For a while President Obama looked like he might promote smart growth at the national level -- linking together the federal agencies for housing, transportation, and the environment, and making the US Department of Housing and Urban Development a hotbed for innovation. One of the more promising soldiers in that effort was King County executive Ron Sims, who became deputy secretary. Now Sims is headed back to Washington state, and the sustainability agenda has run into opposition and budget realities. Addressing the New England Smart Growth Leaderhsip Forum at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston last week, however, he said getting discouraged was not an option.
"I am no ways tired," said Sims, who is as likely to hug you as shake your hand. "So what if it's difficult?" In an evangelical keynote, he acknowledged frustration in trying to promote planning on Capital Hill, where he sometimes heard 'I don't believe in this.' The Tea Party and aligned Republicans have characterized sustainability initiatives as just shy of communism, according to Paul McMorrow in a recent Boston Globe op-ed, noting a House bill forbidding even the use of the term. He compared efforts to revitalize cities to the civil rights struggle, but emphasized that smart growth was "a way of using money smartly," versus poor planning that "turns local businesses into an ATM machine. "It's conservative financially," he said. "Sustainability is the only way this nation will endure." The focus on equity and supporting urban neighborhoods will help cultivate future geniuses living in cities, he said, key for economkic competitiveness. "We can't not have all hands on deck."
Sims says he is essentially retired, for the moment, enjoying his family. There may be inevitable speculation of him someday running for mayor of Seattle.
The focus of the forum, led by senior fellow Armando Carbonell and featuring Doug Farr on LEED-ND and Marc Draisen of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council among many others, was the Sustainable Communities program, which has been zeroed out after a round of nearly $100 million in grants benefitting a number of New England communities and regional planning groups. The program was modest by any measure -- .0002 percent of the federal budget, as Rob Steuteville notes -- but made a huge difference at the local level and moving projects and initiatives forward. Phil Langdon from New Urban Network filed this dispatch with coverage of the gathering, co-sponsored by HUD, EPA, and the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston.