URBAN NATION: Don’t Kill the Office of Smart Growth

Saginaw has lost thousands of residents over the past decade. An EPA program is helping the city reuse vacant properties and attract investment. Credit: David Defoe on Flickr

Urban Nation is an occasional column by Ben Adler, NAC’s federal correspondent, on the latest urban-related policy issues in Washington.

In addition to the disappointing Surface Transportation bill, Congress has produced another bit of bad news for urbanists. The House Appropriations Committee released its approved bill for funding both the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency. Unsurprisingly, since House Republicans harbor serious antipathy toward the EPA, they propose drastic cuts to the agency. 

The bill would cut EPA funding overall by 17 percent. In terms of the most important programs for cities, the results are wildly divergent: The Brownfields program would be funded at about $23.6 million, equal to the fiscal year 2012 enacted level and over $2 million below the Obama administration’s budget request.

But more pressingly, the EPA’s Office of Smart Growth would be defunded entirely. 

The Office of Smart Growth is not some command-and-control bureaucratic effort to tie up economic development in red tape. It actually enables economic growth and efficiency — in theory, something Republicans should be amenable to supporting.

EPA smart growth funding goes to a wide variety of grant funding and technical assistance programs,” says Tom Madrecki, a spokesperson for Smart Growth America. “The grants enable communities to initiate projects that wind up saving taxpayer money and preserving natural resources/the environment, and have been shown to play a role in developing the kind of great smart growth neighborhoods that a boon to local economies and health. The technical assistance programs help with implementation, project development, on-the-ground training.“ 

Consider the case of Saginaw, Mich., which has lost thousands of residents over the past decade and had a vacancy rate approaching 25 percent. The EPA’s Smart Growth Implementation Assistance program is helping Saginaw to reuse vacant properties, cut maintenance costs and attract new private investments.

“Without that grant, Saginaw might have stayed mired in the cycle of population loss and declining neighborhoods that so many former industrial cities face,” says Alex Dodds, also of Smart Growth America. “These grants can help cities like Saginaw figure out ways to break that cycle.”

This is part of a larger attack on President Obama’s signature urban policy innovation, the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which coordinates holistic efforts to address urban problems through different federal agencies. The three principle participants are the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation and the EPA

“Defunding the EPA smart growth program would detract significantly from one of the core three aspects of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities,” says Madrecki. “A weakened Partnership is not nearly as effective at doing what it was created to do: Streamline decision-making, coordinate across agencies and develop solutions that take into account housing, transportation and environmental issues simultaneously.”

Ben Adler is managing editor for digital content for Years of Living Dangerously, a documentary series about climate change on Showtime. He previously covered national politics and public policy as a reporter for Newsweek, The Nation and Politico. He was a 2008-2009 urban leaders fellow at Next City and served as federal policy correspondent in 2012.

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Tags: economic developmentgovernanceenvironmentbarack obamabudgetssustainable citieshuddemographicssmart growth