What all these new bills mean for urban planning

A press release from Center for Clean Air Policy (CCAP) reports that “smart growth best practices and improved transportation choices” could lessen the amount Americans drive by 10%.  Sell all the clunkers you want, this is tons more effective.

The disconnection of our government got a little more connected this year. HUD, DOT, EPA, everyone’s starting to work together, having realized that different aspects of life are deeply interconnected. Here’s my little summary of what the different bills would do for urban planning (money! yay!).


The H.R. 3288: Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2010 has been passed by the House. More about this under “Sustainable Communities.”

The Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009  is proposed to include an Office of Livability within the Federal Highway Administration, and would create a more holistic view of transportation within the DOT instead of viewing it as a fund for cars.

The Clean Low-Emissions Affordable New Transportation Equity Act (CLEAN TEA) is an effort to get more funds toward green transportation projects. An estimated ten percent of this bill’s funding would go toward improving transportation “and lower greenhouse gas emissions through strategies including funding new or expanded transit or passenger rail; supporting development around transit stops; and making neighborhoods safer for bikes and pedestrians.”  (COMPLETE STREETS PLEASE!)

Sustainable Communities

In March, HUD and DOT came together for a partner project: “Sustainable Communities.” The EPA has also joined this effort to “help improve access to affordable housing, more transportation options, and lower transportation costs while protecting the environment in communities nationwide.”
In short, the six principles Sustainable Communities promotes aim to

provide more transportation choices,
promote equitable, affordable housing,
enhance economic competitiveness,
support existing communities,
coordinate policies and leverage investment, and
value communities and neighborhoods.

H.R. 3288 has provided funds for this project: of the $150 million dedicated to this account, $100 million would be used for grants to link transportation and land use planning at the regional level and $40 million would be used for competitive Metropolitan Challenge Grants to promote local reform and reduce barriers to building affordable and sustainable communities.


The ACES bill has a cap and trade system for large sources of carbon. The system trades  permits as a market-based approach to capping greenhouse gas emissions. This means that possibly,  developers who use smart growth practices could also get emission allowances for creating places where driving is reduced.
The GREEN bill (HR 2336) was introduced on June 11 and has not been passed by the house yet. It would include information on energy-efficient location mortgages, grants funding only applicants who meet the green community criteria checklist and the green buildings certification system, the residential energy efficient block program, which would grant funds to communities to improve energy efficiency of single- and multi-family housing, and sustainable development and transportation strategies in comprehensive housing affordability strategies.

There you have it. Yes, the government is spending gazillions of dollars, but if any area needs it, it’s housing and transportation. Have you SEEN Division Avenue?????

GR Pride

The Green Gathering was great. It was a lot like the charrette I helped run in Chicago…voting by dots for each project, trying to figure out what the citizens would pay for. Some of the items were about improving walkability and safety–a city after my own heart <3. It was fantastic. I will be going to more of this stuff!DSC02142Charrette-style voting by dots: blue is what you personally support, red is what the City’s priority should be, and green is what you would pay for.

Some of the proposed projects:

  • Redeveloping Market 201 with taller buildings, corridors to the water, and extremely accessible transit access
  • Giving the rapids back to Grand Rapids by creating a white water rafting course using dams
  • Giving Grand Rapids (FINALLY! PLEASE!?) a permanent farmer’s market area
  • Making GR more bikeable–bike lanes downtown
  • Making it easier for citizens to create community gardens
  • Making GR a city where everyone lives a quarter mile away from a park.

Cool stuff. I’m proud of my city.

Green Gathering and Idea to Incubate

Tonight I am going to the Green Gathering in Downtown Grand Rapids.  It’s at Harrison Park Elementary School and they will be talking (and voting?) on what projects are our priority…white water rafting? Bike lanes? Farmer’s markets? I’ll let you know how it goes.

My idea to incubate (and what better place to incubate anything than a blog?) is starting a project where people sign up and commit to walking or biking to any destination that is under 1.5 miles away. It seems small (litttlllleeee) but depending on where you live, it can be a huge HUGE challenge. Our grocery store is 1.3 miles from home, but I would never think to walk there, mainly because there are no sidewalks on the entire stretch of 28th Street–the most direct route. However, if I take Alger, a residential street, the walk is much safer and more pleasant. Too bad that rerouting makes the trip 1.9 miles. But that’s a perfectly lovely bike ride. If you’re completely out of food and need about 12 bags of groceries, a car is perfectly acceptable because you can’t bike with that many groceries. All kinds of loopholes. In my hypothetical project, I’d leave it to the participant’s best judgment.

I walked to the post office today, and it was a mile away. It was great, except that I was lugging two boxes on the way there and on the way back, it was windy and rainy (good thing I had an umbrella). I’m still so glad that I did it. The point I want to come across is that we, as a city, want to walk and bike again. We want to be seen walking, we want it to be safe for us to walk, we don’t want to be ignored by cars and developers. We want sidewalks. If people start walking to their closer destinations, even though there may not be a sidewalk and they have to trek through a huge parking lot, it will add to the shift away from cars. Also, we could experience just a little bit what it’s like to not have the privilege of owning a car.

