Poticha, Blumenauer Tout Livability Push, Look Ahead to 2013

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EPA Secretary Lisa Jackson, HUD's Shelley Poticha, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood at a Metropolitan Planning Council meeting in 2009. Photo by Michael Prischman

(Matt Dellinger – Transportation Nation) Earlier this month, Shelley Poticha, the senior adviser at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in charge of the office of Sustainable Communities, flew into Madison, Wisconsin, to visit the annual gathering of the Congress for the New Urbanism. It was after dinner on a Thursday night, and a small group of community leaders from across the country gathered in a vacant ballroom to hear the latest on livability from Poticha, the former president of Reconnecting America, an organization that promotes transit-oriented development, and a former executive director of the CNU (she has the group’s charter on her office wall, she told the group).

Many of the planners and architects and local officials had been on the receiving end of her initiative’s Sustainable Communities planning grants, some $150 million of which were awarded last October. The grants—and indeed Poticha’s office in general—seek to encourage cooperation and coordination at the local level among federal agencies, primarily the U.S. Departments of Transportation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Agriculture. As Lynn Richards, a representative from the EPA, described it that night, “When you're putting in a road, you're doing your storm water management at the same time, then you can facilitate the clean-up of a brownfield site next to your transportation hub and have affordable housing on top of that.”

To those who’d come to meet Poticha, the benefits of this type of coordination were obvious, and they were grateful for it. For over an hour, grant recipients took turns describing how far this federal collaboration (and largess) would carry their communities—urban and rural, in every state in the country—toward greater cohesion and sustainability.

But the Obama Administration’s livability initiative had been politicized, at a time when the opposition party was looking to cut government programs. “Our office was lined out of the budget for 2011 and we were out for months,” Poticha told the group. “I think it's only because people in communities called up their representatives that we are still here.” She was happy to report that her office was already getting ready for the next round of grants, which would be $100 million in 2012. “We survived the continuing resolution, we didn't get as much money as the first year, but we're still in business.... We finished 2011, we're now working forward on 2012 and actually I got called to a meeting for 2013,” she said, suggesting perhaps that the White House was internally confident in its agenda and prospects for a second term.

Especially with less money to distribute, Poticha expects the next round of grants to be even more oversubscribed. “It's enormously beneficial to a very non-partisan program like this, that there were many, many, many more applications than we could fund. There were many excellent applications that we could fund and we're hoping the people who did excellent applications come back... because that shows the legislative branch that there are people in their communities who want to do this stuff. And we should be supporting them because it's ultimately about being able to make more cogent decisions, financially prudent decisions, using resources more efficiently.”

Both Poticha and Richards used the familiar hard-to-turn-an-oceanliner metaphor in describing their struggle to harmonize these mammoth federal departments and their national and local offices to collaborate in basic ways. “Part of what our job is to do is to mediate there a little bit.  But it's also just going to be a bitch.  It's going to be really hard because we're going to have to change the rules by which these monies are sent out,” Poticha said. “Behind the scenes part of what we're doing is trying to build a capacity of these federal folks who have never been asked to be problem solvers, who have never really been taught and educated and been able to really engage in many of these issues, to be your real partners in communities. And that's a huge part of the kind of legacy that we're trying to build here so that when I'm gone it's continuing to live and it's part of the DNA, so to speak.”

Getting federal agencies to spend their dwindling budgets in harmonious ways seems to many conservatives like a wise idea. And at least one conservative Republican Governor, Rick Snyder of Michigan, has embraced the Obama Administration’s livability efforts. Many consider the initiative a non-partisan effort to make government work better.

But some prominent conservatives detect sinister and socialistic intentions. The day after Poticha appeared at the CNU, Oregon Representative (and bike champion) Earl Blumenauer gave a talk. “People in this room know that good planning and design saves money and solves problems. Bad planning, or no planning, and stupid design ends up costing money.” But there were competing worldviews that were clashing in state capitals such as Madison and in Washington, DC.

Confident that most in the room shared his perspective, he went on, tongue in cheek: “Over the course of my checkered career, we’ve been developing an agenda we call ‘livable communities’ so as not to intimidate anybody.” Despite some opinions to the contrary, he said, this plan was “not social engineering so that people do things they don’t like, forcing them onto bikes at gunpoint, squeezing them into those friendly, walkable communities, herding them into streetcars.” Rather, he said, it was about choices. “To make the government, especially the federal government, a better partner, and taking simple, common sense steps to revitalize, strengthen, and make sustainable the places where we raise our families.”

Yet some people are still afraid of being forced onto streetcars. George Will called Ray Lahood the “Secretary of Behavior Modification.” And more recently, a tea party group in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., took to actively fighting livability-funded planning efforts. In March, the Jefferson Area Tea Party held a forum called “The Deceptive Agenda of Sustainability in Local Government,” where they gave a seminar about alleged United Nations-led policies “openly dedicated to global government control over every aspect of our lives including housing, energy, water, food production, transportation, population control, education, social welfare...all in the name of sustainability.” The Jefferson Area Tea Party is not at all happy that the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission got almost a million dollars from Poticha’s initiative.

In case anyone’s interested, Thomas Jefferson himself (quite the independence-minded tea partier his day), was a fan of government-assisted  urban planning. In the late 1700s, Jefferson collected city plan drawings from European cities such as Amsterdam, Strasburg, Paris, Lyons, Marseilles, and Milan, and brought them here to the land of the free to give to Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the planner of the new nation’s capital. He also made a shameless attempt to infest these new streets with European building types. “While in Europe,” he wrote to George Washington in 1781, “I selected about a dozen or two of the handsomest fronts of private buildings, of which I have the plates. Perhaps it might decide the taste of the new town, were these to be engraved here, and distributed gratis among the inhabitants of Georgetown. The expense would be trifling.”)

Speaking of trifling expenses, the $150 million Poticia’s office gave out last year would be barely enough to build a new highway interchange.

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.