The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are not necessarily two organizations that suggest synergy. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, however, announced this week that the agencies have launched a grant program that will help build more sustainably-built and transit-friendly communities.
The total amount of grants is a mere token: US$5.6 million, or about the price for a small parcel in Silicon Valley. Nevertheless, the program builds upon ideas like that of urban studies theorist Richard Florida, who recently pointed out that transit-friendly communities can make a big financial difference for families. Americans’ love for–and what has often become dependence upon–automobiles have in the long run often created a financial burden on families. One study has suggested that an address in a neighborhood with seamless transit options can boost a family’s disposable income on average by 16%, a big difference in a challenging economy. Arguments over the efficacy of large scale rail projects mostly focus on macroeconomic factors, with both sides of the discussion having merit. The effects that access to easy public transportation can have on families, however, are factors that policy makers should take into consideration.
To that end, the program, “Capacity Building for Sustainable Communities,” kicked off yesterday with a webcast that announced the program and how organizations can explore its funding opportunities. The goal is to create a network of current and future HUD and EPA grantees that can share ideas about sustainable building, transit projects, and the resulting best practices when cities apply both of them simultaneously.
As usual, the private sector, non-profit communities, and local governments are far ahead on this issue. LEED, of course, takes into account access to public transportation. Cities like Portland, Oregon, have taken into account transit access and residential development as far back as 40 years ago. The challenge, however, is creating residential developments with seamless access to public transit that are affordable, which these days is defined as the low end of 6 figures instead of closer to a 7-figure housing price tag.
Advocates of humanitarian design and the non-profits in which they work should consider such a program, but can also add to the discussion. Organizations like bcWorkshop in Dallas and Mississipi’s Gulf Coast Community Design Studio not only make practical and green building design scalable, but accessible to folks of average and even low incomes. Green building does not have to be relegated to large companies and wealthy folks.
The EPA and HUD partnership program is peanuts compared to the costs of a few hours of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the grants pay off with more innovative housing and transit communities in the coming decade, this will be one program that may be sniffed at now, but will pay off in the long run. For families stressed by housing prices and long commutes, if cities can get their act together and build them . . . they will come.