For Release Sunday, December 4, 2011
Across America, regional communities are actively envisioning and investing in new patterns of sustainable growth and development that aim to promote economic competitiveness, environmental integrity and social opportunity. For the most part, these efforts are homegrown, prompted by a host of new market forces, social realities and environmental constraints.
In recent years, the federal government has stepped up its role in this process, bringing engaged leadership, yet also prompting questions about whether it should be involved in this arena. From my perspective, the answer is clear: federal leadership in fostering sustainable development is important to both the interests of the federal government and to the health of the nation.
There is a clear and compelling federal interest in promoting sustainable development as a proactive strategy to target and leverage federal investments in infrastructure, innovation and human capacity, as a protective strategy to guard the efficacy of federal assets and investments, and as a preemptive strategy to minimize the need to expend federal resources to mitigate the environmental, social and economic consequences of inefficient and unsustainable development practices.
Progress in almost every federal policy area — transportation, air quality, water resources, public health, agriculture, education, management of federal lands and military bases, housing, social welfare, workforce development — is advanced if federal investments are aligned with sound strategies for the sustainable development of the places in which investments are made.
In addition, the federal government has a direct interest in creating a more competitive economy. The nation’s economic performance is essentially determined by the health of metropolitan and regional economies. Regions that grow in ways that are fiscally sustainable, have effective infrastructure systems, and minimize social disparities perform better and contribute more to national performance.
Yet, few formal structures or mechanisms exist for creating and implementing effective regional growth strategies. American regions are ill-equipped to address the complex challenges of our national future — challenges that range from energy independence, climate change and global competition to concentrated poverty, traffic gridlock, and the housing market collapse. All of these issues are interrelated, and all of them are profoundly affected by how regions grow.
It is imperative to our national future that American regions grow better. We need to build regions that waste fewer natural resources, create more opportunity, and develop more efficient places that are economically competitive.
To achieve this, federal leadership is both necessary and effective. Federal leadership helps drive policy innovation, promulgate best practices, create networks across regions that broaden awareness and consensus, and align federal, state and local policies, plans and programs. Competitive federal planning grant programs consistently demonstrate that even small levels of funding are powerful incentives for complex regions to develop cooperative strategies that transcend political and institutional boundaries.
Of course, it is important that the federal government not only supports sustainable development, but that it does so in ways that are effective. The HUD Sustainable Communities Initiative is a thoughtful and promising approach. It promotes community-driven planning processes and community-generated solutions. It emphasizes outcomes over means, and it fosters integration of interrelated but traditionally isolated policies in areas such as land use, transportation, workforce and economic development, and infrastructure investments.
The HUD program mandates nothing, but supports regional communities striving to find solutions that achieve local aspirations, make sense to local markets, and are embraced by local political values. The HUD program is a low-cost, high-impact approach. It enables regions to move local priorities farther and faster, to take risks that would be difficult without federal support, to overcome complex structural barriers, and to create and implement new, authentic visions for sustainable places that support social, environmental and economic vitality. Moreover, the HUD program articulates principles that have helped multiple federal agencies coalesce around common objectives and align their programs and policies to be more mutually supportive.
If the federal role in this arena is diminished, regional progress will be slower and less effective and America will suffer. Certainly federal planning funds are very helpful in supporting work that is hard, if not impossible, to fund otherwise. But federal policy leadership is even more important.
Federal policy affects how regions work in dozens of ways, and regions need the federal agencies — all of them, not just HUD — to help align their investments and policies with one another and with those made at the state, regional and local levels. If the federal government is not present, regions cannot make good decisions. Their efforts are thwarted and enervated by the absence of the most influential player, and the federal funds spent in dozens of areas are not spent strategically and are often counter-productive. Engaged federal leadership in sustainable development makes sense for the federal government and it makes sense for America.
David Warm is Executive Director of the Mid-America Regional Council.
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