A "Race to the Top" for Sustainable Communities

The University of Washington’s Runstad Center recently hosted a day-long event called the Partnership for Sustainable Communities Dialogue Session. The purpose, as was related to the 100 plus participants from the private sector, non-profits and governments, was to hear from interested partners about how to shape and inform the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which was recently announced as a partnership between the United States Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

After a day of dialogue, one of the most exciting tendrils of thought was the opportunity to use the carrot of federal funding to shift the regulatory/financial/governmental landscape across the country toward the principles that the smart growth and sustainability movements have been advocating for decades. The opportunity here is more than simply another federal grant. If deployed strategically, the work of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities could represent the tipping point in sustainable land use and transportation, much the way that the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 was the tipping point that locked us into the land use and transportation patterns that we see today.

One need only look to Race to the Top funds from the United States Department of Education to see a successful example of how federal funding incentivizes significant, lasting legislative fixes to problems that would have been deemed intractable as little as a year ago.

For those unfamiliar with the Race to the Top program, The New York Times recently wrote a compelling article documenting the effect that it has had on the education system across the United States. They note:

“[Race to the Top] has turned a relatively modest federal program (the $4.3 billion budget represents less than 1 percent of all federal, state and local education spending) into high-yield leverage that could end up overshadowing health care reform in its impact…”

Across the country, enlightened self-interest drove unions to work with state legislatures. Democratic legislators who were reluctant to support charter schools were suddenly supportive, and teacher and principal accountability became a pre-requisite to even having a chance at receiving federal funding. In a highly-politicized Washington, DC, Obama administration officials even earned this accolade from the other side of the aisle:

“That President Obama did [education reform] is a total game changer,” says [Paul] Pastorek, the Louisiana schools superintendent, who is a Republican working for a Republican governor, Bobby Jindal. “If he really sticks to this, education will never be the same.”

The Sustainable Communities Partnership can be the same type of defining moment for re-shaping the built environment. Already, Secretary Donovan has announced that, “HUD will be using location-efficiency to score our grant applications.” But the grants are an opportunity to leverage even better returns from local and state governments.

To illustrate the point, let’s play an exercise of, “What if?”

What if to be competitive for federal Sustainable Communities funding, any state would need to:

  • have mode-neutral transportation funding (might Washington state’s gas tax be used for walking, biking and transit?);
  • require green stormwater infrastructure/low impact development for stormwater management;
  • have a state-level Complete Streets ordinance;
  • create a transfer of development rights market;
  • remove parking requirements;
  • include green house gas emissions forecasts in all projects;

If these were the requirements to effectively compete with other states for federal funds, what existing, rutted conversations could be overcome? What state-level legislative actions might such funding requirements encourage? The possibilities are, seemingly, endless. Let’s hope we use the opportunity wisely.