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Thank You for Listening, Mr. Donovan

Peter Katz / Jun 11 2010

For Release Sunday, June 13, 2010

Peter KatzThat’s what I would have said to Shaun Donovan, Secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development had I been able to reach the podium before he was whisked into a waiting car for a tour of Atlanta-area public housing sites. Donovan had just addressed the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU)’s annual gathering this May. CNU has been working tirelessly for the past two decades to find a new and better approach to community development in America.

Simply stated, CNU seeks to build strong, economically competitive regions woven from a fabric of walkable neighborhoods and districts, that offer beautiful, affordable places to live, work, learn and play. What CNU members dislike is the single-use development pattern known as suburban sprawl– the pattern prevalent in most places built over the past 50-60 years.

Apparently, Donovan dislikes sprawl too. He thanked CNU members for their part in changing “the way we think about our communities” and offered his critique of the suburban-edge housing boom that hindsight now tells us was a fool’s paradise:

“During the housing boom” Donovan said, “real estate agents suggested to families that couldn’t afford to live near job centers that they could find a more affordable home by living farther away. ┬áLenders bought into the ‘Drive to Qualify’ myth as well-giving easy credit to home-buyers without accounting for how much it might cost families to live in these areas or the risk they could pose to the market. And when these families moved in, they found themselves driving dozens of miles to work, to school, to the movies, to the grocery store, spending hours in traffic and spending nearly as much to fill their gas tank as they were to pay their mortgage-and in some places, more.”

Donovan’s words, and his agency’s plan for a $150-million Sustainable Communities grant program, clearly resonated with the diverse group of attendees at CNU. That audience–consisting of planners, architects, developers, municipal officials and others–was also delighted to learn about HUD’s new grant scoring criteria for “location efficiency” and their use of LEED-ND, the green neighborhood rating system developed by CNU in partnership with the National Resources Defense Council and the U. S. Green Building Council.

The Secretary’s remarks had a special resonance to me: In October 2008, just after Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac went into federal conservatorship and Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy protection, I made this plea–it seemed an outlandish request at the time–in an earlier Citiwire column:

“Maybe it’s time, even as the billions of bailout dollars flow, for official Washington to get tough. It’s emerging as lender of last resort, asset manager for the wounded American taxpayer, assuming the responsibility for thousands of toxic mortgages on property that more diligent local planners might never have allowed to be built. So why could it not advocate–maybe even require as a price for the potential subsidies and loan insurance it may offer–compliance with planning rules aimed at promoting more economically robust, resource-efficient communities?”

With a change in national administration pending, my thought on making the request was “Why not?” Indeed, not since HUD’s Model Cities program of the 1960-70s had any federal agency ventured into local planning issues. In the decades since the Cold War, such matters were considered taboo for policy makers in Washington; anything sounding even remotely like “central planning” would trigger comparisons to the Soviet Union or “social engineering.”

But with the housing meltdown, everything had changed. Secretary Donovan freely acknowledged in his remarks that “for decades, the federal government has actually encouraged sprawl” including funding of beltways and highways to serve remote job centers. Perhaps it was time for the federal government to use its bully pulpit, and its budget, to promote better planning practices at the local level.

Many at CNU were most excited to hear about the imminent release of HUD’s NOFA (Notice of Funds Availability) for $150-million of funding for more sustainable regional plans, detailed community plans, and for regions already working within a sustainable planning context-specific financial incentives to help with implementation.

As the NOFA release draws nearer, there is much speculation: Will the money flow mostly to large metro regions with sophisticated planning efforts already underway that link future development to new public transit infrastructure? Or will smaller metros and rural communities have a reasonable chance to qualify on their own terms?

My reading the pre-NOFA materials suggests that what HUD really wants is to support the efforts of communities large, or small, that “get it.” OK–that’s my term; HUD’s language is more complex, referencing “multi-jurisdictional planning efforts that integrate housing, economic development, and transportation…”

As Smart Growth director in one of those smaller places that I truly believe “gets it”–Sarasota County, Florida–my colleagues and I would like to see just a small part of that funding to formulate, with our neighboring municipalities, the kind of plan that HUD most wants–an integrated framework for building compact, walkable neighborhoods that will help us get the most out of our existing road network, and our planned BRT (bus rapid transit) system.

But win or lose, I’m delighted to see the new game. Although HUD’s $150-million may seem like a lot of money, it’s just a drop in the bucket when one considers the many regions and smaller communities that will be competing for the funds. But as a multi-year program with ties to sister agencies EPA, DOT and possibly HHS, all of which have discussed bringing additional funds to the table, the program will likely inspire many regions–ours among them–to consider smart growth planning opportunities that might otherwise be overlooked.

Peter Katz is Director, Smart Growth / Urban Planning for Sarasota County, FL. He was the founding executive director of the Congress for the New Urbanism. His e-mail address is columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to

One Comment

  1. Pat Navadomskis
    Posted June 12, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Cities and inner-ring suburbs do need to collaborate on redevelopment and what should be knocked down.
    Everyone doesn’t need Grantine Countertops and hard wood floors. Pouring money into a too small or dilapidated
    building in an area overrun with gangs and drugs is a waste.

    Another idea for redevelopment: FIX THE SCHOOLS