Planning Sustainable Communities: “It’s More than Being Green”

The focus of this year’s American Planning Association AICP National Symposium, held at the National Building Museum, was planning sustainable communities. Beth Osborne, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy at the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Shelley Poticha, Senior Advisor for Sustainable Communities, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), two key policymakers involved in the new federal partnership on livable communities, gave presentations on federal developments. Tim Brennan, Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC), and Joseph Schilling, Professor at Virginia Tech’s Alexandria Center, and head of the Metropolitan Institute’s Green Region’s Initiative, also spoke about regional and local sustainable planning initiatives. In introducing the sessions, Paul Farmer, CEO of the APA asked: “How do we operationalize sustainable communities?” Jason Jordan, APA’s head of policy and government affairs, said “sustainability isn’t just about environmental sustainability. We have to look at the triple bottom line. Sustainability is about economic competitiveness and resilient communities as well.” One goal of the session was to examine how planning is critical to sustainable community development.

Beth Osborne, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Transportation Policy, DOT: Sustainable transportation is about having “multiple convenient transportation options.” Osborne said a number of people have defined “livable or sustainable communities” differently, but she prefers this definition: “it means being able to walk from your house to get a slice of pizza.” Ray LaHood, U.S. Transportation Secretary, has defined a livable community as a place where “you don’t have to use a car if you don’t want to.”

Osborne rhetorically asked “Why is the federal government involved in planning livable communities?” The reason: transportation costs are lower in walkable communities. As an example, she noted that Washington, D.C. has shed 4,000 cars in the past year. Money spent on cars now goes into the D.C. local economy. Increasing walking and biking access also improves communities’ economic resiliency. “Some communities must use their cars and are therefore vulnerable if gas prices increase or the economy falters.”

Osborne noted that car-dependent communities also have a 40 percent higher overall CO2 footprint. Planning must play a role because CAFE standards won’t reduce emissions alone. As an example, Osborne cited Salt Lake City, which is focusing development in built-up areas, and has saved $4.5 billion in avoided transportation infrastructure costs as a result. More high-density communities are needed. “30 percent of the population wants to live in high-density communities, but only 2 percent of U.S. communities are like this. As a result, these areas are expensive to live in.”

Shelley Poticha, Senior Advisor for Sustainable Housing and Communities, HUD: Poticha said regions are now the economic engines of the U.S. “Regions need to be strong, viable, and innovative. Other countries already recognize this. The U.S. is behind on this.” Outlining the new HUD-EPA-DOT partnership on livable communities (see earlier post), Poticha said it’s the result of “inter-disciplinary thinking.” The agencies are now collaborating on funding decisions, and all review discretionary spending on the TIGER grant program (see ASLA’s guide to economic stimulus opportunities) and smart growth discretionary spending programs.

“The goal is to embed sustainable ideas into communities,” Poticha argued. To that end, the partnership is created a set of performance measures, including an affordability index, which will be the first to combine housing and transportation costs and give a true picture of the cost of living and working in an area.

The heads of EPA, HUD, and DOT recently went on a tour of sustainable community best practices, viewing projects in Chicago, Denver, and Dubuque.

Tim Brennan, Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC), Central Massachusetts: Brennan argued that the “region, not the state or city, is now the important piece of geography. The region is the city of the past.” Massachusetts has 13 regional planning agencies. Brennan’s area is the size of Rhode Island and covers older urban towns, universities, and contains mostly small business. To turn his sustainable comprehensive planning into reality, Brennan asked all local elected officials in his region to sign an “intergovernmental compact,” committing themselves to the sustainable development plan his team put together through extensive collaboration with local organizations. “A collaborative planning approach is needed to get a plan implemented.” Read PVPC’s plans.

His region’s goals are to reduce C02 emissions, replace outdated energy infrastructure, clean-up brownfield sites, and connect environmental reforms to economic development. “The region doesn’t have good data on C02 emissions, but we set targets.” The biggest challenge, Brennan contends, is transportation-related emissions. “We must end car addiction. Transportation is more about land use than transportation. People need to move closer to where they work.” According to Brennan, the next challenge is to create 22nd century plans that connect “the economy, environment, transportation, and energy.”

Joseph Schilling, Research Professor, Virgina Tech’s Alexandria Center, and Metropolitan Institute’s Green Regions Initiative: Schilling outlined aspects of the eco-Alexandria initiative, an effort to make one of the oldest communities in the U.S. more sustainable through planning. Schilling brought in students from his program and conducted public reviews as part of a comprehensive eco-city planning process. Key eco-city players included the mayor and city council, environmental policy commission, office of environmental quality, and a local environmental planning group. Read more on the Eco-Alexandria plan.

Image credit: A Civic Vision and Action Plan for the Central Delaware River, Philadelphia, PA. Wallace Roberts & Todd, LLC, Philadelphia, PA

2 thoughts on “Planning Sustainable Communities: “It’s More than Being Green”

  1. how it grows 11/03/2009 / 12:00 am

    Does anyone know of any scientific work that quantifies what ‘sustainable’ is? For example, if we want to preserve say, 95% of all plant and animal species, how much electricity or water can a person use? Sometimes I feel like ‘sustainable’ just means slightly slowing down the rate at which we destroy our ecosystems.

  2. Mark L. Johnson 11/04/2009 / 2:31 pm

    Wow. Beth Osborne, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the DOT reflects just how parochial humanity can be when she said a number of people have defined “livable or sustainable communities” differently, but she prefers this definition: “it means being able to walk from your house to get a slice of pizza.”

    I’m sure she was just being glib. But, as long as we (society) define important issues according to whether we’re able to grab a quick, tasty meal or find an easy way to recreate or a cheaper way to do whatever we want; we’re simply fooling ourselves.

    As a transportation expert, she knows that all we have to do is stop building and maintaining transportation infrastructure and we’ll be walking to get that very expensive piece of pizza, until we break up the roadways and plant gardens inn them. Sustainability is about life. That is, the viability of multitudes of species that are intertwined and each add something to the mix, as long as all are kept in check.

    I love pizza, but I’ll give it up if it means we’ll start having communities and regions that are truly sustainable and not dependent on stressing other people and other species for a nice walk and a piece of pizza.

    Of course, Osborne’s comment might have simply been an attempt to coax navel gazers to think about supporting sustainable planning and design. If she got their attention, they might want to check out “Visions of Smart Growth and Sustainability” at

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