These kids know how to WALK
These kids know how to WALK

Yay for Community Centers!

I’m very excited to have learned about The Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center being built in my city. It’s in an area that is void of anything institutional like this. It will have art space, recreation, education, worship (it’s a Salvation Army facility), all kinds of stuff going on. Best yet, a grant paid for geothermal heating/cooling systems under the sports fields behind the facility.

Here’s a video from a dapper Salvation Army man.

Renewal in more ways than Green

The blog world is extremely excited about green jobs. The Green For All blog updates about green jobs.  Through it, I found a movie trailer for a documentary called The Greening of Southie. I was drawn to this because I read All Souls, by Michael Patrick MacDonald, which is a memoir about Southie, or South Boston and the incredible problems there. These projects were full of drugs, crime, suicide, gang lines. The author lost four of his siblings to the neighborhood. It is an intense autobiography but well worth the read. The most surprising aspect was that the people in Southie loved Southie. They didn’t realize that it was so bad. It was their neighborhood.  MacDonald’s mother moved to a trailer park in Colorado and hated how spread out everything was, that there was no public space, no stoops on which to hang out with the neighbors. It is great to see news about Southie today. We hear a lot about green building and green jobs but I have hope that this documentary will show exactly how it is being done. The government, in the 70s and 80s, was experimenting on the poor in places like Southie. Now people are putting efforts into their own communities and fixing what was collectively broken. This is democracy.

Ugly America–Time to Reevaluate

We are forced to nod in agreement when someone says “If I want to live this way and do these things and I have the money to do it, hell, why shouldn’t I?”  What can we say to this?  If people can afford to live in mansion-like new houses with big lawns and ample garage space for their nice cars, why shouldn’t they?

Someone actually asked this in my class last semester. This has become an American mantra. Every part of our system bows down to what is affordable. We can’t even donate money to causes without fundraisers to give us some sort of entertainment in return.

But can we reconsider what we want from life a second?  Why do we love Europe so much? Why is it every college girl’s dream to visit it?  The sense of history?  The beauty of the towns? Why not make that a reality in America? Why do we feel this need to get away every few months?  We should be building places we want to be, inside and out. Americans love DIY home improvement, but beyond their front yards, it is generally assumed that nothing can be done. I don’t think anyone really loves driving that much, unless they are joyriding with their friends. I don’t see why we are fiercely defending this way of life when it is killing thousands of people in car accidents a day.

And as a second blow to our mantra, we are starting to not have the money to do what we want anymore. Our economy, within our communities, is based on services. We don’t produce goods anymore. Other countries do that. All we can do is create tourist destinations and make money off people from the suburbs and developments who don’t know they hate their neighborhoods. Holland, Michigan’s main source of revenue is from tourists at Tulip Time. Thus, the downtown 8th street has become cutesy and is teetering off the edge of realistic living space. People don’t see this area as a legitimate place to live.

What is legitimate then? Developers tell us we want to live in houses that have easier access to cars than to people, away from businesses and away from poor people. People either want a big city or the big country. Suburbia in some ways was an effort to squish the two together. But it sucks. Rural land just sits there–farms don’t really exist in America anymore. Not in any pleasant sense, at least.  Where do you really want to live, and why? Why do we tell ourselves it doesn’t matter? Most of us need community. We need people, beyond family and church. We want a role in society. What is society anyhow?

The question isn’t if you have the money to get what you want, it’s about the want–what’s your real dream?

Comeback and a Book You Must Read

I thought maybe the next time I’d muster up the motivation to post would be after graduation. But I started reading The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kuntsler today and after two chapters I already know that it is going to be a great read. Yes, this is a book about American landscape–it deals with everything I talk about on this blog concerning towns, suburbs, cities, and walkability. But it’s incredibly interesting and well-written!  And it gets to the heart of why I want to do this with my life. Please, please, please read this book. He’s a funny writer!  He has a blog, too.

In No Country for Old Men, the movie and the book, Chigurh flips a coin deciding whether or not a gas station manager will live. When the manager wins the coin-toss, Chigurh questions why he wouldn’t keep the coin forever in a special place.  The coin meant something after that toss. He, against his will mind you, put up everything he was on that bet. It changed the nature of the coin forever. “Anything can be an instrument,” Chigurh says. I think about this in terms of America. We seem to pretend here that our landscape has no meaning. Sure, humans can succeed and find happiness against incredible odds, but to deny that your streets, building codes, power structures, trees, parking lots, have as much affect on you as the design of your house is compartmentalizing your life. Your environment is your environment. No matter what it is. We give it power over us every day.

Last semester in Chicago, I remember getting so mad at my internship–that it seemed to want to beautify a street more than…I don’t even know, some more altruistic motive. But I was distinguishing too much again. The Magnificent Mile needs to be beautiful. The surrounding neighborhoods need those changes we were fighting for–they need human scale rather than to be easier for cars to plow through. A flourishing community is going to be beautiful. These things affect each other.