03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Village Green: The Year's Top Stories for Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth

Earlier this week I posted my favorite blog entries of 2009 on my NRDC blog .  Today I’ll give you my picks for the year’s top ten stories and, in some cases, disappointing non-stories, in sustainable communities and smart growth.  It’s admittedly a very subjective and idiosyncratic list, comprising only the happenings that seemed most significant to me:

  • (10) Despite robust ridership, transit service and quality continued to decline.  As the year began, public transportation ridership had risen to its highest level in decades.  Nevertheless, at the same time as the government poured a trillion dollars or more into other parts of the American economy to counter the recession, the nation’s cash-strapped transit systems were forced to make service cutbacks, delay repairs and improvements, and raise fares.  Transportation for America’s interactive map, “The United States of Transit Cutbacks,” illustrates this sorry story.

    The United States of Transit Cutbacks (by: Transportation for America)

  • (9) Smart growth and sustainable communities were largely missing from the federal stimulus.  With a misguided focus on “shovel-ready” projects that stressed new construction, federal stimulus legislation gave not a penny to desperate transit agencies for operating and maintenance expenses and, with some exceptions, the stimulus also did little to support urban revitalization or suburban retrofits.

  • (8) Exciting developments in GIS- and web-based technology advanced walkability and smart communities.  The sophisticated technology that first became widely available to the public several years ago with the still-amazing Google Earth ripened and spawned a plethora of user-friendly applications.  These included, for example, the continued evolution of Walk Score, New affordability and carbon mapping, Criterion Planners' carbon footprint mapping, and NRDC’s own Picturing Smart Growth, developed with the assistance of Urban Advantage, which imagines environment-friendly development in 70 real, mapped US locations.

  • (7) Local agriculture emerged as a component of green development. 
    It’s been building for a few years, but now everyone is talking about agricultural suburbs, urban farms, farmers’ markets that emphasize local sources, and the like. 

    offerings at a farmers' market in Missoula (by: Julia Manzerova)

    While much of this is good, I hope we can take a nuanced approach, since local isn’t always better for the environment, and scattering farming around potentially urban land can expand sprawl, with a host of bad consequences.  We must be judicious.  But I do like farmers’ markets and small-scaled gardens that fit into city neighborhoods.

  • (6) Congress, nonprofits and other parties geared up for reauthorization of federal transportation law.  In theory, federal omnibus transportation legislation (which funds highway maintenance and construction, transit construction, cycling facilities, and other infrastructure) expired this year.  In reality, the old law is being kept alive with sequential short-term extensions, and will probably be replaced in the next session of Congress.  Organizations like Smart Growth America (which begat Transportation for America), NRDC, and even The Congress for the New Urbanism see a once-in-a-generation opportunity to green the law as never before and have begun pouring enormous resources into the effort.  Private foundations have shifted funding out of other aspects of sustainability in order to fund related background work.  It’s an enormous undertaking that does not come without cost.  Let’s hope it pays off.

  • (5) Land use solutions continued to get short shrift in climate discussions that matter.  Despite the smart growth and development community’s best efforts (e.g., the carbon mapping mentioned above, the seminal Growing Cooler report, my friend Mike Mehaffy’s research, the Center for Clean Air Policy's terrific report, California’s smart growth law (SB 375)), land use strategies that could make a big difference continued to be ignored or discounted by the climate establishment.  You won’t find very much about smart growth in pending federal climate bills, the implementation so far of California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), or the recent National Academy of Sciences report on carbon-reducing strategies that has been deservedly rebutted by Reid Ewing, for example.  And that’s a shame.

  • (4) The Obama administration stepped up for sustainable communities. 
    You have to go all the way back to the Nixon administration, really, to find much in the way of top-level federal leadership for smart development and sustainable communities (and that legislation didn’t pass). 

    DOT secretary LaHood stumps for light rail (by: USDOT)

    Until now, that is, with the secretaries of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development having become eloquent spokespeople for the cause (along with EPA’s smart growth office, of course), and even the President himself getting in on it.  It’s manifested in numerous ways, potentially the most important being the federal inter-agency partnership for sustainability.  This could become a big deal, and I’d love nothing more than enough accomplishment to boost this story to number one on next year’s list.

  • (3) Street design became a major smart-growth issue.  If you’re an insider, you know that it really hasn’t come out of nowhere, but the closely related causes of “complete streets” to accommodate additional users beyond motor vehicles, and street connectivity to promote walkability and community, have matured immensely.  Just in my NRDC blog alone, I reported stories this year from New York City, Virginia, St. Louis, and Texas involving improvements in street design rules.  A story in the December New Urban News reminds us that all is not won, however, since the keepers of the International Fire Code recently reaffirmed their commitment to wide streets.

  • (2) LEED-ND was completed and approved for implementation. 
    How long LEED for Neighborhood Development has been in the making depends on when you start the clock.  (For me personally, it’s now over seven years.)  But after drafts and comments and revisions, many more drafts and comments and revisions, the implementation of a pilot program to inform the program’s development, and lots of argument and negotiation along the way, the system was finally completed and approved by all the relevant organizations, including NRDC and Smart Growth America. 

    LEED-ND (by: LEED-ND partnership)

    I wish it were stronger, to be honest, but for the first time we now have a thoroughly debated national code delineating the requisites of smart, green development, and a system ready to reward those that meet it.  (Newly planned smart, green developments can’t apply for a certification yet, though, and you might want to ask the US Green Building Council about that.)
  • (1) The recession hurt smart development somewhat, but sent sprawl into a virtual coma.  Fewer smart growth developments are being built, and some have been abandoned.  Revitalization has slowed.  But some great projects have continued and, meanwhile, sprawl as we have known it has almost ground to a halt.  The strong market preference for walkable neighborhoods in more convenient locations has never been more pronounced, and the best analysts in the business are predicting that the trend is here to stay.

So:  all in all, we had a mixture of good, disappointing, and great news for smart growth and sustainability in 2009.  Taking a long view that considers where this issue was fifteen or even ten years ago, I remain very optimistic.  May 2010 bring the best of news for all who read this blog and for the people and causes we care about.

Kaid Benfield writes occasional "Village Green" commentary on 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.