Smart Growth Goes Mainstream

At the 10th annual smart growth awards held at the E.P.A. headquarters in Washington D.C., Doug McKalip, White House Senior Policy Advisor for Rural Affairs, praised this year’s winners for demonstrating strategies that create jobs, protect the environment, and improve the quality of life. The five winners are found in both urban and rural communities and show how partnership efforts can stretch dollars. “We need more examples like this across the United States,” said McKalip, as he introduced the five winners:
The award for overall excellence in smart growth went to the Old North St. Louis Revitalization Initiative. This historic neighborhood had long been in decline until a group of residents, business owners, and community leaders formed a non-profit, the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group (ONSLRG), with the aim of rebuilding the community through housing reconstruction. Renovation of old buildings wherever possible was a goal, along with bringing in businesses not currently present, including a grocery store, coffee shop, and farmer’s market. New streetscaping and a variety of housing options near the business corridor make for a walkable neighborhood that has seen a 28 percent increase in population, drawing people in from the suburbs and reversing a 50 year trend of population decline. Sean Thomas, Executive Director of ONSLRG, who accepted the award with St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, said “it’s been a spectacular transformation.”

The Silver Garden Apartments in Albuquerque won the smart growth and green building award. The development is the result of a partnership between the City of Albuquerque, Romero-Rose LLC, and others. It’s located in downtown Albuquerque on the site of a former brownfield and is the Southwest’s first LEED Platinum affordable housing project. Energy saving features include rooftop solar panels and a wind turbine. An underground cistern collects rainwater from the infrequent but sometimes heavy rains and uses the stored water to irrigate the drought-tolerant landscaping. A major transit center located right across the street provides easy access to local and regional transportation. An on-site social services coordinator provides assistance to residents, including some who were formerly homeless. Mayor Richard Berry says that “citizens of Albuquerque embrace projects like this because they can see the big picture. It’s a good thing for our city to have a project like this within our city that’s this environmentally conscious, that’s also doing something good from a social standpoint.”

Plan El Paso 2010 received the programs, policies, and regulations award. This city of 750,000 residents, the majority of whom speak Spanish as their primary language, was faced with increasing sprawl, isolated and underserved city neighborhoods, and a need for more housing and infrastructure to accommodate growth of a nearby military base. City planners and citizens saw transit-oriented development as a way to address these needs. Focusing on four neighborhoods, including a 600-acre brownfield, the planning process envisioned sustainable, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods connected by a bus rapid transit (BRT) system. An intensive planning process involving residents and business owners resulted in a plan that was approved by the city council in 2009, with BRT construction beginning in 2010. As Deputy Planning Director Matthew McElroy pointed out, “the really neat thing about proximity to work and walkable neighborhoods is you get a lot of your life back. So really it’s about improving the quality of life in El Paso.”

The rural smart growth award went to Maroney Commons in Howard, South Dakota, a town of 850, and the county seat of Miner County. The projects, says Randy Perry of the Rural Learning Center, “wasn’t just a top-down decision, it was a grassroots from the bottom up plan, with all kinds of charette meetings and town hall meetings to say, what did you need in this community?” The project got its start when students at the local high school began a “buy local” campaign that resulted in $16 million in additional sales for the town, with a corresponding increase in sales tax revenues. This encouraged residents to begin a visioning process that led to the development of Maroney Commons. What residents decided they wanted was to revitalize their Main Street, asking for a hotel, restaurant, training center, and retail space. Deteriorating buildings were torn down and salvaged materials were used in the new construction. With solar panels, a wind turbine, geothermal heating and cooling, and other efficiencies, Maroney Commons earned a LEED Platinum rating. The project has created jobs and is expected to bring to the local economy more than $6.5 million per year.

The Uptown Normal Roundabout in Normal, Illinois (see earlier post) received the civic places award. City Manager Mark Peterson explained that the initial impetus for the project was the convergence of five streets in the downtown area, with no good way to handle the traffic. Traffic engineers came up with the idea of a traffic circle. Turning the center of the circle into an outdoor green space required special negotiations with federal and state traffic regulators, but the city eventually prevailed. The roundabout was designed by Chicago-based landscape architecture firm Hoerr Schaudt to be an inviting space that includes grass, benches, trees, lighting, and a water feature that captures stormwater and prevents it from reaching a nearby creek. “It is the water element that made it so attractive,” says Peterson. “Most people don’t know it is also a water purification system.” The roundabout has become a destination for families, students, cyclists, and pedestrians. A rails-to-trails path leads up to the circle. New amenities nearby include a children’s museum, a hotel, and conference center. Property values in the area have increased dramatically. Mayor Chris Coos, in accepting the award, thanked E.P.A. and said, “if you can do a project like this in Normal, Illinois, you can do it anywhere.” (For landscape architects, also learn more about how the project works).

Following the awards, Bicki Corman, Deputy Associate Administrator for E.P.A., said that the purpose of the awards is to demonstrate the excellent smart growth work communities are doing. Every year, there is a flood of applications to the awards program but, she said, when the first awards were given 10 years ago, the concept of smart growth was not so well-known. Now, in big cities and in rural areas all across the country, smart growth is accepted. “The awards program,” she said, “has helped to nudge this process forward.”

Learn more about the winning projects.

This guest post is by Rachel Shaw, Manager of Professional Practice, American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)

Image credit: Uptown Normal Roundabout / Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects

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