2010 was a robust year in the world of environmentally responsible land development. While 2011 looks to be different in some respects, I predict it will be no less rich in stories. Here are some of the ones that I plan to watch in the coming year:
- What will become of the federal sustainability partnership? Two years ago three federal agencies entered into an innovative and ambitious partnership to coordinate their activities to assist states and localities in better placemaking. The alliance for sustainable communities joining the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency took a while to realize much in the way of tangible results, but they delivered big-time in 2010, with substantial assistance to a wide range of innovative projects across the country. Under Secretary Shaun Donovan’s leadership (and that of HUD sustainability chief Shelley Poticha), HUD even promised to adapt location criteria from an equally innovative private/nonprofit partnership, LEED for Neighborhood Development, to evaluate discretionary housing grants. The problem for 2011, unfortunately, is that these kinds of federally assisted projects, many announced immediately prior to the 2010 election, require funding from a new House of Representatives that looks to be increasingly hostile to federal programs and spending.
But the collapse of the Democratic Congress, along with public backlash against federal spending, have dealt a serious blow to the once-promising prospects for reform. Now reform-minded activists may be forced to fight merely to hold on to federal planning requirements, support for transit, and environmental programs as they exist, and to the extent reform is possible at all it may be viable only in a few regions via state and local law. How and where will reform succeed, if it does?
One reason is that world-class rail systems require national subsidies, and a substantial part of political America hates the whole idea of subsidy (unless the subsidies are for natural resources extraction, such as clearcutting federal forests, of course, or fighting endless wars in distant lands). When the Obama administration took office, there was new hope for high speed rail, and some concepts even earned support from federal stimulus funds. But now we see the governor of Wisconsin actually giving money back to the treasury rather than use it to study rail improvements in his state. Will high speed rail's glimmer of hope prove to be merited, or was it a mirage?
But the really interesting findings will emerge when the analysts have finer-grain data to explore, and time to do so: To what extent will (or won’t) the data confirm that the share of metropolitan growth claimed by outer suburbs is declining? That central cities are growing? That families with school-age children (the sweet spot of the market for single-family suburban homes) comprise a declining share of the population? That there have been shifts in the shares of commuting travel claimed by walking, driving alone, carpooling, transit, cycling, and so on? That there are different patterns in different locations or types of locations? All of the above and more will suggest corresponding changes in the built environment.
When I read the likes of Richard Florida or Chris Leinberger, I get encouraged again, but there’s part of me that wonders to what extent cities as we have known them will continue to have a reason to be. It certainly seems unlikely that cities will have all of the same reasons to exist that have supported them for centuries. Personal travel via automobiles eventually led to sprawl; what changes in land use will technology bring?
Finally, this one isn’t a story but a resolution on my part: I resolve never again to use the ridiculously overexposed and ambiguous word “vibrant” in my writing to describe neighborhoods, downtowns, or new developments. If I slip up, I’m counting on readers to call me on it.
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Kaid Benfield writes occasional Village Green commentary in Huffington Post and (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment on NRDC's Switchboard. For daily posts, see his Switchboard blog's home page.