EPA Resources on Smart Growth Economic Development

About the Author

Glenn Barnes

Glenn Barnes worked at Environmental Finance Center at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 2006 - 2019, ultimately serving as associate director.

Many small towns and rural areas had an economy that was built on a single economic sector (for example, logging, mining, or manufacturing) that has changed significantly by technology and/or market forces, leaving residents without jobs and governments without a healthy tax base.  Some communities respond with an economic revitalization strategy that seeks to attract major employers to replace lost jobs.  Another approach is “Smart Growth” economic development, which builds upon existing assets, takes incremental actions to strengthen communities, and builds long-term value to attract a range of investments.

This past year, the U.S. EPA released Framework for Creating a Smart Growth Economic Development Strategy: A Tool for Small Cities and Towns.  This tool is intended for small to medium sized cities and towns that have stagnant population growth, struggling economies, and areas of divestment.  It is the latest in a slew of resources available from EPA on Smart Growth, including other tools, publications, technical assistance, and case studies.

EPA defines “smart growth” as a range of development and conservation strategies that help protect human health and the natural environment and make communities more attractive, economically stronger, and more socially diverse.  EPA was a founding partner of the Smart Growth Network, which is a partnership of government, business, and civic organizations that support smart growth and has become a clearinghouse for information about smart growth strategies.

The Framework for Creating a Smart Growth Economic Development Strategy: A Tool for Small Cities and Towns tool is part of EPA’s resources on smart growth specifically for small towns and rural communities.  EPA recognizes that, while all small towns and rural communities throughout the United States are looking for ways to strengthen their economies, provide better quality of life, and build on local assets, many face different pressures.  Some rural areas see little to no economic growth, declining populations, and a loss of farms and working lands.  In contrast, other rural areas, in particular those on the edges of metropolitan areas, see rapid population growth and metropolitan-style development pressures.  EPA’s goal for smart growth is for rural communities to achieve their economic development goals while still retaining their distinctive rural character.

The Framework tool is a step-by-step guide to building a place-based economic development strategy.  The tool begins with an overview of key concepts for a smart growth economic development strategy and then covers the five steps for preparing one.

The three core concepts of a smart growth economic development strategy are supporting businesses, supporting workers, and supporting quality of life.

  • Supporting businesses focuses on understanding how well businesses serve local residents and contribute to quality of life and which industries have the most potential to drive economic growth in the future. Key questions are what types of businesses are in the community, where they are, and who are the emerging entrepreneurs.
  • Supporting workers focuses on whether the local workforce has the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to meet the needs of current and future businesses and what, if anything, the community can do to enhance that matching.
  • Supporting quality of life looks at all of the factors that residents and businesses value—open space, a thriving downtown, public transit, etc.—and identifies key locations for development and redevelopment.

The five steps in preparing a smart growth economic strategy are:

  1. Select a focus area—the specific locations, neighborhoods or areas of focus for smart growth;
  2. Define the context—a history of the focus areas, including any previous attempts, successful and unsuccessful, at economic development;
  3. Set goals—“aspirational but achievable” goals to support businesses, support workers, and support quality of life;
  4. Identify existing assets and barriers—some assets will be in place, and understanding barriers (for example, outdated retail space or a lack of nearby residents to support retail demand) allows the community to tailor its implementation tools and resources to overcoming that barrier; and
  5. Select the right tools—from traditional economic development tools to other policy tools in the areas of land use policy, partnership building, business development and entrepreneurship, workforce development and employment, health and environment, brownfield and infill redevelopment, transportation, and infrastructure financing.

The Framework tool also includes sample goals, brief case studies of community success, and examples of policy tools and actions.

Creating a robust economic development strategy often takes a concerted effort of on the part of local governments, regional development organizations, community groups, and other stakeholders coming together around a common goal.  The Framework tool is one resource to start that effort and to guide the conversation.



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