

A shared interest
Geevarghese acknowledged that Donovan’s announcement earlier in the day was an affirmation of CNU principles. “This is a case of ‘What do you do when you get what you ask for?” he told the group. In answering that question, he suggested that CNU and the Obama Administration now have a shared interest in seeing the policies through transitional challenges to success. He asked for CNU members’ engagement – nationally and region-by-region – on two key points. 1) How do we make sure multidisciplinary efforts spanning land planning, transportation and housing not drown under the sheer weight of comprehensiveness? 2) How do we get people to think outside their neighborhood silos to develop a regional sense of place?

The group discussed how CNU’s influence on HUD policy dates back to Hope VI, when HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros asked for CNU assistance to create public housing as traditional neighborhoods – instead of “projects.” Now, HUD is asking for CNU’s help with its Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, which will build on HOPE VI to revitalize high-poverty areas, linking housing to childhood and school interventions.

Center for Neighborhood Technology President Scott Bernstein, a recent addition to CNU’s board who has provided recommendations to the HUD-DOT-EPA Partnership for Sustainable Communities, responded positively to Torma’s assertion that the “federalism” is being redefined as “true local empowerment” through the six livability principles.

Torma cited a long history of useful dialogue between CNU and EPA. EPA has provided seed money for several CNU initiatives, including a revised ITE manual (Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach) and LEED-ND (Neighborhood Development). The next challenge, he said, is defining performance measures for the competitive projects receiving grant funding: “It scares us! We need your help!”

But Peter Calthorpe cautioned the group not to get overconfident. “We need to be very mindful of the attitudes in Congress,” he warned. Many elected officials are not as progressive as agency staff: “Don’t get too sure.” There’s already been pushback from Congress on LaHood and Donovan, he noted, with some members asking “Are you forcing us to think one way?”

The group discussion then turned to parallel changes needed on the financing side. CNU President and CEO John Norquist, who now makes regular trips to Capitol Hill and federal offices, suggested eliminating quotas in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae guidelines that make it difficult to do mixed-use projects.     In all $3 billion in competitive grants will be in play this year, the officials said. That includes the CHOICE neighborhoods program, as well as initiatives and funds from a range of federal departments. They advised looking in the “General Section” attached to every NOFA (notice of funds availability) for language referencing LEED-ND.

Stephanie Bothwell, a leader of CNU board outreach in Washington, commented after the meeting that this will be one of many efforts to develop a productive and supportive dialogue with the Federal agencies. “Success will come about only through the coordinated help of all organizations, community groups and agencies. CNU is poised to offer that assistance in DC and in communities across the country,” she said.