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New Federal Program to Help Cities Plan ‘Thriving Neighborhoods’

The U.S. Department of Transportation announced an award of $21 million for 64 communities to coordinate transit, mobility, and land-use plans and navigate infrastructure funding opportunities.

In Brief:
  • The Thriving Communities Program provides technical assistance to urban, rural and tribal communities for transportation and land-use planning.

  • The Department of Transportation announced 64 communities will receive support in the first year.

  • $21 million will be distributed to four teams of “capacity builder” organizations, including planning consultants, transportation experts and environmental nonprofits.

  • Economic development authorities spend lots of time trying to get businesses to put down roots in their cities and to keep homegrown industries in place: assembling land, navigating tax incentives, and helping out with licensing and permitting and zoning regulations. The Hinds County Economic Development Authority in the Jackson, Miss., metro area does a lot of that too.

    But when Tamika Jenkins took over as executive director last summer, she wanted to use some of the authority’s resources to emphasize neighborhood vitality and quality of life. Jackson has endured a series of acute crises, including a total loss of drinking water last summer and a sudden stoppage of trash collection earlier this month, which have punctuated the longer-term trends of population decline, disinvestment and apparent hostility from the state government. If the city wants to attract businesses and build the economy, it has to also be a place where people want to live, Jenkins says.

    At some point last year, Jenkins was tipped off by a tweet that the U.S. Department of Transportation was soliciting applications for a new program called Thriving Communities. The program is designed to help under-resourced cities and towns navigate federal grant programs, including the multitude of opportunities in the recent infrastructure bills, in order to “advance a pipeline of transformative infrastructure projects that will increase mobility, reduce pollution and expand affordable transportation options,” according to a program description.

    The city of Jackson and the Hinds County Economic Development Authority applied together, and earlier this month were selected to receive assistance. The program will help cities advance a broad spectrum of projects and plans. Jenkins says she hopes to focus on mobility in South and West Jackson — “the parts that haven’t been invested in” — by building safer sidewalks and better streets and parks.

    “I hope the outcome from this project would be people being proud of their neighborhoods — taking pride in where they live,” Jenkins says.

    A New Model 

    The Thriving Communities Program is part of a larger federal effort to provide technical assistance to poor and disinvested urban, rural and tribal communities. The first round of awards were announced in April for 64 communities, totaling $21 million. But instead of granting funds directly to cities, the program awarded money to four teams of “capacity builder” organizations that will work with groups of cities with similar aims and challenges.

    The grants are split into four categories — Main Streets, Complete Neighborhoods, Complete Transit-Oriented Neighborhoods, and Networked Communities — with distinct but overlapping focuses. The Main Streets category, for example, is geared toward transportation and development issues in small and rural communities, while the Complete Neighborhoods category is focused on building safe streets and coordinating transportation and land use in suburbs and cities.
    Jackson, Mississippi from the air
    The Thriving Communities program, run by the U.S. Department of Transportation, will help Jackson, Mississippi, access federal funds for planning and transportation projects that they wouldn’t otherwise get.
    (Shutterstock/Sean Pavone)
    Polly Trottenberg, deputy secretary for USDOT, says the program is designed to help communities think holistically about transportation and mobility, housing, climate adaptation and economic development. It’s “a bit experimental” to fund independent organizations to work with cities, she says, but if it works as planned, it could be an effective way to spread technical assistance to more communities at once.

    “I think it’s going to give us an opportunity to try a bunch of different models and see what works best,” Trottenberg says. “I think this is very creative and cutting-edge.”

    Tapping Expertise 

    The clean-energy think tank RMI, formerly known as the Rocky Mountain Institute, is the recipient of the $5.1 million Thriving Communities grant for Complete Neighborhoods, the cohort of communities that includes Jackson and Hinds County, Miss. Ben Holland, RMI’s manager for urban transformation, says the organization has been “a classic environmental think tank” that has focused lately on vehicle electrification as the core of its climate strategy. But Holland and others are pushing for a greater focus on transportation and land-use planning as an emissions-reduction strategy.

    “In addition to electrification we need to reduce vehicle miles traveled and increase the viability of transit, walking and biking,” Holland says. “[We need] more of a holistic land use and transportation planning perspective, and this is kind of the perfect opportunity to do it.”

    RMI is leading a team with expertise in multimodal planning and environmental analysis that also includes the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, CivicWell, Equitable Cities, ioby, Nelson\Nygaard and the Shared-Use Mobility Center. Together they will work with Complete Neighborhoods cities to provide “ongoing, individualized deep-dive support to communities based on their unique needs and visions.”

    That might look like a series of group convenings around topics of shared interest in the grantee communities — things like bicycle master plans or planning safe routes to schools — as well as “ad hoc, on-demand technical assistance.” It may also include helping communities hone concepts around transportation projects and plans.

    “A lot of this is TBD,” Holland says.

    Coordinating Efforts

    In Jackson, events like the water crisis and trash collection stoppage breed low morale among residents and contribute to the city’s population loss, Jenkins says. On top of that, there hasn’t always been strong coordination between the city of Jackson, Hinds County and the economic development authority.

    But those groups built new ties through the application for the Thriving Communities award. Ideally, the program will help Jackson and other cities access federal funds for planning and transportation projects that they wouldn’t otherwise get. But for Jenkins, it’s also a chance to bring coordinated focus on strategic planning among all the local authorities.

    “This project has the potential to bring us all together,” she says.
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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