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Urban Update: Sustainable Communities

The Sustainable Communities Partnership team describes the progress they've made over the last year and invite you to join them in a Live Chat next Thursday, July 15 at 2:00pm EST.

Ed Note: This is part of a series of blogs that detail the work of developing a national urban policy agenda. The White House will also host a live chat with the Sustainable Communities Parntership on July 15th at 2:00pm EST. Update: In case you missed it, you can watch the chat here.

In June 2009, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) joined together to form the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, an unprecedented agreement to coordinate federal housing, transportation, and environmental investments; protect public health and the environment; promote equitable development; and help address the challenges of climate change.

A part of President Obama's broader urban and metropolitan agenda, the partnership, guided by six livability principles, aims to break down traditional silos and craft federal programs and policies that take a more collaborative and holistic approach to better respond to the needs of communities.

In the past, federal policy inadvertently promoted uncoordinated, dispersed growth that left too many communities disconnected from regional assets and without the proper tools to realize their full potential. Today, many Americans are car-dependent, living far from their workplaces in residential subdivisions that don’t have quality public transportation and traditional amenities like corner markets, schools, parks, and medical facilities. These far-flung suburbs were initially developed to provide more affordable homes for working families, but instead many Americans are spending 60% of their income on housing and transportation, leaving them little else to save or invest.

People are looking for other options.  Market research shows that there is a substantial unmet demand for communities with more housing and transportation choices. The two largest demographic cohorts – the retiring Baby Boomers and the Millennials just entering the workforce – are the most interested in these walkable, transit-accessible communities with a rich array of amenities.  These communities are more economically sustainable because they attract workers and families, providing the skilled employees that businesses seek and the customer base that neighborhood shops and services need to thrive, and they are more environmentally sustainable because they use water, energy, and other resources more efficiently.

All the evidence suggests the demand is strong, yet poorly aligned housing, transportation and environmental programs have made it difficult for communities to develop these types of places. To build and support these sustainable communities, housing, transportation, environmental protection, economic development, and energy policies need to be developed in concert.  The conventional way of looking at these issues in isolation won’t work anymore.

Earlier this year, to learn from the experiences of stakeholders dealing with federal urban policy at the local level, we held listening sessions in Denver, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Hartford, Washington D.C., and Cleveland. Over 700 people participated, including representatives of state, local, and regional governments; community development organizations; and a broad range of other stakeholders. HUD also hosted several webcasts which reached over 1,000 additional people.

With public input and after a lot of hard work breaking down bureaucratic barriers, we made significant progress in three key areas:
1. Provide and coordinate funding to support the creation of more sustainable communities:

HUD and DOT released a joint notice of funding availability in June 2010. The joint grant program offers up to $75 million in funding – $35 million in TIGER II Planning Grants and $40 million in Sustainable Community Challenge Grants – for local planning activities that integrate transportation, housing, and economic development.

HUD also announced $100 million in funding for the Sustainable Communities Regional Planning grant program, which will be awarded competitively to support regional planning efforts that integrate housing, land use, economic and workforce development, transportation, and infrastructure investments in a manner that empowers jurisdictions to consider the interdependent challenges of economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental impact. In addition, applicants that meet a specified threshold score can also qualify for Preferred Sustainability Status that will give them access to a broad spectrum of benefits, including capacity building resources and secure potential points in a number of funding opportunities managed by other federal agencies, including DOT and EPA.

HUD also adopted the LEED-ND system in evaluating proposals for its $3.25 billion discretionary funding grant programs; and EPA specifically cited the Partnership goals in a new guidance to states in how they should spend federal water and wastewater infrastructure funds, approximately $3.3 billion.

2. Removing regulatory barriers at the federal level to facilitate the development of sustainable communities at the local level:

President Obama signed an Executive Order to improve the sustainability of federal government facilities. The EO, signed last October, includes requirements for setting greenhouse gas reduction targets, encouraging community planning, and creating high-performance buildings.

DOT issued a new bicycle/pedestrian policy that balances the needs of non-motorists in federally funded road projects, discourages transportation investments that negatively affect cyclists and pedestrians, and encourages investments that go beyond the minimum requirements to provide facilities for bicyclists and pedestrians of all ages and abilities. Additionally, the Federal Transit Administration published a proposed policy statement that would extend eligibility of federal transit funds for pedestrian and bicycle improvements.

HUD revised their policies to make it easier for FHA-insured multifamily housing to be developed on remediated brownfield sites, while ensuring the health and safety of future residents; HUD, DOT, and EPA are jointly reviewing applications for EPA’s Brownfields Area-Wide Planning Pilot Initiative and will collaborate on the work in the 20 communities that are selected; and DOT repealed the New Starts cost-effectiveness rule to give meaningful consideration to the full range of benefits that transit can provide.

3. Aligning our agency priorities and institutionalizing the principles of the partnership within our agencies: 

The three agencies have been working together in unprecedented ways this past year, jointly evaluating grant applications, developing Notices of Funding Availability, reviewing regulatory and policy changes, and aligning strategic plans and goals.

We’re eager to share our work with you and get your feedback. Next Thursday, July 15th at 2:00 pm EST we will be hosting a live chat to talk about the progress we have made and answer your questions. The chat will be moderated by Derek Douglas, Special Assistant to the President on Urban Policy at the White House. We invite you to ask questions live at, or you can submit questions in advance through our online partner at Planetizen.

Shelley Poticha is Director of the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities at HUD
Beth Osborne is Deputy Assistant Secretary of Policy at the Department of Transportation
John W. Frece is the Director of the Office of Sustainable Communities at EPA