Obama administration pushes agencies toward 'smart growth'

Whether they are facilitating sprawling suburbs or dense downtowns, cities and states shape their own development. But the federal government's policies and purse can also be a powerful force.

Recently, the Obama administration has been trying to harness that power to push more sustainable communities. Yesterday, administration officials announced a set of six "livability" principles that will span several federal departments, a shift that aligns with Obama's broader climate and energy goals (Greenwire, June 16).

U.S. EPA also joined the partnership, announced by the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development earlier this year to increase affordable housing and transportation options and lower transportation costs while revitalizing city, suburban and rural landscapes.

Increasingly, smarter growth policies to reduce sprawl are also billed for their greenhouse gas emissions benefits. Overall, transportation accounts for nearly a third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and buildings emit about 40 percent, half of which is from homes.

"I think it's probably one of the most important things that have happened in federal government in a long time," said Ed McMahon, a resident fellow with the nonprofit Urban Land Institute.


A potential to reduce emissions by 10%

Gerrit Knaap, executive director of the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education, said that such high-level changes were a positive sign. "It is generally not in the interest of the local government to be progressive on this, because it is easy to deflect growth elsewhere," he said.

Overall, changes in local and regional planning have the potential to reduce the nation's total emissions by as much as 10 percent by 2050, said Tim Torma, a senior policy analyst with EPA's Smart Growth program, citing a recent report.

Since 1996, when the agency's smart growth program began, EPA has helped guide and fund communities working to reduce urban sprawl and ease highway congestion. Torma said the more recent attention paid to climate change has broadened its emphasis. Now, instead of only considering how people move from one point to another, greener buildings and infrastructure are also part of the planning process.

That new agreement could influence how EPA funds water infrastructure projects to allow for better local planning, Torma said, as one example. Through the economic stimulus and the 2010 budget, EPA's water infrastructure funding to states is slated to increase substantially.

Sustainability considerations are newer to DOT and HUD, said McMahon. Working together, the three agencies could have a major influence on development patterns, he said.

'Private money follows public money,' maybe

"There's a maxim in the development community that private money follows public money," said Torma.

But Matthew Kahn, an environmental economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, was skeptical that federal sustainable community policies could do much to change greenhouse gas emissions or change long-held priorities of respective agencies.

"If we're just talking about a couple of communities in a city of 3 million, that's not going to make a dent," he said.

But, for now, the big elephant in the room is the upcoming surface transportation bill. This year, Congress plans to reauthorize hundreds of billions of dollars in spending for the nation's roads, rail and mass transit systems. The administration has not yet taken a position on how much should be allocated to highway projects, a traditional DOT emphasis, versus more climate-friendly transit options.

"Whatever legislative approach is pursued, we will be taking a hard look at potential changes to metropolitan and statewide transportation planning processes to ensure that they improve livability. We believe it is important to include the six principles agreed upon in the DOT-HUD-EPA partnership to guide our authorization discussions," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a statement at a Senate hearing yesterday.

Kahn agreed that high-level priority changes are needed. "With public transit, you either go all the way, like New York City, or you don't do it at all. If you build some cute little monorail, the mayor will get a ribbon-cutting ceremony, and no one uses it."

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