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EPA Finally on Board for Sustainable Communities

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By Kaid Benfield

The more the merrier, and one only wonders what took them so long. Back in March, the Obama administration announced an exciting new partnership between the federal transportation and housing & urban development departments to pursue together an agenda for smart growth and sustainability. As I wrote then, this was exciting news because HUD had basically avoided the issue for most of its history, and DOT had been a bit schizo, doing some great things but also continuing to fund sprawl-inducing highways without any clear mission for sustainability.

But Secretaries LaHood and Donovan really get it, and their press releases said all the right things about focusing on metro-area coordination of housing, transportation, and land use planning, even taking into account the true affordability of housing when transportation costs are factored in. This was big stuff, and HUD secretary Donovan backed it up with a great speech several weeks later to the Urban Land Institute. With a new task force being appointed to do the work, these were signs of true leadership.

At the time, I couldn't help but wonder where EPA was in all this. After all, both the Clinton and Bush administrations maintained a truly committed and innovative smart growth division in their policy office, now headed for the Obama administration by Maryland smart growth veteran John Frece. Although I have been wildly enthusiastic about the new leadership from HUD and DOT, both of whom direct major programs and dispense considerable amounts of funding that can have huge impacts on land use and sustainability, I have also become accustomed to having EPA be the federal lead on these issues.

But the good news is that EPA is about to join the party. Although, as I write at 10 am, there has not been a formal announcement on EPA's website, I have been told that administrator Lisa Jackson will be announcing today that her agency, too, is on board. [Edit 12.30 pm: here is the announcement on EPA's site.]

According to a document describing the partnership, the three agencies will work together to ensure that the nation's housing and transportation goals are met "while simultaneously protecting the environment, promoting equitable development, and helping to address the challenges of climate change." The now three-way partnership will identify and carry out strategies to do the following:

--Provide more transportation choices. Develop safe, reliable and economical transportation choices in order to decrease household transportation costs, reduce our nations' dependence on foreign oil, improve air quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote public health.

--Promote equitable, affordable housing. Expand location and energy efficient housing choices for people of all ages, incomes, races and ethnicities to increase mobility and lower the combined cost of housing and transportation.

--Increase economic competitiveness. Enhance economic competitiveness through reliable and timely access to employment centers, educational opportunities, services and other basic needs by workers as well as expanded business access to markets.

--Support existing communities. Target federal funding toward existing communities to increase community revitalization, the efficiency of public works investments and safeguard rural landscapes.

--Leverage federal investment. Cooperatively align federal policies and funding to remove barriers, leverage funding and increase the accountability and effectiveness of all levels of government to plan for future growth.

--Value communities and neighborhoods. Enhance the unique characteristics of all communities by investing in healthy, safe and walkable neighborhoods - rural, urban or suburban.

EPA's smart growth staff really has the best and the brightest, in my opinion, and I'm not just saying that because they are friends of mine. They are very, very good at what they do, and even with a relatively small budget have produced some of the best research in the field. HUD and DOT will be fortunate to have them as a partner, and so will the country.


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