Kaid Benfield Archive


Federal officials, other leaders stress “sustainable communities” at national planning forum

Kaid Benfield

Posted November 5, 2009 at 1:36PM

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transportation plan for Greater Toronto & Hamilton Area (by: Metrolinx) Alexandria, VA (by: Chad Connell, creative commons license)

"Sustainable communities" was the phrase of the day at the annual symposium of the American Institute of Certified Planners, held last week at the National Building Museum.  Federal officials from the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development headlined the program, along with Joe Schilling from Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute and Tim Brennan of the Pioneer Valley (MA) Planning Commission.

Shelley Poticha, senior advisor for sustainable housing and communities at HUD, stressed that the HUD-DOT-EPA partnership on livable communities was working to align federal policy and spending with sustainability, noting that planning at the scale of metropolitan regions is key.  She also emphasized her agency's work on refining the concept of "affordability" so that it includes the transportation costs associated with a given location as well as its housing costs.

Speaking for DOT was Beth Osborne, deputy assistant secretary for policy at the agency.  Osborne said that having multiple convenient transportation options is an important measure of sustainability, noting that a quick reference point for the concept was "being able to walk from your house to get a slice of pizza."  She stressed that sustainable communities save money for households who are able to reduce car ownership, and for governments, which can save billions of dollars in highway construction costs.  Her further remarks were summarized in a post on the American Society of Landscape Architects' The Dirt:

"Osborne noted that car-dependent communities also have a 40 percent higher overall CO2 footprint. Planning must play a role because CAFE standards won't reduce emissions alone. As an example, Osborne cited Salt Lake City, which is focusing development in built-up areas, and has saved $4.5 billion in avoided transportation infrastructure costs as a result. More high-density communities are needed. '30 percent of the population wants to live in high-density communities, but only 2 percent of U.S. communities are like this. As a result, these areas are expensive to live in.'"

Brennan, whose planning area includes Springfield and Amherst, agreed with Poticha about regionalism and with Osborne about automobile dependence:  "The region, not the state or city, is now the important piece of geography. The region is the city of the past."  "We must end car addiction. Transportation is more about land use than transportation. People need to move closer to where they work."  Schilling presented work from Eco-City Alexandria (VA), a sustainability initiative of the city government that is being assisted by Virginia Tech. (The university's Metropolitan Institute is based in Alexandria.)

The panel was moderated by Jason Jordan of the American Planning Association, who stressed that true sustainability must include economic competiveness and "resilient communities," not just environmentally sound ones.  It's terrific to see the dialogue on these issues escalated within the last year, and especially energizing to see genuine leadership from the federal government, maybe for the first time ever.