Testimony of Don Chen, Executive Director of Smart Growth America
United States Senate
Committee on Environment and Public Works
Wednesday, March 6, 2002
Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Smith, and Members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, thank you for holding today’s hearing on Smart Growth.
I am the Executive Director of Smart Growth America, a nationwide coalition of more than 70 organizations, including the Enterprise Foundation, the League of Women Voters for Smart Growth, American Farmland Trust, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. Together, we promote smart growth, a strategy of development that makes efficient use of natural resources and infrastructure, revitalizes neighborhoods, keeps housing affordable, protects farmland and open space, and provides people with more transportation choices.
Smart Growth is a local issue that is driven by decisions made by individuals and families. These include everything from a developer’s decision to build a variety of residential, commercial and retail buildings near a transit station to a farmer or rancher’s decision to sell development rights to boost the viability of working his land.
Land use decisions are made locally, so many people naturally ask the question, is there a federal role in smart growth? The answer—unequivocally—is yes. Local and individual land use decisions are influenced by incentives and policies that have been made at the local, state and federal levels. The federal government has had an enormous impact on development patterns for decades, if not centuries. A 1999 Fannie Mae Foundation survey of leading urban scholars found the Interstate Highway System and the Federal Housing Administration’s home mortgage insurance program to be ranked as the top two influences in shaping American cities and metropolitan development during the past half century.
The federal government has affected development patterns in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. The real question is, what is the appropriate role? There are four functions.
First, the federal government should share information about best practices, decision-making tools, and research. State and local governments do not have the capacity to identify, analyze or develop tools, such as complex predictive computer models or urban planning software, nor should they need to reinvent the wheel in search of practices and policies that will allow them to use their economic and natural resources more efficiently.
Federal agencies can assist states and communities by disseminating information such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s new report on modern rehabilitation codes, entitled Smart Codes in Your Community: A Guide to Building Rehabilitation Codes (August 2001). The report identifies and analyzes state innovations that have yielded substantial smart growth benefits. For example, in 1997 the State of New Jersey worked with developers, firefighters, building inspectors and environmental groups to adopt a ground-breaking rehabilitation code to encourage the renovation of decaying buildings. This new code was necessary because in the past, rehabilitation codes were mainly derived from inflexible new construction standards, which often required unreasonable overhauls of older buildings. Within a year after these new codes were adopted, rehabilitation investment statewide rose by 8 percent. In the cities of Newark, Jersey City and Trenton, spending increased by 60 percent, 83 percent and 40 percent, respectively. Gains in Newark totaled $41 million. The strategy was so successful that other states, such as Maryland, are following suit. The HUD report catalogues these emerging building rehabilitation codes to help other states and localities address the widespread problem of decaying or abandoned properties, a top priority for HUD Secretary Mel Martinez.
Rehabilitation codes and other smart growth tools are already being used nationwide to help communities make decisions on how their communities can grow. For instance, PLACE3S (PLAnning for Community, Energy, Economic, and Environmental Sustainability) is a set of predictive computer models developed by the Department of Energy that helps communities understand how their growth and development decisions can lead to better economic, community, and environmental outcomes. It integrates planning, design, and quantitative measurement into a public involvement process that is appropriate for both regional and neighborhood-scale planning. PLACE3S evaluates how efficiently a community integrates land uses, provides housing and jobs, transports people and materials, allocates public infrastructure improvements, and uses other resources. It has proven to be an invaluable component of many recent transportation and land-use planning projects across the U.S. and is increasingly in demand.
For example, the city of Salem, Oregon is creating a city-wide preferred growth strategy using the PLACE3S model. The city held a series of workshops to apply three land use scenarios throughout Salem and analyze their impacts on nine neighborhoods. Workshop participants were asked to create a number of alternative land use scenarios that met a target range of housing and employment densities that matched the city’s vision and principles for future population growth. The PLACE3S model was used interactively to adjust the new scenarios in real time, compare them against existing land uses and current zoning for each geographic location, and then analyze the potential “livability” of a new land use alternative based on a predefined set of community indicators, such as jobs/housing balance, annual vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and air pollution costs.
