SEATTLE – Members of President Obama’s “green cabinet” vowed to implement smart growth at the federal level by coordinating the agencies responsible for housing, transportation, and the environment, delighting nearly two-thousand planners and local government officials gathered for a sustainability conference here.
Shaun Donovan, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ray LaHood, secretary of the Department of Transportation, and Lisa Jackson, director of the Environmental Protection Agency, detailed how they were working together to favor funding for initiatives for housing with better proximity to jobs, schools, and transit, for example, and give more priority to transportation projects that helped reduce greenhouse gas emissions, over traditional criteria such as relieving congestion. They also said the agencies have also stopped working at cross purposes in the array of programs they administer, unifying disparate initiatives under the mantra of sustainability.
“It’s time the federal government spoke with one voice,” said Donovan.
The remarks by the administration officials, ironically, did not appear to be coordinated in advance by the staff of the respective agencies, missing the opportunity for a more cogent division of labor in delivering the message. Nonetheless, the audience was so thrilled to hear about the steps being taken at the federal level, after many years of dormancy, most seem to relish the policy-wonk tenor. They applauded enthusiastically throughout the speeches, delivered at the New Partners for Smart Growth conference, including at the description of changes in application procedures for federal grants. “We have been working on these issues for so long, to have this cadre of people as leaders is just amazing,” said Washington DC planning director Harriet Tregoning, who welcomed the officials as “rock stars.” “No one will work harder to make sure you are wildly successful.”
The three cabinet members wrote an op-ed essay that appeared in the Seattle Times linking sustainability efforts with jobs and prosperity, suggesting opportunities to be seized in the new green economy, though they did not sound that theme in the remarks. Nor did they address the mounting pressure to reduce federal spending because of massive deficits, or the decreased appetite to address long-term energy or environmental concerns such as climate change.
Since HUD, DOT, and EPA announced the groundbreaking partnership last year, the Obama administration has been mustering limited funds and re-organizing grant programs to promote smart growth. Promising a “long overdue shift in American transportation policy” encompassing urban infrastructure such as high-speed inter-city rail, LaHood said he would stop supporting projects that were environmentally damaging, and coordinate investment in transit in neighborhoods where HUD is investing in housing. Donovan detailed the creation of the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, headed by former Reconnecting America executive director Shelly Poticha, which will mete out $140 million in grants for local smart growth efforts ranging from the redevelopment of vacant lots in cities to home financing that includes energy efficiency upgrades and location-efficient mortgages.
“Every American is paying the price for Washington’s failure” to recognize the problems of sprawl, said Donovan, in terms of dependence on foreign oil, environmental damage, and the growing cost in family budgets of long commutes to work. He criticized the trend of “drive to qualify” where consumers sought out more affordable homes further from job centers.
DOT also established an Office of Livable Communities, and EPA yet another variation, the Office of Sustainable Communities, formerly known as the EPA’s smart growth unit, which remained remarkably active during the Bush administration when sustainability was not a big emphasis. It was unclear why the three agencies, vowing silo-breaking and alignment, gave the offices three slightly different names.
Jackson spoke by video, having canceled her participation due to a meeting with the president. Donovan, who earlier talked up the sustainability grants in Portland and took the train from there to Seattle, enthusiastically introduced HUD undersecretary Ron Sims, former King County executrive, who received a lifetime achievement award. Conference organizers said the 9th annual New Partners for Smart Growth gathering drew almost twice as many attendees as the year before. At the conference, the Lincoln Institute and the Sonoran Institute announced the release of a major report, Planning for Climate Change in the West, that recommends emphasizing the economic benefits and cost savings of sustainability measures.