Aaron Nousaine is a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in City and Regional Planning. He is currently working with the Land-of-Sky Regional Council in Asheville through the Carolina Economic Revitalization Corps (CERC).
Over the past year, the three federal agencies most directly involved in planning for community and economic development have formalized a new collaborative relationship. The Partnership for Sustainable Communities is the cornerstone of the administration’s Sustainable Communities Initiative that brings together the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Department of Transportation (DOT), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to jointly coordinate federal housing, transportation, and other infrastructure investments using a set of guiding livability principals, with the aim to protect the environment, promote equitable development, and help address the challenges of climate change.
This collaboration was confirmed with the fiscal year 2010 allocation of $150 million through the federal Consolidated Appropriations Act to fund a Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant (SCRPG) Program, a Challenge Planning Grant Program, and a joint HUD/DOT research and evaluation effort. Although HUD has taken a leading role among the agencies, the Partnership has resulted in at least one notable collaboration, the first ever joint HUD and DOT grant application process, whereby local governments will submit only one application to both the HUD Challenge Grant and the DOT’s TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) II Planning Grant Program.
Rather than going to implement currently planned projects, the majority of the funds are targeted toward regional sustainability planning that integrates the typically silo’d disciplines of housing, land use, economic development, and transportation. The intent is to facilitate development of comprehensive and interwoven strategies that address issues like economic competitiveness, access to opportunity, climate change, and the environment.
But why those North Carolina communities who may not have an interest in sustainability be interested in participating? First of all, some have forecast that fiscal year 2011 appropriations could increase the Sustainable Communities Initiative budget from $150 million to nearly $700 million, providing tremendous opportunities to those who can access these resources. Second, by submitting an application to the SCRPG Program, and by reaching a specified threshold score, regions will qualify for Preferred Sustainability Status. This makes them eligible to access additional capacity building resources and allows them to secure additional points on grant applications through participating agencies.
What this appears to indicate is that although regional sustainability, climate change, and many other related topics are highly controversial, federal dollars are likely to continue to align themselves with principals similar to those behind the Sustainable Communities Initiative. If North Carolina is to continue making progress against the pressures of unemployment, population growth, urban sprawl, traffic congestion, and the myriad of other issues facing our communities, the tremendous resources available through these institutions will be unavoidably necessary.
What is most encouraging is that some of our regions have already begun to address these issues and are uniquely poised to leverage these newfound resources. The Research Triangle and the greater Asheville region in particular have both been clearly identified by federal officials as areas with significant history working with regional sustainability issues. It has been indicated that these areas may offer unique opportunities to both further the federal sustainability agenda and create meaningful dialogue about the future of our regions.