What the End of the Sustainable Communities Grants Means For Planning

A popular grant that funds the often-thankless work of forming master plans and zoning codes is no more.
by | December 21, 2011

A grant program that advocates say is one of the most important ways the feds collaborate with localities was slashed in the 2012 budget in a move that some fear could slow the progress of urban planning.

Back in 2009, the administration introduced the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which provided a new level of coordination between three federal agencies – Housing and Urban Development, Transportation and the EPA – that all play a role in city and regional design. It was the kid of inter-agency, silo-busting work that policy wonks discuss ad nauseum. Their efforts were designed to foster development that offered more housing options, more transportation modes, and more walkable neighborhoods – all areas that are increasingly in-vogue among planners and urban residents alike.

In addition to the coordination between the agencies, each of the three agencies offered its own set of grants to support the goals. But the new FY 2012 budget eliminates HUD’s portion of those grants, which provide funding to local and regional governments for updated master plans and zoning codes designed to promote mixed-use development and affordable housing. That isn’t the sexiest work, but urbanites know it's the kind of work that helps form the backbone of a community.

In an ironic twist, shortly after it was revealed that the grants would be defunded, HUD announced its 2011 winners: 56 entities getting nearly $96 million. Those projects include $1.1 million for planning a "wellness district" around a Stamford, Conn. hospital and $1.8 million for transit-oriented development planning along a Boston commuter line.

John Norquist, who leads the Congress for the New Urbanism, said those types of grants helped lead to a renewal of American urban planning, and he fears that their demise could slow that progress. “The best thing it did was generate new thinking about regional plans,” Norquist said. Until those HUD grants were created, “there really hadn’t been significant money flowing for regional planning.”

Yet support for the grants had already been declining, falling from $150 million in 2010 to $100 million in 2011. The Senate had sought $90 million of funding for 2012, but ultimately the House won, as Republicans described the grants as government waste. One silver lining for the program’s advocates is that even though the grant money is gone, the cross-agency coordination will be allowed to continue. Originally, the House’s budget called for an end to that too.

One reason the program may have suffered is a general lack of appreciation for planning. “It’s a hard thing to defend in the sense that it’s not putting a piece of infrastructure in the ground,” said Geoffrey Anderson, head of Smart Growth America. “But then you think about building a building without planning. The idea is absurd.”  Indeed, a different Sustainable Communities initiative, the Transportation Department’s TIGER grants, survived. It provides over $500 million to highways, transit, bridges and ports.

Norquist puts the grants’ demise in more stark terms. “It was a high-level program that didn’t have a sleazy special interest tied to it,” he said. “It’s not surprising it didn’t last.”

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