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How Do We Grow from Here?

Last month, the New Partners for Smart Growth conference held its annual event that brings together multi-disciplinary practitioners, advocates and champions focused on making their communities great places to live, work and recreate. The conference draws a national audience of local elected officials and city and county staff; state and federal agency leaders; professionals in planning, transportation, public health, landscape architecture, architecture, public works, parks and recreation, crime prevention and the arts; realtors, developers, builders and bankers; advocates for equity and environmental justice, and others committed to building safer, healthier and more livable communities for everyone.

This year’s 15th annual New Partners for Smart Growth conference was held in Portland, Oregon February 11-13, and was attended by a contingent of cross-sector and cross-discipline regional leaders from the greater Sacramento area.

That Portland is a recognized “mecca” of smart growth is immediately evident upon arrival at the airport. It’s impressive when you can step “off a plane and directly onto a light rail car,” noted Sacramento County Supervisor Patrick Kennedy, when sharing his thoughts about the conference at the February 25th Board of Directors meeting of the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District (SMAQMD). Other SMAQMD board members who attended the conference were Sacramento City Council Members Eric Guerra and Steve Hansen, and Mayor Mark Crews of the City of Galt. Given the diversity of topics at the conference, participants left with a variety of key takeaways. Councilmember Hansen commented on the strong integration of the topic of equity which he noted as both “refreshing and necessary.” Councilmember Guerra appreciated the opportunity to see first-hand successful and attractive “brown-field developments on smaller vacant lots,” while Mayor Crews found it interesting to see how other cities are addressing problems similar to those faced by the City of Galt.

The New Partners for Smart Growth conference offered a multitude of breakout sessions in a variety of tracks, far too numerous to summarize here (let alone attend!). Highlights from a few of the conference sessions are provided below.

The Investment Areas Story: Integrated Regional-Growth Strategy Implementation
This session highlighted the concept of “investment areas” as a key reason for the high level of success of implementing integrated, multi-modal transportation projects in the greater Portland region. The term multi-modal refers to projects that integrate multiple modes of transport (e.g., car, transit, walk, bike). The “investment areas” approach is sustained by a long-range vision coupled with supportive land-use policies and a high level of partnership with local jurisdictions.

Within each investment area, local transportation plans are folded into a broader regional corridor strategy; a shared investment approach aligns local, regional, state, federal, and community investments – targeted in one investment area at a time. The integrated approach helps to maximize the benefit of each public dollar invested and can catalyze the opportunity for private-sector investment. This community building approach leverages funds from multiple agencies and departments (e.g., transportation and transit projects; parks and recreation) into an integrated plan for connecting key places within and between communities. The process includes working with the community members to identify a community vision for key places. The design of the transportation network incorporates the communities’ aspirations for more walkable, vibrant communities.

Transit investments focus on connecting key places; making stations places people want to be, by incorporating green spaces for instance; and ensuring transit is usable/accessible for all members of the community.

Maximizing Health Care Investments in Your Community: Creating Health Oriented Neighborhoods
Health-oriented neighborhoods are neighborhoods that have characteristics such as access to healthy foods, green spaces, jobs, healthcare, and transit; and streets that are safe and walkable. This session focused on how health care facilities and local communities can partner on wellness programs and other health-focused investments that can lead to community transformation. Examples were provided of Federally Qualified Health Centers serving as anchor institutions within a community and creating opportunities for community reinvestment and development. The Williamson Health and Wellness Center in rural West Virginia was cited as one such example where, in a community of poor health-outcomes and high unemployment, a focus on health as a point of collaboration is improving health and creating jobs. One strategy the community has employed is converting reclaimed mining sites into agricultural production ventures which are providing both jobs and fresh local foods to the community.

The FAST and the CURIOUS: What the New Transportation Bill Means for Smart Growth
At the close of 2015, Congress signed the Fixing Americas Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act); this session highlighted some of the important investments included in the legislation. One of the primary benefits the FAST Act provides, at long-last, is multiple-years (five) of stability in federal transportation funding. It also provides–for the first time ever–combined funding for highways, transit, and passenger rail, with 80 percent of funding going to highways and 20 percent designated for transit.

In addition, the FAST Act provides increased financing options for transit-oriented-development (TOD) and adds “value capture” for real estate development at transit stations, which should help spur more development opportunities and public-private-partnerships. Importantly, the FAST Act also maintains Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funds for projects that help reduce congestion and benefit air quality.
A key session takeaway: it’s important to act fast! The U.S. Department of Transportation wants to quickly have in place a pipeline of projects for walkable, transit friendly, urban places before the administration changes over in 2017. In the words of Christopher Coes, session speaker and director of LOCUS, a network of real estate developers and investors who advocate for sustainable, walkable development, it’s an opportunity to “go big or go home.”

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