As funds vanish, New England looks at how to pursue sustainability


Philip Langdon

New Urban Network

Every year, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, convenes a New England smart growth forum for about 30 participants. This year, the institute decided to go big—bringing together some 145 people from all six states for a day of discussions at the Federal Reserve Bank in downtown Boston.

Bad timing. The forum convened just days after Congressional leaders eliminated future funding for HUD’s Sustainable Communities Initiative, the chief grant-making program used by the Obama administration to support smart growth initiatives across the country.

Officials representing the three collaborating federal entities—the Department of Housing & Urban Development, the Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency—did get to sit on the stage last Friday and say a few words. Mary Beth Mello of the Federal Transit Administration pointed out that her agency:

• Has worked to build a bus rapid transit line from New Britain to Hartford, Connecticut. Partly occupying an abandoned railroad right-of-way, the 9.4-mile busway (which survived opposition from rail advocates) is expected to cost $567 million, of which $275 million will come from FTA’s New Starts program.

• Has helped Providence, Rhode Island, study the possible installation of a streetcar line. A $126 million proposal envisions a two-line line connecting Providence hospitals to several neighborhoods, including a newly created “Knowledge District.”

• Has helped develop a bus terminal in Holyoke, Massachusetts, that includes space for day care, adult literacy classes, and other services. When the four-story, $5.5 million Intermodal Transportation Center, the second-most-heavily used bus station in western Massachusetts, had its groundbreaking ceremony in in the poor, half-Latino city, the president of Peter Pan Bus Lines hailed it as “a one-stop shop for people to improve their lives.”

Nonetheless, the sense pervading the audience at the smart growth forum was that federal officials would have had a lot more to say if the grant-giving activities of the Sustainable Communities Initiative were not facing a shutdown. Kristen Foye, deputy regional administrator at HUD, confessed to being disappointed that there would be no Sustainable Communities grants in fiscal year 2012.

A worsening climate

Armando Carbonell, who chairs the Lincoln Institute’s Department of Planning and Urban Form, offered a troubling global perspective. Despite the rapid emergence of cities with several million inhabitants in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, “cities around the world are getting less dense,” Carbonell said. “They will require more land than in the past.”

“Over time, there has been increasing skepticism about climate change,” Carbonell also noted. Resistance to dealing with carbon emissions is a major problem, he indicated, pointing out that “Australia and the US are the two emitters per capita” and both are “very vulnerable” to the damage that a hotter, more erratic climate can cause.

“Climate change is the greatest market failure the world has ever seen,” he said, quoting a British economist, Lord Nicholas Herbert Stern. (Stern, who was World Bank chief economist from 2000 to 2003, before joining Britain’s Labor government, observed in 2006 that “those who damage others by emitting greenhouse gases generally do not pay”—a rebuke to the idea that governments need not take action on global warming.)

Timothy Beatley, Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia, presented a series of European initiatives that seem to hold promise. In particular, he praised sustainability initiatives in Barcelona and in the Basque capital, Vitoria-Gasteiz, which will be “European Green Capital” in 2012.

Hope at home

Chicago architect Doug Farr, who played a key role in formulating the LEED for Neighborhood Development program, portrayed LEED-ND as a tool with the potential to produce substantial benefits. Approximately 125 projects worldwide have been certified through LEED-ND, he said. “Eighty percent of the pilot projects are infill or redevelopment,” he emphasized.

Governments and public agencies in the US are beginning to turn to LEED-ND, Farr said, noting that in Illinois, both the Chicago Housing Authority and the Regional Transit Authority have made LEED-ND mandatory. Currently there’s a goal of getting a LEED-ND project in every one of Chicago’s 50 wards and in all of the state’s 102 counties. How soon that goal might be met is unclear.

Chris Jones, vice president for research at greater New York’s Regional Plan Association, described a Sustainable Communities undertaking in New York and Connecticut that’s aimed at producing up to 10 high-profile, mixed-use, transit-oriented developments (TODs). The goal, he said, is to link “centers of innovation” that would contain employment and housing, some of them on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s New Haven line.

