Sustainable Communities: The Light at the End of the Tunnel
- The Obama administration has created a $100 million Sustainable Regional Planning Grant program that will fund implementation efforts that “integrate economic development, land use and transportation investments.” The program is part of a larger effort by the administration to create a more integrated urban policy.
- In New Jersey, a group of cities, counties and state government, regional agencies, educational institutions and non-governmental organizations (including New Jersey Future)from throughout the 13-county North Jersey region have formed the “North Jersey Sustainable Communities Consortium” and submitted an application aimed at planning for sustainable growth around that region’s transit facilities in conjunction with the construction of the new ARC (Access to the Region’s Core) Trans-Hudson passenger rail tunnel.
- When completed, the ARC tunnel will reduce commute times and increase property values by more than $18 billion in the 100-plus communities with train stations that will benefit from enhanced service, according to a recent study by the Regional Plan Association.
Creating a Cohesive Urban Policy at the Federal Level
In an effort to combat the bureaucratic confusion that has long characterized federal urban policy, the Obama administration launched the Sustainable Communities Partnership in June 2009. The aim of the effort is to break down “silos” of decision-making, where government agencies pursue individual mandates without coordination, potentially undermining or even contradicting the priorities and regulations of one another. The partnership, a collaborative effort among the Department of Transportation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency, aims to coordinate federal urban policy around six “Livability Principles,” including providing transportation choices, promoting affordable housing and supporting existing communities. One of the first major initiatives stemming from this new partnership is a $100 million competitive grant program administered by the new Office of Sustainable Communities within HUD that will fund planning and implementation for sustainable communities around the country.
The North Jersey Sustainable Communities Consortium has submitted a grant application to fund the creation of a plan that would foster sustainable development patterns in the region that will benefit most directly from the completion of the ARC tunnel. A recent report by the Regional Plan Association predicts that, once completed, the tunnel will result in increased property values around the 100-plus stations that will receive improved service under ARC (click here for a detailed diagram highlighting service improvements from ARC); this increase in value will likely drive demand for new development. The proposal developed by the consortium seeks to plan for and accommodate this growth in a way that integrates housing, including affordable housing, with workforce development and transportation investments to promote transportation options and economic opportunities for the region. The plan would include design guidelines that promote active and attractive neighborhoods and districts, as well as propose improvements to infrastructure and parks in order to help protect and enhance environmental resources.
If funded, the planning process would involve a public education and community organizing effort that involves stakeholders at all levels, including local residents, community and advocacy groups, local governments and beyond. Community desires will shape the regional plan through a visioning process that elicits preferences about future growth. To implement the plan, the consortium would build on the Christie administration’s commitment to elevate the State Plan from a voluntary guide to an organizing framework that can focus state agency actions. The project would create and document local success stories in selected transit districts while empowering towns throughout the region with new tools from the popular Sustainable Jersey program.
Competition for the grants will be intense, and there is no guarantee that the North Jersey Sustainable Communities Consortium proposal will prevail. Still, several factors bode well for its success. The wide range of partners involved in the effort, including the North Jersey Transportation Planning Association, the Governor’s Office and NJ Transit, fits well with the federal government’s emphasis on partnerships within this program. And the proposal’s links to both the State Plan and the ARC tunnel give it a tangible nexus to the principles of sustainable communities that the grant program seeks to promote. Even if the application is unsuccessful, the dialogue spurred by the consortium’s grant application has helped focus much-needed attention on the need to plan and prepare communities for the increased development interest that will be spurred by the new ARC tunnel in a comprehensive, sustainable way.