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Thinking and Acting Smartly Everywhere But The Rust Belt

Sacramento, a model for sustainable growth

Increasing Smartly

At a think-tank forum in Washington last week, a California bureaucrat described how a couple dozen local governments in his state have figured out how to control local property taxes, grow their economies, reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, stop wasting federal highway funds, and do it all without downsizing a town board or merging one government into another.

The Californian was joined by a Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce person, an elected official from snowy but growing Minneapolis, and a bunch of policy wonks who have White House access. All of them sent the same message: The future belongs to regionalism because it saves us money and makes us greener, and the future is now.

This message is still radical around here, where neither the business organizations nor the current crop of elected officials have been willing to act to contain sprawl, institute regional tax-base sharing, or convene a functional metro planning entity. But those issues are not radical at the sober, middle-of-the-road and respectable Brookings Institution, the think-tank where the forum called “Metropolitan Planning for Sustainable Growth” was held. Brookings stays away from the ideological poles, which is how it keeps its major corporate and foundation benefactors. You can bet that while the policy wonks held the floor, the nation’s business elite listened in for advice on where and how to profit.

That’s because America, except for the Rust Belt, is growing. Chris Nelson of the University of Utah estimates that between now and 2030, another 213 billion square feet of homes, retail, office, and other structures will be developed—almost 70 percent more than exists today. National population will be growing, too. (By contrast, the Buffalo area, like Syracuse, Rochester, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh, are all estimated to shrink between five and 10 percent by 2020.)

The Brookings discussion was not about us. The speakers came from California, the Salt Lake City area, and Minneapolis, and the conversation was about those and other growing communities. We here are not a part of that discussion. Pity.

Magic beans?

Here’s the formula, as described by the guy from the Sacramento Council of Governments. Instead of letting highway engineers do all the thinking and planning for the region, Sacramento-area elected officials got together. They started opening the highway planning meetings to citizens as well as to the housing people, the budget people, and the people who do water, sewers, parks, and other infrastructure. The Sacramento Council of Governments includes 22 cities and six counties. (Their poor executive director has a 31-member board.) Neither merger, consolidation, nor downsizing of city councils is at issue there—but they figured out that by talking to each other, they got what he calls his “business-oriented and developer-oriented political constituency” to create a functional regional plan. The result: They are collectively saving hundreds of millions of dollars by shutting down sprawl. They’re saving agricultural land. They’re saving water, which is a huge issue in California. They’re doing so by preventing sprawl, redeveloping older city centers and old suburbs, and re-directing developers to where they can make money and bring new product on-line but do so without making the region unsustainable.

One doubts that such a policy innovation is a unique act of genius, because similar acts of genius seem to be happening in Minneapolis, which is a pretty liberal area, and in Salt Lake City, too, which certainly is not. What the three regions have in common, besides genuinely empowered Metropolitan Planning Organizations, is an ability to count up the costs of doing things the way Rust Belt towns do things—and then saying no.

Not so curiously, no speaker at the Brookings Institution forum hailed from Cleveland, Buffalo, Rochester, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, or any of the other freshwater metros that is sprawling, losing population, and yet still spending many hundreds of millions of dollars of federal stimulus money on old, greenhouse-gas-creating, sprawl-inducing projects.

Schenectady calling

Meanwhile, back in New York State, there was not a single Buffalo-area local elected official, planning official, or major real-estate developer at the recent day-long meeting on smart growth held in Schenectady. Assemblymember Sam Hoyt spoke on the status of New York’s efforts to build a cross-state high-speed rail corridor to connect the old central cities. And George Grasser of Partners for a Liveable Western New York was on hand. But no home-builders, mayors, major commercial developers, or planning officials participated. The place was full of people from New York, Long Island, the Hudson Valley, Syracuse, and Rochester meeting those job descriptions. The sum-up: Downtown is in demand. Real-estate developers around this state, and especially downstate, perceive a major new market opportunity in building or retro-fitting housing located where folks can walk rather than drive to what they need. Whether the downtown is in a village center, or on a commercial strip, or in an actual downtown, the word is getting out that there’s money to be made in density.

In the next couple of months, every urban-oriented policy outfit you can Google will be holding meetings that will bring together people in the real-estate business with planners and federal government folks, who have a pretty clear set of instructions from the White House. During the campaign, Obama said, “Cities are not the problem. Cities are the solution.” His HUD secretary and his urban policy czar have both been super-clear about what they want done. And they have apparently teamed up with other cabinet departments to coordinate federal policy across the old bureaucracies.

That means that the new money for transportation is going to be coordinated. As architect Peter Calthorpe said at Brookings last week, “Transportation drives development.” The consensus of those who measure transportation’s impact is that the US is never going to be able to handle the greenhouse-gas emissions or the fuel costs of all the new development unless it is located, literally or figuratively, downtown. That means that the transportation money can’t be spent the way it has been spent. Salt Lake City is getting more light rail. Ditto other places that are growing. Here, new suburban subdivisions unconnected to any public transportation are popping up…while our population slides.

Sadly, some federal stimulus money isn’t being spent wisely. As former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist told me in a recent email, hundreds of millions of stimulus dollars are going into dumb highway projects, including a $48 million Ohio project that will direct traffic to bypass a town that desperately needs business to flow into rather than around it. The conference we held in Buffalo State College earlier this year, at which grassroots organizers and regionalism advocates advised where the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money would have the best impact, has proved less influential than the old-style deals that highway-builders characterized as “shovel-ready.”

What’s not happening

What’s good news, though, is that the White House has been quite clear that metropolitan planning organizations —like the Sacramento Council of Governments—are going to have important new power and relevance as the Obama administration makes and implements policy.

Here’s the bad news: Here in the Buffalo area, we don’t have a metropolitan planning organization. And we don’t have an empowered council of governments. Instead, we have the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council. The GBNRTC is a fine group, but not like the Sacramento organization or other entities where housing, water, wastewater, economic development, farmland, and budget issues are addressed. And instead of a regional council of governments, we have an Erie County executive and an Erie County legislature who together recently refused to create a county-wide planning entity. Our council of governments is a very informal monthly dinner society, attended mainly by the supervisors of the smaller towns. It has no staff, and in terms of regional planning issues, it is, simply, opposed to regional planning.

A quick survey of the situation in some of the other Rust Belt cities reveals a similar picture, except in Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh, there is a well established, far-reaching regional coordination effort underway, with strong downtown-oriented (and downtown-located) institutions that have been working for more than a decade to coordinate resources. The results have been pretty amazing: The Pittsburgh area will still lose population, according to a recent academic projection, but Pittsburgh is growing new jobs to replace old ones, and there is a significant re-migration underway. But Cleveland, Rochester, Syracuse, Cincinnati, and other freshwater towns are all headed for more depopulation and more sprawl, despite various efforts ranging from citizen-driven (Syracuse) to corporate-sponsored (Cleveland) to bring competing jurisdictions together to deal with the very problems that continue to keep them poor and declining.

As long as the Rust Belt continues to act like the Rust Belt, rather than like a zone of opportunity, chances are that Washington will smile benignly but not pay much attention. The action is elsewhere. Here is where the inaction is.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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