Source: David Warm, Crosscut, December 18, 2011. David Warm is Executive Director of the Mid-America Regional Council, the metropolitan planning organization for the Kansas City area. Through very small expenditures, federal agencies can promote cooperation within a region on everything from climate change to economic growth.
Across America, regional communities are actively envisioning and investing in new patterns of sustainable growth and development that aim to promote economic competitiveness, environmental integrity and social opportunity. For the most part, these efforts are homegrown, prompted by a host of new market forces, social realities and environmental constraints.
In recent years, the federal government has stepped up its role in this process, bringing engaged leadership, yet also prompting questions about whether it should be involved in this arena. From my perspective, the answer is clear: federal leadership in fostering sustainable development is important to both the interests of the federal government and to the health of the nation.
There is a clear and compelling federal interest in promoting sustainable development as a proactive strategy to target and leverage federal investments in infrastructure, innovation, and human capacity, as a protective strategy to guard the efficacy of federal assets and investments, and as a preemptive strategy to minimize the need to expend federal resources to mitigate the environmental, social and economic consequences of inefficient and unsustainable development practices.
Progress in almost every federal policy area — transportation, air quality, water resources, public health, agriculture, education, management of federal lands and military bases, housing, social welfare, workforce development — is advanced if federal investments are aligned with sound strategies for the sustainable development of the places in which investments are made.
In addition, the federal government has a direct interest in creating a more competitive economy. The nation’s economic performance is essentially determined by the health of metropolitan and regional economies. Regions that grow in ways that are fiscally sustainable, have effective infrastructure systems, and minimize social disparities perform better and contribute more to national performance.
Yet, few formal structures or mechanisms exist for creating and implementing effective regional growth strategies. American regions are ill-equipped to address the complex challenges of our national future — challenges that range from energy independence, climate change, and global competition to concentrated poverty, traffic gridlock, and the housing market collapse. All of these issues are interrelated, and all of them are profoundly affected by how regions grow.
It is imperative to our national future that American regions grow better. We need to build regions that waste fewer natural resources, create more opportunity, and develop more efficient places that are economically competitive.
To achieve this, federal leadership is both necessary and effective. Federal leadership helps drive policy innovation, promulgate best practices, create networks across regions that broaden awareness and consensus, and align policies, plans, and programs. Competitive federal planning grant programs consistently demonstrate that even small levels of funding are powerful incentives for complex regions to develop cooperative strategies that transcend political and institutional boundaries.
Of course, it is important that the federal government not only supports sustainable development, but that it does so in ways that are effective. The Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Sustainable Communities Initiative is a thoughtful and promising approach. It promotes community-driven planning processes and community-generated solutions. It emphasizes outcomes over means, and it fosters integration of interrelated but traditionally isolated policies in areas such as land use, transportation, workforce and economic development, and infrastructure investments.
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