CNU18: “Advancing Federal Policy and the Sustainable Communities Partnership”

Katherine Gregor's picture

At a panel discussion on “Advancing Federal Policy and the Sustainable Communities Partnership” at CNU18 in Atlanta, federal officials observed that $3 billion in competitive federal grants “in play” this year will be awarded based on six Livability Principles. To win those funds, grant applicants will need to submit local project proposals that align well. At the session, moderated by Victor Dover, nearly a dozen Congress for the New Urbanism Board members shared the stage with two federal officials. Tim Torma, from the EPA’s Smart Growth Program, and Salin Geevarghese, from HUD’s office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, asked for the groups’ ongoing assistance as it incorporates CNU principles into federal programs and grant award criteria. For example, the “General Section” attached to every NOFA (notice of funds availability) now includes language from LEED-ND, which CNU helped to write.

Torma said an unprecedented silo-busting shift in U.S. governmental behavior occurred last year, when Transportation Sec. Ray LaHood asked EPA staff to review his upcoming Senate testimony. He said EPA staff were stunned when the DOT head emailed over a draft, asking for their feedback. “We didn’t want to open the file, because we were sure it was a virus!” he joked.

The group discussed how CNU’s influence on HUD policy dates back to Hope VI, when HUD Sec. Henry Cisneros asked for CNU assistance to create public housing as traditional neighborhoods – instead of “projects.” Now, HUD is asking for CNU’s help with its Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, which will build on HOPE VI to revitalize high-poverty areas, linking housing to childhood and school interventions. The interagency HUD-DOT-EPA effort also continues to consult with CNU – valued for its “diversity of thought leaders” – on regional planning, as it works to shift development patterns to favor transit and density.

Torma and Geevarghese asked for CNU members’ engagement and help – nationally, and back home – on two key points. 1) How do we not drown under the sheer weight of comprehensiveness? and 2) How do we get people to think outside their neighborhood silos, to develop a regional sense of place?

Board Member Scott Bernstein, who has provided recommendations to the interagency effort, responded to Torma’s assertion that “federalism” is being redefined as “true local empowerment” through the six livability principles. Bernstein said he’s enjoyed a new sense of partnership, and “passing ideas back and forth” that differs markedly from the old “top down” approach. CNU’s staff and board are being invited to help the feds “set standards, define specifics, and provide expertise.”

But when panelists seemed to crow that CNU now rules the roost, Peter Calthorpe cautioned the group not to get overconfident. “We need to be very mindful of the attitudes in Congress,” he warned. Many elected officials are not as progressive as agency staff, so “Don’t get too sure.” There’s already been pushback from members of Congress on LaHood and Donovan, he noted, with some asking “Are you forcing us to think one way?”

“We need to be sure we keep our coalition alive and powerful,” Calthorpe urged. “The environmental community isn’t with us on smart growth yet,” so to assume CNU has won the day could be “very dangerous.” He stressed the need to communicate the benefits of the new federal policies “to the average person, and the public at large” supported by hard facts and metrics. One positive sign: the interagency guidelines have gotten a warm welcome from many rural and small communities.

- Katherine Gregor


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