In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, several communities are currently engaged in a strategic community planning process to create a regional comprehensive plan that addresses the future of their communities. CommunityViz, a software tool developed by the Orton Family Foundation, allows planners, landowners, and interested citizens to create and manipulate a virtual representation of a town, and explore different land use scenarios and make informed decisions on issues that affect their quality of life.
Mr. Chairman, I understand that you are interested in developing legislation to catalogue community decision-making and visualization tools and provide assistance to communities wishing to employ such tools. Smart Growth America would welcome the opportunity to work with you in that effort.
Second, the federal government should provide financial assistance to states and localities to enable them to invest in practices and policies that they believe are in the best economic and environmental interest of their citizens. A tangible example of the federal government’s valuable role was a recent grant that the EPA provided to the Envision Utah project, which enabled residents of the Greater Wasatch Area to deploy state-of-the-art demographic projection and land use mapping techniques to better plan for future growth. Using long-range planning and visioning tools, project leaders determined that continued sprawling, low-density development would result in a doubling of the Greater Wasatch Area’s urbanized land area. They estimated that a smarter growth scenario featuring major investments in public transit would save 171 square miles of open space, reduce the amount of driving by 2.4 million miles per day, decrease commute times by 5.2 percent, increase average speeds by 12.5 percent, and save the region $4.6 billion in infrastructure costs. Under the leadership of Governor Mike Leavitt, the region is now pursuing the attainment of these smart growth outcomes, which will likely include infrastructure savings for the federal government as well as broad environmental benefits.
Third, the federal government should support smart growth innovations that give local governments more flexibility in meeting federal requirements. A great example that merits replication is the Atlantic Station development in Atlanta, Georgia, which applied smart growth principles to meet federal air quality standards. To be built on the site of the old Atlantic Steelworks, this 138-acre mixed-use transit-oriented development project had the misfortune of requiring a small bridge to improve connectivity with the region’s transit and road network at a time when Atlanta was under a federally mandated moratorium preventing investment in such infrastructure. The moratorium was the result of Atlanta’s lapse in federal air quality conformity—a necessary step to protect the public health. However, at the request of the developer, the EPA’s technical staff determined that the site’s new neighborhood would in fact reduce regional travel by 50 million miles per year because of its excellent public transit access, walkability, and compact street design. In addition to reduced traffic, the project is expected to decrease air pollution and its innovative stormwater management system will reduce the volume of polluted runoff. The project’s smart growth benefits enabled the bridge construction to go forward and led to EPA’s official guidance that allows smart growth developments to qualify as Transportation Control Measures under the Clean Air Act.
Fourth, the federal government should get its own house in order so that its activities support states and localities in their efforts to pursue smarter growth. The federal government has a major presence in communities all across America, and its daily operations should not interfere with state or local efforts to encourage smart growth. This ranges from the location and design of federal facilities, including disposal of HUD foreclosed abandoned buildings, to offering federal employees a choice to receive either pre-tax parking or public transit benefits at equal cash value. This Committee has taken up the federal facilities issue through its interest in the Downtown Equity Act, introduced by Senator Leahy in the 106th Congress, and which would require federal offices to be located in existing business districts. We hope that it will be reintroduced and that progress is made on this important measure.
The federal government’s role in supporting smart growth has become increasingly important, as rapid changes in development patterns overwhelm state and local governments trying to keep up with rising demands for public services, facilities and infrastructure. In particular, several trends underscore the need for federal action.
First, housing affordability remains a dire and persistent problem for an astounding number of Americans. According to the Congressionally-established Millennial Housing Commission, twenty-eight million Americans do not have access to decent, affordable housing. In 2000, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition reported that there was not a locale in the United States where a full-time minimum-wage earner could afford fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment. According to a new paper by Anthony Downs, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, affordable housing too often exists in either declining neighborhoods that are geographically isolated from opportunities, or in fringe ex-urban areas and require residents to spend a large proportion of their income on car travel, which according to the Department of Commerce accounts for 40 percent of income for America’s lowest-wage earners. Another new report from the Brookings Institution presents the academic evidence debunking the claim that smart growth and affordable housing are at odds. This paper shows that good growth management policies increase affordable housing opportunities even in communities that are in high demand.
