Infrastructure Update: Sustainable Suburbs and Transportation

ULI Holds Successful Sustainable Suburbs Forum and Launches the Sustainable Suburbs Web Site.
In affiliation with World Habitat Day, the Urban Land Institute convened “Sustainable Suburbs: Developers’ Perspectives on Transportation and Compact Development” on October 8, 2009. Supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and ULI Trustee Jim Curtis as part of the ULI National Transportation Policy Dialogue, the forum explored how to leverage transportation and land use investments to promote sustainable growth in the suburbs. Over 110 people drawn from the private and public sectors, including the federal government, participated in the event.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, coauthor of Retrofitting Suburbia, gave the keynote address and three panels discussed making suburbs more sustainable, starting with regional planning and governance, moving on to an examination of neighborhoods and employment centers, and then focusing on where we should go from here.

Why focus on the suburbs?

  • The suburbs represent a key opportunity, because they are where the biggest sustainability gains can be made.
  • Suburbs are diverse places that will become more diverse over time: the market for compact development is growing in the suburbs.
  • Options for reusing suburban areas include reinhabitation, redevelopment, and regreening.
  • But suburban cities are often unprepared for these new development opportunities.

What are the lessons?

  • Transit-oriented development (TOD) is only one type of compact development: the TOD-value premium comes from creating a place, rather than the transit itself.
  • “Transit-ready” development is also needed—we can’t afford to wait, but need to get started now, even if transit is ten to 15 years away, and develop the transit-ready project just like a TOD project.
  • TOD will not happen on its own because such projects are tough to design, entitle, finance, and build; the public and private sectors need to work together.
  • One of the biggest suburban challenges will be creating the highly connected local street system that supports compact development, but dead malls are a good place to start.
  • Federal and state governments should be funding infrastructure at the appropriate levels and creating incentives for compact development.

This event provided an opportunity to explore in more detail the recommendations identified the ULI report Transportation for a New Era, and for developers and policy makers to engage in a thoughtful discussion about the issues that each group faces.

Administration Continues to Tout Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities
The DOT-HUD-EPA Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities continues to unveil new initiatives, while federal officials have been talking up the partnership at events across the country. Momentum rose with a major tour led by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and joined by Adolfo Carrion, director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs, that visited Chicago, Dubuque, and Denver in mid-September.

Among the many new sustainable community initiatives, the EPA released a research effort and report Essential Smart Growth Fixes for Urban and Suburban Zoning Codes that tackles the sometimes-thorny issues of parking, street standards, walkable places, and green infrastructure for stormwater in local zoning and development codes.