rural communities

New Tool Helps Rural Communities Assess Opportunities for Smart Growth and Development

 Main street in Cazenovia, NY – a Madison County community


Main street in Cazenovia, NY – a Madison County community

Rural communities are all around us. Covering the vast majority of the national landscape, small towns, villages, rangeland tribal areas, working forests, and farmlands are integral to the American economy, and home to nearly twenty per cent of the U.S. population. These communities are all different, with unique assets and unique opportunities. However, many rural communities across the country face similar challenges—aging populations, lack of quality affordable housing, economic decline, childhood poverty, and depletion of treasured natural landscapes. The reality is that many rural communities have limited resources and planning capacity to help manage tough growth and development decisions. A new tool from EPA – the Smart Growth Self-Assessment for Rural Communities – responds to these challenges and can help.

Steamboat Springs, CO is interested in incentivizing more green building

Steamboat Springs, CO is interested in incentivizing more green building

Around the country, rural communities are turning to smart growth solutions to address common growth and development issues. But smart growth solutions are not one size fits all—what works for an urban, or even suburban community, may not be right for a more rural area. Working with a rural partner in central New York State—Madison County—EPA created the Self-Assessment to help bridge that gap and create tangible smart growth policy options for rural places. This easy-to-use tool supports the White House Rural Council’s “Rural Impact” effort, a coordinated approach across federal agencies to improve quality of life and upward mobility for kids and families in rural and tribal communities. It helps communities take a holistic look at eleven topics, ranging from revitalizing villages and town centers to supporting agriculture to providing housing and transportation choices and to improving health and active living, and then identify gaps that may be impeding their ability to reach long- and short-term goals. However, the self-assessment doesn’t just identify shortcomings; it provides practical steps and policy alternatives as well as helpful case study examples from across the country.

Underutilized property in Osceola, AR

Underutilized property in Osceola, AR

Road tested in communities from Maine to Arkansas to Colorado, this self-assessment has already helped rural areas find new opportunities to spur economic development, improve quality of life for residents and protect the natural environment. In Damariscotta, Maine, a community with significant seasonal tourism, the self-assessment helped community members identify a key underutilized strength—local non-profits and non-profit collaborations—that could help them better capitalize on downtown economic development for the benefit of year-around residents. In Osceola, Arkansas, the self-assessment revealed how re-writing local land use plans could be an effective strategy to remove blight and underutilized properties by helping prioritize areas for infill development. And in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, the self-assessment helped local officials create a plan to further incentivize green building as a way to support local sustainability goals; this strategy was also seen as a way to lower housing prices by decreasing energy costs and other monthly expenses for renters, and helping builders reduce costs through tax credits and other programs.

Local leaders gather for a self-assessment in Damariscotta, ME

Local leaders gather for a self-assessment in Damariscotta, ME

In each of these places, EPA’s Smart Growth Self-Assessment for Rural Communities helped identify gaps, offer policy options and guide community leaders down a path that can help them realize their own unique goals and vision for the future. To access this new tool and start assessing conditions and opportunities in your rural community, go to http://www2.epa.gov/smart-growth/smart-growth-self-assessment-rural-communities.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Smart Growth: Creating New Opportunities in Rural Communities

By Brett Schwartz

Prior to beginning my internship in EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities this past summer, my interest in smart growth was focused primarily on urban infill and suburban retrofit projects.  Having lived in or visited places such as Atlantic Station in Atlanta, Washington DC’s Columbia Heights neighborhood, the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor in Arlington, Virginia, and the Roxbury neighborhood in Boston, my view of sustainable community approaches had a predominantly urban flavor.  However, during my time at EPA, I was fortunate to work on a number of projects that introduced me to a variety of smart growth strategies being pursued by small towns and rural communities throughout the country.

