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.
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.
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.
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.