Second, traffic problems are stifling the economies of regions all across America. Traffic congestion costs Americans $78 billion in lost time and wasted fuel, and the average person spends 36 hours per year stuck in traffic. What we once referred to as “rush hour” now lasts three hours and occurs twice a day. This hurts everyday commuters, but it is especially harmful for low-income workers, who face the unenviable choice between the costly ownership and operation of a car and public transportation services that are inadequately funded to meet the public’s demands.
Third, consumer housing preferences are changing. According to a new study published by the Fannie Mae Foundation, aging baby boomers will constitute a growing proportion of homebuyers in the next decade, and many of them express a preference for compact, walkable neighborhoods over low-density conventional sprawl. The report’s authors—two professors from the University of Southern California—estimate that between 31 and 55 percent of active homebuyers will prefer this type of “smart growth” or “New Urban” development during the coming decade. Unfortunately, the report’s authors are pessimistic about the ability of the market to meet this growing demand because of the rigid finance, insurance, planning and regulatory conventions that facilitate sprawl development to the exclusion of other development patterns. As a result, the construction or rehabilitation of compact, walkable communities is a commonly unpredictable challenge, introducing the potential for expensive delays resulting from approvals for zoning variances and neighborhood resistance.
As a response to these trends, Americans are increasingly concerned about urban sprawl and are seeking better choices for their communities. In the past five years, large majorities of voters have approved hundreds of measures to raise funds for open space and farmland preservation to protect valuable recreational areas, scenic vistas, and biologically important habitats. In 2000, the Pew Center for Civic Journalism released a report that found runaway sprawl and traffic congestion to be Americans’ top local concern. A poll released by Smart Growth America later that year confirmed these conclusions, finding that large majorities of Americans are willing to support specific smart growth measures, ranging from affordable housing production to increased public transit funding. Even after the tragedies of September 11, voters from New Jersey to Colorado to California have indicated growth management to be a top local concern. This week, a poll by the University of Toledo will report that metro Toledans strongly support smart growth measures as well.
The bills being considered by this Committee can offer better choices to communities that are grappling with these challenges. The Community Character Act, S. 975, and the Brownfield Site Redevelopment Assistance Act, S. 1079, are two proposals that will help communities respond to the impacts of rapid changes in growth patterns that have left some communities with dwindled populations and vacant buildings, and still others with overcrowded schools and overburdened infrastructure. These two bills provide valuable assistance to states and communities to address these issues in a manner that is appropriate for the federal government.
The Community Character Act offers assistance to state or tribal governments who have identified a need to develop or update land use planning legislation, but lack the capacity to do so. Appropriately, the Community Character Act does not impose a mandate on states to update their land use plans. Instead, it offers state and tribal governments financial assistance to help cover their costs of ensuring broad public participation, researching and developing land use plans, integrating state, regional, tribal or local plans with federal land use plans, and acquiring technology to support their efforts.
S. 975 will help communities create a vision for the future, while leaving land use and development decisions to state and local governments. In many places, part of that vision for the future will include an effort to reinvest and encourage economic development in existing communities. This Committee has already shown great leadership on this issue. Senator Chafee, I congratulate you and the entire Committee on the passage of the Small Business Liability and Brownfields Revitalization Act. Smart Growth America was one of the first organizations to endorse S. 350, and we were delighted to see President Bush sign the final bill into law.
The Small Business Liability and Brownfields Revitalization Act will make a tremendous contribution to brownfield redevelopment by assisting in their clean-up and providing liability relief. However, many of these sites are located in communities that have experienced such widespread disinvestment that their recovery is dependent on additional economic stimulation. The Brownfield Site Redevelopment Assistance Act, S. 1079, complements the recently signed brownfields law by targeting assistance toward the development of public facilities and services, planning, training and technical assistance to help communities overcome the burdens of brownfield sites.
Smart Growth is about providing better choices for our communities. Across the nation, families are demanding more convenient, affordable and safe transportation and housing options, communities want more tools for grappling with rapid change, and civic leaders wish to have greater predictability in the business of development and preparations for the future. The federal government has a responsibility to aide states and localities communities by sharing information on best practices, providing financial and technical support to help communities respond to changing growth patterns, and to be a good partner with state and local leaders. The Community Character Act and the Brownfields Site Redevelopment Assistance Act both advance these goals to improve the quality of life of all Americans. Smart Growth America supports both of these bills and looks forward to working with the Committee to see their timely passage.