Smarth Growth

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 in My Community: Silver Spring, Maryland

By Susan Conbere

When I was interviewed for the position of Communications Specialist for the Office of Sustainable Communities last September, a director asked me to edit a description of the National Award for Smart Growth Achievement. I opened the booklet and – hah! – there was my town! I was delighted to see that Silver Spring, Maryland had won the 2008 award for overall excellence in smart growth.

For 10 years, my family lived in the outskirts of Silver Spring. We were far from everything except a park and a pool. If my kids wanted to go anywhere outside the neighborhood, I had to drive them. We spent at least 10 hours a week in the car, driving back and forth to school, fencing practice, and running meets. I also drove to work downtown, which should have taken 20 minutes, but regularly took up to an hour in traffic. My husband commuted to Virginia, which was much worse.

In 2006, we decided to look for a house downtown that was closer to work and school.

For years, downtown Silver Spring was plagued with empty storefronts and streets. Several attempts to revitalize the city had failed. Then the city turned to smart growth, an approach that helps communities grow so they are walkable, safe, and convenient to stores and public transit. Residents walk more, so they get more exercise. They drive less, so there’s less traffic and air pollution. Businesses are attracted to such communities, which creates jobs. People shop downtown, which brings in revenue.

In 2003, a large corporation put its headquarters near the Silver Spring metro. The city built an outside pedestrian mall with stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and a green community center. I can walk to all this, plus a library, a post office, three grocery stores, and a farmer’s market. Today, Silver Spring is an exciting place to be.

My family loves it. My younger son takes the city bus home after practice or runs home on the Sligo Creek bike trail. My older son attends the University of Maryland, so he can take the metro home whenever he likes. My husband loves the convenience to downtown. And I walk 5 minutes to the metro to get to my office, which manages EPA’s smart growth program.

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About the author: Susan Conbere is the Communications Specialist for EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities in Washington, DC.

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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A San Diego Showcase for Equitable Development and Environmental Justice

By Megan McConville

Earlier this winter, I stepped off a bus into the brilliant sunshine. As I walked into a brightly painted neighborhood, I was greeted by residents wearing traditional Samoan clothing. They led me to an outdoor amphitheater where I enjoyed a performance of joyful Samoan dance and song.

I was not in Samoa, but in San Diego, California, participating in an educational tour at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference. The largest smart growth conference in the U.S., New Partners explores all aspects of the field, from community revitalization, affordable housing, and small town livability to green building, health, climate change adaptation, and more. The tour I was on highlighted equitable development—a focus of the conference—in the Village at Market Creek.

The Village at Market Creek, a predominantly low income and minority community, shows how smart growth and environmental justice principles and goals can be integrated to achieve development that is healthy, sustainable, and equitable. Built on a cleaned-up former industrial site 5 minutes from downtown San Diego, the neighborhood offers convenient access to the city’s trolley and bus systems, is home to Market Creek Plaza, the first major grocery store in the community in 30 years, and the community’s ethnic diversity is celebrated throughout its public spaces. The village is projected to create 1,000 affordable homes and more than 1,000 jobs, many for residents.

A hallmark of the project is that it has been truly resident-led. The community guided the overall planning as well as the design of Market Creek Plaza. Now that it is built, hundreds of residents have bought shares of the project, earning returns on their investments while revitalizing their neighborhood.

As we toured this inspiring community, many in my group wondered how they could promote equitable development back home. The day before, EPA had released a draft publication, entitled Strategies for Advancing Smart Growth, Environmental Justice, and Equitable Development, on that very topic. The publication aims to build on successful examples like the Village at Market Creek and offer a menu of approaches overburdened communities can use to address longstanding environmental and health challenges, create new opportunities in their neighborhoods, and implement development that responds to residents’ visions.

Watch for the completed publication this summer on smart growth and environmental justice. Like my visit to Market Creek, I hope it will show that environmental justice and smart growth approaches must go hand in hand to produce healthy, sustainable, and inclusive communities.

About the author: Megan McConville is a Policy & Planning Fellow in EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities. She explores how overburdened communities can combine smart growth and environmental justice strategies to improve their neighborhoods, health, and quality of life.

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.