“We’re trying to get two-thirds of the new jobs and housing within walking distance of transit,” Jones said. Another aim, he said, is “to reduce housing and transportation costs from 47 percent to 45 percent” of the residents’ income. “In the last 20 years, about half of the growth [in the region Jones is dealing with] was around the transit network,” he said “We thought it was ambitious but realistic to move it to two-thirds.”

Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts, and Lyle Wray, executive director of the Capitol Region Council of Governments in the Hartford area, presented plans for making metropolitan Hartford and the Pioneer Valley function as an integrated bi-state metro area of about 1.9 million inhabitants. The region would be known as the “Knowledge Corridor”—a reference to the more than 100,000 college and university students in Amherst, Northampton, and other parts of Pioneer Valley group and to additional higher-education institutions in greater Hartford.

Brennan said his group is hoping to have “a series of catalytic projects” that will be “demonstrations on the ground of what sustainability is about.”

Wray said that $1.5 billion in rail and transportation investment is coming to the region. A TOD market study will look at rail and bus rapid transit stations. Within five years, there will be rail service from Hartford to New York City every 30 minutes, Wray predicted.

In the Boston region, Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said his organization has provided funds for 11 place-based projects. “We’re hoping that will have a real effect,” he said. There will be a strong emphasis on “equity,” Draisen said, to counter many affluent communities’ long-standing resistance to affordable housing.

Christine Walker, executive director of New Hampshire’s Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission, expressed satisfaction at having received a Sustainable Communities challenge grant, and said “a lot of communities” in her region are “looking at form-based codes.”

With help from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Walker’s organization has launched a Healthy Eating and Living Communities (HEAL) program to counteract obesity. Volunteers gathered information about where fresh food was available within walking distance of people’s homes. The intent is to make healthy food more widely distributed.

The mesmerizing speaker from Seattle

As sometimes happens in conferences, the most dynamic talk came at the very end, when Ron Sims, the former elected executive of King County, Washington, and recently retired deputy director of HUD, gave a keynote address that brought the audience to its feet.

Sims told how King County, which includes Seattle, “was once zoned one house per acre “ all the way to the mountains. There were 190,000 acres of forest at risk of being developed, he said. Such sprawl would have undercut the region’s attractiveness, harmed its waterways, and made for a more expensive way of life, said Sims, an African-American who grew up in Spokane at a time when, he reminded his listeners, racial discrimination in housing was blatant.

Sims said he advocated for saving the forests as “a permanent wall against sprawl.” He decided developers should be offered the option of buying development rights from the forest lands and transferring them to areas where development would be better for society. “We wanted a mix of housing, rental and ownership,” he emphasized. As for “enclaves” that didn’t want any affordable housing, that is “inappropriate in this society,” Sims thundered.

As Sims told it, the county used leverage such as announcing that “we would no longer provide bus service to areas that would not adhere to our growth management.”

“We didn’t call it sustainability,” he said. “We just called it ‘how do you manage growth.’” At his insistence, an agreement was struck between builders and environmentalists, Sims said. The result? In recent years, “96 percent of all growth in King County was in urban areas; 4 percent was in rural areas.”

A policy of this sort is fiscally conservative, Sims argued. It reduces future expenditures on roads, utility lines, and other public works. “It is cheaper to build where you already have infrastructure.”

“The federal government has decided it doesn’t want to pay” for infrastructure in the future, Sims said. Consequently, he expects that King County will have better economic prospects than neighboring counties that have been permitting sprawl.

Sims called for walkable neighborhoods, saying that the inability of many people to find parks, schools, and services within a quarter-mile walk is one of the roots of today’s epidemic of obesity and diabetes. That epidemic may collapse American society through its staggering costs, Sims said. “Sustainability, in my opinion, is the only way this nation will endure.”

Sustainability, he concluded, has the “ability to attack every single problem we have and resolve them.”

With that, the audience rose and gave Sims a standing ovation. The absence of funds for programs like the Sustainable Communities Initiative was, for a moment, banished from everyone’s mind.

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