Wednesday, September 9

The federal government and particular places

Last month the White House issued a short memo suggesting a shift in federal budget priorities for the next fiscal year toward more "place-based policies." Earlier in the summer, cooperative overtures between the federal HUD, DOT, and EPA on sustainable communities received considerable attention. This August memo indicates a next phase in the progression. Now that land use, transportation, and sustainability are considered integrated spheres, and their respective institutions are in the process of integration, the White House would like to evaluate how implementation can be more targeted geographically. All federal agencies have until next week to submit their own policy proposals, following the guidance of the memo.

Of course, place-based policy at the federal level is nothing new. Cynics would argue that projects designated for particular areas are always the product of congressional earmarks stuffed into legislation, pandering to local constituencies. Sure, but that's not where this memo is going. The goal here is to adopt a systematic policy analysis for allocation of place-based funds, which, in theory at least, should minimize the ersatz motivations of pure political expediency. And help get rid of redundant and inefficient efforts.

Planners, who have read their Jane Jacobs, may want to step very carefully into this transition. After all, the era of urban renewal was spearheaded by ambitious and context-insensitive federal policies in transportation, housing, and economic development. We all know where that ended. On the other hand, less ambitious policies such as the various iterations of Empowerment Zones and other targeted economic development programs throughout the years have shown more success with less unintended consequences. For me it comes down to whether urban renewal failed because of the content of its philosophy (modern life requires homogeneous living arrangements centered around the automobile) or because of the method of its implementation (top-down federal action). The memo does try to address these concerns by emphasizing a wish for collaboration between all players:

"Change comes from the community level and often through partnerships; complex problems require flexible integrated solutions."
One initial question jumped to my mind after reading the memo: don't we already have place-based levels of government and institutions that are equipped to deal with place-based issues? State and local governments will inevitably be nimbler and more locally-focused than a larger institution. While resources may not be evenly distributed between States, large-scale redistribution of resources across whole regions seems to me out of the purview of the Livability Principles expressed by the interagency partnership.

There's a decent response to this as well. Planners have long been vexed by the mismatch between jurisdictional boundaries and the more organic boundaries of economic regions, ecosystems, and transportation systems. True regional governance has proven to be very challenging to establish institutionally, not for want of trying over many decades, and it would have to be adaptable to future changes anyway. Perhaps there is an important federal role here: "Federal investments should promote planning and collaboration across jurisdictional boundaries"

Kansas City's Green Impact Zone, a recipient of stimulus funds, offers a glimpse of where we may be headed. HUD secretary Adolfo Carrion highlighted this program last week during a stop on his "listening tour,"
"The Green Impact Zone will improve housing conditions through the rehabilitation and weatherization of the entire 150 block area neighborhood, develop a green workforce through the training of residents from the urban core in green technology, and invest in sustainable transportation through a green bus rapid transit system."
While there is federal money involved, the efforts are coordinated regionally through the non-profit Mid-America Regional Council, and an array of private and public partners are used on the ground. The old destroy-and-replace mentality is gone; the urban fabric is expected to stay intact throughout improvements. Each housing improvement is approached as an individual project. The Bus Rapid Transit line will be placed down the central Troost Ave., and according to the DOT secretary blog, "This means the folks living in this zone will finally have access to convenient, affordable public transit." The initiative also appears to include some stormwater management elements. Seems like a comprehensive approach to me.

If the Green Impact Zone continues to be hailed as a success, especially as the measurable indicators start to emerge, we can expect more of this model to come around the country.

1 comment:

Benjamin Hemric said...

I think an important issue is almost invariably left out of discussions about "place-based" policies: certain place-based policies are actually much less place-based than others and come pretty close to being just general federal aid whose only real distrinction is that it is more explicitly administered or distributed with regard to "place."

For instance, it seems to me that federal aid to a local employment center for job training, etc. is not really place-based the way that federal aid for a dam or harbor improvements, etc. would be. The first (i.e., job training) is really aid to individuals (who can then move to another place), while in the second (i.e. a dam or harbor) the product that is produced by the aid cannot be moved to another locality.

Sat., 9/12/09 -- 1:19 p.m.