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Highlights from HUD-DOT-EPA Live Chat about Sustainable Communities
Rendering of Detroit's Woodward Transit System light rail, which won federal TIGER grant funding. The Livable Communities Initiative is encouraging reinvestment in aging industrial cities. Image via University of Detroit - Mercy.

Rendering of Detroit's Woodward Transit System light rail, which won federal TIGER grant funding. The Livable Communities Initiative is encouraging reinvestment in aging industrial cities. Image via University of Detroit - Mercy.

Yesterday, the White House Office of Urban Affairs hosted a live-streamed, hour-long Q&A session on the Obama administration’s Sustainable Communities Initiative, featuring:

The questions chosen for the discussion were all submitted and voted on at Planetizen readers. Here are some of the highlights:

EQUITY and AFFORDABLE TRANSIT ORIENTED DEVELOPMENT (TOD) HOUSING:

  • In recent years, transit-oriented development (TOD) housing has almost exclusively been available only for high-income families. One of HUD’s goals is to show that when low- and moderate-income people live near transit they’re 1) more likely to use the transit system and 2) reap the benefits from using the transit system.
  • Now, in their joint grant program with DOT (Community Challenge Grants), HUD is looking for zoning codes that permit income diversity in areas near transit.
  • Agencies’ joint effort to increase TOD housing should bring prices down and make accessible housing more affordable to low- and middle-income families.

COLLABORATION: U.S. EPA AND STATE DOTs

  • The U.S. EPA collaborated with California’s DOT to create the Smart Mobility 2010 framework to measure the greenhouse gas impacts of transport investments.
  • U.S. EPA also collaborated with Virginia’s DOT to change the state’s streets standards to make them more walkable and reduce congestion.

ANALYZING HIDDEN COSTS OF COMMUNITIES AND TRANSPORTATION DEVELOPMENT:

  • DOT is working on modifying its evaluation of transit projects to incorporate environmental impacts, economic impacts, health impacts, and so forth. Enhanced cost-benefit analyses in applications for TIGER grants — including how investments would save funds in other areas, for example, through avoided infrastructure costs — helped DOT learn about state-of-the-art cost benefit analyses and what data is or is not being collected.
  • One of the clear health benefits of this initiative is to fight obesity by getting people to walk and bike more.
  • DOT wants your feedback: They’ve published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking about DOT analyses in the Federal Register, and will be accepting comments from the public through August.

LIVABILITY PRINCIPLES APPLIED BEYOND SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITIES INITIATIVE:

  • HUD is incorporating principles of sustainability into all of its decisions about how to use discretionary funding.
  • Also, looking at how new HUD programs — for instance, Neighborhood Stabilization Program — can make neighborhoods more sustainable and accessible.
  • DOT is also making livability a priority.  Livability has been a priority in all of DOT’s work since Ray LaHood was sworn in as Secretary of Transportation, including TIGER grants, the strategic plan, and reauthorization proposal.
  • EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is also working on broadening the way the agency sees environmentalism and sustainability.

NEW NATIONAL STORMWATER RULE-MAKING

PREFERRED SUSTAINABILITY STATUS

  • HUD’s Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grants Program works on a points system. Applicants who reach a certain points threshold, but not enough to receive a grant, will receive preferred sustainability status. This was developed to reward communities that are moving in the right direction but do not win funding, and the benefits of the status include:
  1. Access to the same training, education and networking as the communities that receive funding.
  2. Ability to keep application on file to reapply in the future.
  3. Incentives: HUD is working toward creating incentives in other HUD funds to recognize these communities in competitions.
  4. Feedback: HUD wants your feedback about how this Preferred Sustainability Status can  be useful.

ATTENTION TO DETERIORATING INDUSTRIAL COMMUNITIES

  • The partnership’s six principles include: (4) “Support existing communities. Target federal funding toward existing communities—through strategies like transit oriented, mixed-use development, and land recycling—to increase community revitalization and the efficiency of public works investments and safeguard rural landscapes.”
  • Also, DOT’s high-speed rail proposal provides great opportunities for aging manufacturing or auto industry communities, because there is a focus on producing all infrastructure locally, which will provide opportunities in these communities.
  • EPA’s Brownfields Program focuses on revitalizing such communities, specifically by assessing and cleaning up mildly-contaminated properties, and encouraging reinvestment.
  • President Obama issued an executive order on greening communities last year, which includes placing new government buildings in existing communities.

SUPPORTING WALKABLE COMMUNITIES and NEW ZONING CODES

  • TIGER II grants include a pool of funds for communities to do more detailed land-use planning, and also to prepare and adopt codes that would allow sustainable and livable communities to happen as of right, without additional permission for each project. Often, local zoning codes actually prohibit desirable development, i.e. mixed-use, higher density, local services, local public spaces. Local zoning codes are one of the key barriers. This set of funding that can be used specifically to develop new zoning codes.
  • For folks interested in local codes:  EPA has a Smart Growth Implementation Assistance Program. If zoning codes are hindering sustainable development, a community tells EPA about the problem and EPA brings a team to the community. Now, all three agencies — EPA, HUD, and DOT — are participating in this program.
  • At EPA.gov/smartgrowth, you can find  Top 10 changes you can make to urban/suburban codes.

AIR QUALITY STANDARDS/ EVALUATION DISCOURAGING CAR USE:

  • Better planned, more walkable and bikeable communities will discourage car use. And competitive grant programs encourage communities to change their land use rules. In this way, this partnership affects the air quality planning process.

INSTITUTIONALIZING LIVABILITY

  • To the extent possible, agencies are working to institutionalize livability. And support for this livability initiative is strong at the local level. So optimistically, the initiative will continue beyond this administration.
  • In addition, this initiative has changed the way these agencies work together: they are collaborating in unprecedented ways. This relationship will carry over into future administrations.