New Urban News

Commentary: No Room For Sense And Vision


Robert Steuteville

New Urban Network

The $95 million Sustainable Communities planning grant program was a minuscule speck in the $3.7 trillion 2012 federal budget. If you do the math, it was 2.6 thousandths of one percent or about $1 for every $39,000 spent. Yet it was an essential speck that Congress erased.

This program, administered by US Housing and Urban Development (HUD), encouraged sustainable communities and intellectual growth by giving local governments and regions the resources to change land-use planning and codes.

To examine just how significant this effort is, refer to an article that received national attention called “A National Strategic Narrative,” published this summer by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars—written by US Marine Col. Mark “Puck” Mykleby, who just retired as special strategic assistant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, and Capt. Wayne Porter of the Navy, the article argued for sustainability and smart growth as vital principles from a strategic national defense perspective.

“We often hear the term “smart power” applied to the tools of development and diplomacy abroad, empowering people worldwide to improve their own lives and to help establish the stability needed to sustain security and prosperity on a global scale. But we can not export “smart power” until we practice “smart growth” at home,” wrote Mykleby and Porter. … “Only by developing internal strength through smart growth at home and smart power abroad, applied with strategic agility, can we muster the credible influence needed to remain a world leader.”

The officers further stated that more efficient, flexible government structures focusing on public-private partnerships must be part of a national strategy that adopts “sustainability as an organizing concept.”

I recommend Googling “A National Strategic Narrative” and reading it. Still, to sum it up, the authors are calling for the innovative, interagency partnership represented by the three-year-old Sustainable Communities program.


Victor Dover, Congress for the New Urbanism board chair and urban designer with Dover, Kohl & Partners, summed up the cost-effectiveness of this program:

“The Sustainable Communities program has quickly become a low-cost, high-yield investment. The coordinated regional planning efforts supported by the program bring about long-needed breakthroughs. Practical, cost-saving, job-creating ideas are shared and applied. The real value is being created for households and businesses. The plans will save money at all levels of government. Cutting the program now is exactly opposite of what makes sense; it should be expanded.”

The Sustainable Communities program was cost-effective in so many ways. Because it was popular, it had many times more applicants than grants issued. The application process caused local officials to think hard about sustainability and smart growth, and the grant winners will serve as examples for others to follow. The grants also represent an essential catalyst for private sector activity: As communities change their codes and plans, private developers and investors can retool their real estate projects toward more sustainable models.

The nation is headed in this direction. From a market perspective, the Occupy Wall Street article on page 1 reports what Adam Ducker of Robert Charles Lesser & Co calls a “wholesale realignment of real estate priorities in the US.” The markets are clamoring now for the kind of mixed-use, connected communities that are needed from a sustainability perspective — but that are discouraged by outdated regulations and plans. Americans are also coming to a consensus on our problems with sustainability — a national Reuters poll in September found that 83 percent agree that global warming is real.

In this budget agreement, the Congressional negotiators showed their priorities. They zeroed in to erase one tiny line of the budget that could make no difference in long-term debt but could affect the economy and environment and promote a more realistic approach to national security for the 21st Century. But, unfortunately, in a $3.7 trillion budget, there seems to be no room for a speck of sense and vision.

For More In-Depth Coverage On This Topic:

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• See the December 2011 issue of New Urban News. Wall Street and urbanism, streets to plazas, Sustainable Communities grants, Choice Neighborhoods, TIGER grants, buyers prefer smart growth, protecting historic buildings, public health, and planning, redevelopment in Georgia, Ecovillages, parklets

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• Get SmartCode Version 9 and Manual, the code book that has the most impact on nationwide zoning reform, with expert commentary by Andres Duany.

• See the October-November 2011 issue of New Urban News. Topics: HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods; Parking reform, transit-oriented parking policy, Obama vs. Congress, West Virginia town revitalization, suburb remakes its center, ecological dividend, cul-de-sac makeover, thoroughfare manual, and much more.

• See the September 2011 issue of New Urban News. Topics: Walk Score, sprawl retrofit, livability grants, Katrina Cottages, how to get a transit village built, parking garages, the shrinking Wal-Mart, Complete Streets legislation, an urban capital fund, and more.

• See the July-August 2011 issue of New Urban News. Downtown makeover, agrarian urbanism, bike sharing, bike-ped issues, TIGER III livability grants, unlocking remnant land value, selling the neighborhood, Landscape Urbanism vs. New Urbanism, new urban resort, granny flats, The Great Reset.