Region Forward Blog

Regional Smart Growth Tools Thinking out of the Box

Feb 8, 2011
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COG’s John Mataya attended the 10th Annual New Partners in Smart Growth Conference in Charlotte North Carolina. The conference was organized by the Local Government Commission a forward-looking nonprofit that assists local governments in addressing community problems and leveraging environmental and economic resources.

During the last day of the conference I attended a Think Regionally Act Locally session that featured presentations about how other regions are approaching regional planning and implementation initiatives. One big take away from this year’s conference is the fact that regionalism and regional innovation is growing in significance. Local governments from across the country are realizing they must work together in tighter fiscal environments to make better use of existing taxpayer dollars by supporting smart growth development patterns and implementation programs at the regional level. Some of the key approaches regional planning agencies and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) are taking to improve their regional competitive advantage include creating regional comprehensive plans using new public engagement tools and developing implementation programs designed to provide technical assistance and/or capital funding.

One interesting implementation program with potential value to our region is the Houston Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) Livable Centers Program which was presented by Jeff Taebel H-GAC’s Director of Community and Environmental Programs. Taebel is leading the Houston-Galveston area’s effort to create a regional plan through a $3.75 million HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning grant. H-GAC appears to be a well-suited organization to lead the regional planning effort as its staff has been partnering with local governments across the region on planning and implementation efforts with an emphasis on public engagement.

Modeled after the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Livable Centers work the goal of the H-GAC program is to facilitate the creation of walkable mixed-use places that provide multi-modal transportation options improve environmental quality and promote economic development in regional centers. It works by first funding studies to create the groundwork for future implementation projects. The second element of the program provides funding for transportation investments identified through earlier planning studies. The studies and implementation projects selected must have an eligible sponsor such as a local government and provide a 20 percent funding match for their proposal. H-GAC also developed Livable Centers Program Metrics to create a strategic framework for project selection and plans to use the program to implement their future Regional Plan.

Taebel mentioned that having established the Livable Centers Program with a focus on planning and implementation played an important part in demonstrating to HUD in their Sustainable Communities Regional Planning grant that the Houston Galveston area was ready to take on another level of regional planning and already had programs in place to support the plan after it was adopted. “Being out in the community and partnering with local governments on planning studies has built a lot of regional capacity for managing more complicated regional planning efforts” said Taebel “like many planning agencies we’ve made mistakes but mistakes are learning opportunities that will be important when we start our public engagement process for our regional plan funded through HUD.”

In our region the program most similar to H-GAC’s Livable Centers is the Transportation/Land Use Connections (TLC) program at COG. This popular program started in 2007 and focuses on providing small grants to local governments to improve transportation and land-use connections. Most technical assistance grants over the past few years have supported improved locally focused bicycle and pedestrian studies. The TLC Program has provided value to area local governments supporting a number of studies that encourage a regional focus that might not have been completed without its existence. While it utilizes a number of strategies to select projects the TLC Program is different from H-GAC’s and other regional programs as it is not linked to a regional plan or vision regional centers framework or includes capital funding for implementation projects.

It is clear that these types of planning and implementation programs are quickly catching on and encouraging a new wave of innovative regional planning support programs. Mitchell Silver Planning Director for the City of Raleigh North Carolina picked up on the innovation theme occurring in regions throughout the country and ended the conference by inspiring participants to think differently about the future of our communities and our planning efforts. Speaking like a true believer in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Silver stated “we can no longer plan like we’re expecting to use Polaroid Cameras as a planning tool for digital communities.” With the level of innovation occurring in such regional planning and implementation programs among MPOs and regional councils it will be interesting to watch how they evolve to support regional visions and the numerous regional plans being developed as part the HUD Sustainable Communities Program.

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