Through my research and writing, I have learned about places like Greensburg, Kansas, where residents are rebuilding after a devastating tornado in 2007 that destroyed 95percent of the city.  Following the tornado, the city passed a resolution requiring all new buildings to achieve a LEED Platinum rating, widely recognized as the highest standard for green building.  Today, Greensburg serves as a model for other communities recovering from natural disasters that seek to rebuild in a sustainable way.  I have followed the progress of Howard, South Dakota (pop. 850) which recently opened the first phase of the Maroney Commons, a mixed-use project located on the town’s Main Street.  The development will serve as an education and training space for rural residents to learn about green jobs and technology in the new rural economy.  I learned how providing efficient and reliable public transportation for small communities through innovative projects such as Montana’s Opportunity Link is crucial in connecting rural residents to jobs, health care, and educational opportunities.  These rural communities, and many others throughout the country, have adopted creative strategies to stimulate economic development, improve the environment, and ensure a better quality of life.

While I still consider myself a “city person,” through my internship I developed a newfound respect and interest in smaller towns that have embraced the principles of sustainable design as part of their future.  Smart growth can be applied in any community – urban, suburban, or rural – where residents wish to build safe, welcoming neighborhoods, create a sense of community, and be environmentally and fiscally responsible during these challenging times.

About the Author:  Brett Schwartz was an intern in EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities and is a third year law student at the University of Baltimore, where he’s focused on land use and community development issues.  He holds degrees from Georgetown University and Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA and America's Rural Communities

By Administrator Lisa P. Jackson

Yesterday I was in Warwick Township and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a rural community that has been a model for resource conservation and sustainable economic growth. This was one of many visits EPA officials have made to connect with rural communities. I have had the chance to sit down with growers in Georgia, visited California’s Central Valley and toured farming operations with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in Iowa. Along with my fellow EPA officials, we have connected with hundreds of farmers, business owners, local leaders and rural residents to talk about commonsense efforts to strengthen their economies and protect their health and the environment.

American farmers and ranchers depend on clean air, safe and abundant sources of water and healthy lands. That’s why farming communities have taken incredible steps to steward the environment their jobs and economy thrive on.

In the last 30 years, agricultural producers have worked with government officials and local conservation groups to reduce soil erosion by more than 40 percent. At the same time, agriculture has gone from being the leading contributor to wetland loss to leading the entire nation in wetland restoration efforts. In Lancaster, local efforts have managed to preserve upwards of 80,000 acres of farmland, and Warwick Township was named Conservationist of the Year by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for its work to prevent runoff from polluting the watershed.

These are just a few of the examples I’ve seen. In California’s Central Valley — an area responsible for some $24 billion in agricultural activity — I visited a farmer who re-vamped his irrigation system to reduce water use and save money, while another grower who was transitioning to new irrigation pump motors that reduced air emissions on his farm.

In Iowa, I joined Secretary Vilsack at a cattle operation where a rotational grazing system helps protect soil and water quality, and met a farmer who has used no-till farming and a precision sprayer for years to minimize pesticide use and runoff from his soybean fields.

America’s rural communities have also been part of innovative solutions for our entire economy. The Renewable Fuel Standard EPA finalized last year will encourage farmers to continue to work with industry to innovate and produce clean renewable fuel. It will help secure our nation’s energy future, replacing our dependence on foreign oil with clean, homegrown fuels produced by America’s farmers. At the same time, it will create jobs, and is expected to increase farmers’ income by an estimated $13 billion annually.

These meetings with farmers on their land are also a great opportunity to get outside the Washington, DC echo chamber and address myths and other inaccuracies they might be hearing about the EPA. For example, months ago rumors flew around that, under a law passed by Congress, EPA was considering treating spilled milk like an oil spill. This was never the case; in fact, our efforts were focused on exempting dairy producers from regulations that should not apply to them. Thanks to work with the dairy industry and the agricultural community, we obtained a formal exemption for all milk and milk products, a change that could save farmers up to $140 million.

As we confront the major environmental challenges of our time — combating climate change, reducing soil erosion, and ensuring an ample supply of clean water for our families and food production — farmers have an important opportunity to lead the way. That is why I will continue to visit with communities like Lancaster to see the best practices at work and speak directly with the local residents.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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