For Release Saturday, February 13, 2010
SEATTLE — Members of President Obama’s “green cabinet” were greeted like rock stars by nearly two-thousand believers in a more sustainable future at the New Partners for Smart Growth conference earlier this month.
We know this in part because Washington, D.C. city planner Harriet Tregoning–who introduced 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–came right out and called them rock stars and everybody cheered in agreement.
This was a particularly friendly audience, to be sure, and predisposed to like the administration’s plans to bring smart growth and planning to the–gasp–federal level. The gathered planners and local government officials were also a technically knowledgeable bunch. Where else would it be an applause line to say that not only municipalities but regional planning entities could now apply for a particular federal grant program? Or that there are plans to put the “UD” back in “HUD”?
“We have been working on these issues for so long, to have this cadre of people as leaders is just amazing,” Tregoning said. “No one will work harder to make sure you are wildly successful.”
By the time the convention hall emptied, however, there remained plenty of reasons for pessimism. The reasons have to do with message, money, and politics.
The coordination of the federal agencies responsible for housing, transportation, and the environment, as well as diplomatic relations with energy and agriculture, is itself a landmark achievement. First–and this may sound trifling, but it’s important–HUD, DOT, and EPA are getting out of each others way. They have identified programs and criteria that work at cross purposes, and moved towards seamless coordination.
As LaHood pointed out, why should DOT fund a transit line in one neighborhood if HUD is investing in housing a mile away? Why not bring them together? Several states have seen the virtue of aligning capital budgets on one page in this way. LaHood also touted inter-city high-speed–or perhaps we should say “higher-speed” rail, and a halt to transport projects that are environmentally damaging.
To implement these coordinated policies, each of the agencies has created sub-units–although inexplicably, given them slightly different names in each case (I guess some federal agency habits are just ingrained). HUD has the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, 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. DOT has the Office of Livable Communities, and EPA the Office of Sustainable Communities.
It may be a small thing, but any marketing campaign needs a strong, consistent, clear message. That seemed to be lacking in remarks prepared by three different staffs. Just how is the administration going to move a sustainability agenda forward? Emphasize jobs and economic prosperity, the three cabinet members wrote an op-ed essay in the Seattle Times. It’s a similar new-green-economy approach flagged in a recent report on planning for climate change.
At New Partners, though, there was no honest talk about the two things clearly standing in the green cabinet’s way: concern about staggering budget deficits, and a political-cultural shift away from taking action on problems like climate change, made clear by the election in my home state of Massachusetts by Republican Scott Brown. (Brown said he would vote against not only health care reform but cap-and-trade legislation as well).
Plans for inter-city rail were clearly music to the ears of those gathered in Seattle. Is it really going to happen? Will transportation reauthorization truly be transformed? Between legitimate worries about the deficit and national debt, and earmarking ways of Congress, there’s no clear path. Similarly, the money devoted to supporting local smart growth is $140 million more than what was there before. But it’s still not a lot, even when properly leveraged.
It’s obviously hard to move into Washington and change the way of doing business. But there was something about the nature of the presentations–Jackson canceled at the last minute and spoke by video, despite heading the agency that co-sponsors the New Partners conference–that suggested something less than a big-time campaign of change.
“It’s time the federal government spoke with one voice,” said Donovan–to wild applause. Was it epic poetry? No. But it may be the extent of incremental change we can expect in these perilous times.
Anthony Flint is a Boston-based writer at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy www.lincolninst.edu. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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