Rolling out the Sustainable Communities Partnership

The annual meeting of the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition featured a discussion on how the new federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities, launched by the Department of Transportation (DOT), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), will be implemented over the next few years. Stephanie Bertaina from the EPA’s Office of Policy, Economics, and Innovation, and Steve Cerney from HUD’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities discussed their organizations’ priorities and funding plans.

The new Partnership for Sustainable Communities has already received some 300 recommendations on how to better coordinate policy and investments across the three government organizations. Bertaina said: “Our goal is to identify the obstacles and determine if the fixes are administrative, legislative, or regulatory.” She encouraged organizations to write directly to the partnership with their input. Getting high-quality input is critical to ensuring the three organizations “do not work at cross-purposes” and stop “subsidizing sprawl.” “We just need to get out of the way of smart growth.”

There are a range of funds available for communities. One of the EPA’s smart growth technical assistance programs is encouraging applications. The EPA continues to host the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference each year, and the conference offers financing opportunities for communities creating sustainability plans. Additionally, the DOT is issuing more TIGER grants — another $500-600 million over the next year. Also, there are high-speed rail funds being distributed.

The partners recently announced five pilot sites for their new joint brownfields program. The EPA writes on their Web site: “Together, EPA, HUD, and DOT have selected five pilot sites across the country where there is a convergence of public transit and the need for affordable housing. Cleaning and reusing this land and providing new housing choices will create jobs and new economic opportunities. The five sites selected for the Sustainable Communities Partnership Pilots are the Fairmount Line in Boston; the Smart Growth Redevelopment District in Indianapolis; the La Alma/South Lincoln Park neighborhood in Denver; the Riverfront Crossings District in Iowa City, Iowa; and the Westside Affordable Housing Transit-Oriented Development in National City, Calif.”

For 2010, Bertaina said the EPA’s side of the partnership is focused on “addressing the 300 comments we’ve received, aligning funding and getting funds out the door, better coordinating investment decisions in transportation, housing, and water infrastructure, and building regional capacity.” She concluded that urban / community forestry is a key part of sustainable communities.

HUD has some $150 million available from their side of the partnership. The HUD Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities will scale-up so it can release some $100 million for its regional integrated management program, another $40 million for challenge grants, and $10 million in research. With the Department of Energy (DOE), HUD will aid in distributing $50 million in retrofitting funds for HUD-insured properties. 

Cerney said the majority of U.S. citizens now spend 52 percent of their income on housing and transportation. While the federal government has no policy on what that number should be, Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology says 46-47 percent is the maximum. “We are trying to reign in sprawl,” Cerney said.

The $100 million regional integrated management program will help promote “regional planning visions.” Some 25 percent of the funds have to go urban communities with populations under 100,000. HUD will fund three types of proposals:

Category one: Regional plans or data analysis, urban designs or open space visioning. “In this category, it’s important to bring in different perspectives — income groups, as well as economic actors. The entire region should come together.”
Category two: “This is for regions that have already done something,” and could include sector or neighborhood plans. These funds would go to communities who haven’t gotten down to detailed Transit-oriented Development (TOD) plans. Funds could also cover economic development, revenue-sharing strategies, and cross-jurisdictional work.
Category three: This group will be much smaller, but will help communities implement projects. “It has to be a significant project in the overall regional planning vision.” 

Members of the Sustainable Urban Foresty Coalition told the government representatives that urban trees, if strategically placed, are powerful energy saving tools, and should be better incorporated into energy retrofitting program requirements. Additionally, there was discussion on the social dimensions of sustainability: community cohesion, resilience, learning can all be improved if communities actively participate in developing their urban forest. “The people benefitting from urban tree programs should be involved in planting.”  

Image credit: ASLA 2009 Analysis & Planning Honor Award. Geos Net Zero Energy Neighborhood, Arvada, CO. David Kahn Studio, Eldorado Springs, CO, Michael Tavel Architects, Denver, Colorado

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