The Sustainable Communities Initiative

Mary Vogel's picture
Hwy 99 Gateway to McMinnville, OR

The Sustainable Communities Initiative
View article with images, formatting, links and comments at
MaryVogel | July 21, 2010

On June 24, 2010, the Department of Housing and Urban Development along with the Department of Transportation continued trying to undo the damage that federal emphasis on highway development and the single family home mortgage have done to the American landscape and to American cities over the past 50 some years when HUD issued two Notices of Funding Availability (NOFA): Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grants (SCRPG) and jointly with DOT—the Tiger II/Community Challenge Planning Grant (CCPG).

The NOFAs are part of the “Sustainable Communities Initiative” and its “Livability Principles” developed by HUD and DOT in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency. These principles read like the Charter of the Congress for the New Urbanism: “Promote more transportation choices; promote equitable, affordable housing; support transit-oriented, mixed use development within existing communites; invest in healthy, safe, and walkable neighborhoods; increase accountability and effectiveness of all levels of government to plan for future growth.” Proposed projects for all three pots of money need to advance the principles.

For the past 30 years, Oregon has required communities to have plans with many of the elements the feds are now seeking. So you’d expect that things should certainly look different here! It was with this thought in mind that I loosened the tight rein I’d been holding on my carbon footprint last weekend and invited my carless downtown Portland neighbor, Linda, to see some of Oregon’s smaller communities.

Hwy 99 Gateway to McMinnville, OR. The orange balloon in the center designates Wal-Mart. Photo courtesy of State of Oregon

We found the main roads leading into McMinnville, Corvallis, Albany and Canby were “Anywhere USA” or the “Geography of Nowhere”: Winco Supercenter, followed by Wal-Mart, followed by fast food joints and car sales lots. The most observable exception to “Anywhere” is that Oregon’s auto-oriented strip commercial has sidewalks. Most of them are tight to the curb and most have no street trees to offer shade from summer sun to the unfortunate person forced to walk along such roads. After all, street trees might make it hard to see all the signage competing for drivers’ attention. But at least there are sidewalks

From the looks of things, Oregon’s statewide land use law and all the carrots and sticks that helped communities implement it have relied too much on such big picture tools as a Transportation System Plan, a Metropolitan Housing Rule, an Urban Growth Boundary–with insufficient attention to the design or re-design of livable neighborhoods within that boundary. One gets the impression that the sprawl gateways are intentional. According to the Oregon Land Conservation and Development website:

"Some parts of urban areas, such as downtowns, pedestrian districts, transit-oriented developments and other mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly centers, will be highly convenient for a variety of modes, including walking, bicycling and transit, while others will be auto-oriented and include more modest measures to accommodate access and circulation by other modes."

With a new library of strategies and tools to restructure former sprawling landscapes into more beautiful, sustainable neighborhoods, it is my hope that the federal Sustainable Communities program can help us move away from “Anywhere, USA”

I covered some of those tools cited by Andres Duany in my May blog article:
Sprawl Repair Manual, Smart Growth Manual, Smart Code v 9.2 and Light Imprint Handbook. To that list, I would add LEED-ND and Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach: An ITE Recommended Practice – 2010.

SmartCode Sprawl Repair Module Draft Illustration - Compliments of DPZ

And now, the feds are offering funding that can help communities put these tools to work.

Community Challenge Planning Grants can fund development of smart growth, mixed use plans that promote affordable housing and sustainable transportation; revisions to zoning codes to remove barriers and promote sustainable and mixed-use development; revisions to building codes to promote the energy-efficient rehabilitation of older structures; planning, establishing, and maintaining acquisition funds and/or land banks.

The Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant program is the first of its kind designed to create stronger, more sustainable communities by connecting housing to jobs, fostering local innovation and building a clean energy economy. The idea is for regions to integrate economic development, land use, and transportation investments.

A Council of Governments or similar entity might do a Regional Plan for Sustainable Development: incorporating climate change impact assessments, energy reduction strategies, economic development plans, food production and distribution plans, long-range transportation plans and long-range housing plans. If it is further along, it might apply to do detailed execution programs or limited predevelopment planning activities for a catalytic project.

The Tiger II Planning Grant will fund the planning, preparation or design of surface transportation projects such as highway or bridge projects; public transportation projects; passenger and freight rail projects; and port infrastructure. Livability and Environmental Sustainability are two of the rating criteria. By those they mean fostering livable communities through place-based investments that increase transportation choices and improving energy efficiency, reducing dependence on oil, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Job creation, particularly jobs and activity that benefit economically distressed areas, will also be strongly weighted.

I hope that those of us who write grant proposals for communities, those of us who administer those grants, those of us who consult with communities will use the tools cited above to pursue compact urban form and high quality urban design with any of the projects we propose under this pot of money.

After all, as HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan has said “The goal of each of these efforts—at the regional level, at the community level and at the neighborhood level—is the same: to advance our shared priorities and values as Americans for the decades to come.” Let’s show that those shared values also incorporate beauty and respect for nature into all aspects of our built environment.

Mary Vogel is a Portland-based Congress for the New Urbanism-Accredited planning and urban design consultant offering sustainability services to local governments and private organizations. She is skilled in the use of the above tools to help communities become more efficient and resilient, more compact and walkable, more connected to nature’s services and more prosperous and self-reliant—better prepared for the challenges of the 21st Century. She can be reached at mary at


Write your comments in the box below and share on your Facebook!