Sustainable Communities The Federal Government Way

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Natural Resources Defense Council. Author credit goes to Kaid Benfield.

Three years ago, three federal agencies – the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency – announced that they were going to coordinate their community assistance programs to make them more effective in helping cities, towns and metropolitan regions position themselves for a more sustainable and resilient future.  In some ways, this was a modest proclamation – an expression of common sense, really, since all three are part of the same government – except it had never happened before.  In fact, there had been far too many examples where federal agencies were working at cross-purposes: EPA might be trying to help a community clean up a river, for example, at the same time as DOT or HUD might be funding projects that would send more sediment and polluted runoff into the river EPA was trying to clean up.

It would be naïve to say that, as a result of the agencies’ partnership, they no longer point communities in conflicting directions on occasion.  But there has been no question that the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, as they call their joint effort, has had an incredible impact in empowering towns and cities to define and pursue their goals for a better future, with much more awareness of how issues interact with each other.  And this has been done with no new mandates, with no pressure.  This is not top-down coercion but responsiveness to local pleas for help with locally defined initiatives.

Cincinnati (by: EPA, via Partnership for Sustainable Communities)

I recently profiled one of the best neighborhood revitalization plans I have seen, for example, in the South Lincoln neighborhood of Denver.  The city’s Housing Authority is rebuilding a badly distressed, low-income neighborhood with a mixed-income, mixed-use, highly walkable community — with state-of-the-art green features, all adjacent to a light rail station – and it is doing so in a sophisticated, phased building schedule that will not displace a single resident.  In fact, the residents are playing a major role in the process.

The South Lincoln planning process has required a lot of difficult, painstaking work, but the Housing Authority didn’t have sufficient resources to do it all without help.  In response to the city’s requests, the federal partnership stepped in and provided significant, coordinated grant assistance that made the process possible.  The decisions have still been controlled locally, but with the support the locals needed to get it done.

In West Virginia, the three agencies coordinated to help the small cities of Ranson and Charles Town clean up contaminated sites, reconceive streets and stormwater management, and encourage walkable, in-town redevelopment, all at the same time.

Often only one of the three federal partners will provide funding assistance, but the three consult before grants are made, to take advantage of collective wisdom and keep each other informed.  The Vital Signs community indicators project in Rockford, Illinois, for instance, has been undertaken with HUD assistance to help local planners identify ways they can measure progress toward locally determined goals.

In recognition of the three-year anniversary of the federal partnership’s formation, the three agencies have released a progress report, Three Years of Helping Communities Achieve Their Visions for Growth and Prosperity.  The facts they have assembled are very, very impressive:

“Since 2009, the Partnership has provided over $3.5 billion in assistance to more than 700 communities. Partnership grant and technical assistance recipients are located in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Demand for Partnership assistance far outstrips available resources. As of April 2012, Partnership agencies received more than 7,700 applications for assistance, requesting almost $102 billion.”

Wow.  The agencies have also launched a new joint website so the public can better access information about their activities and resources for community sustainability.

NRDC is the nation's most effective environmental action group, combining the grassroots power of 1.3 million members and online activists with the courtroom clout and expertise of more than 350 lawyers, scientists and other professionals.

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