Alina S. Coryell
42 Cherokee Hills
Tuscaloosa, AL 35404
(A.K.A “GOOD GROWTH COMMITTEE”)
On June 16, 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) together with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U. S. Department of Transportation (DOT) formed the Partnership for Sustainable Communities (PSC), a collaboration between the three federal agencies to help improve access to affordable housing, create more transportation options and lower Americans’ transportation costs while protecting the environment in communities nationwide. This unprecedented collaboration between federal agencies means all three are better able to solve interrelated challenges. Whether it’s the impact of transportation choices on the environment, or the impact of housing decisions on transportation choices, the Partnership grants HUD, DOT and EPA the ability to coordinate federal policies, programs and resources to achieve multiple goals at the same time. This means a more efficient policy process and a better use of taxpayer dollars.
The PSC’s work is guided by six “Livability Principles”, which were adopted by the MPO at their most recent meeting. The successful application of these principles are what makes Portland, Oregon and Athens, Georgia so attractive to young professionals and those beginning families with strong economic prospects. The principles are as follows:
Currently, the national perception of our town, apart from its success at football, tends towards a derogatory assumption about “good ole boys” dominating funding and development. The effect of such a perception means that no one but a certified good ole boy will move to Tuscaloosa. This would be a tragic long-term consequence of bad reputation management for our local leaders and elected officials. It means that, ultimately, the only way we will be able to attract investors is by promising them the rights to pay minimal taxes, thus diminishing our local government’s ability to administer public services, or by giving them unparalleled freedom to use and pollute, thus costing taxpayers untold sums in the future when the mess must be cleaned up.
A rapacious approach to local development threatens not only to lose money for our community over the long-term trajectory, but also threatens to destroy the very resources which create and sustain local historical heritage. As poet and author Wendell Berry has written, “a sense of place” provides our connections to local history and nourishes our love for a local community. In an article for Alabama Heritage, historian Patrick McIntyre bemoaned the lack of visionary planning in our development:
“According to USDA statistics, sprawl and new development in Alabama between 1982 and 1992 consumed an average of 32,000 acres a year. Between 1992 and 1997, this number nearly tripled to more than 89,000 acres per year. The proliferation of growth around expanding urban areas is in many respects a sign of a healthy economy. Unfortunately, the thoughtful regulation of that growth- successfully implemented in so many states and communities nationwide- is largely absent in Alabama.”
If it is absent, then it is not for lack of local desire- it is for lack of legislative commitment and encouragement.
In May 2011, the Associated Press published a widely-circulated article, “South's growing population, urban sprawl threaten region's forestry, study finds”. The Forestry Commission’s concerns about urban sprawl were also expressed by Alabama Forestry Ranger Nick Granger of the New Brockton Forestry office, who explained:
"We just want the public and developers to become more aware that the only way we can address this issue and make sure our state's forests remain productive, is to utilize natural resources in new development plans, which is a concept called 'Green Infrastructure.”
Even our hometown newspaper has editorialized its concerns about a future of urban sprawl for Tuscaloosa. The management of urban sprawl has cost some cities untold fortunes in regret and money. We have an opportunity to grow and develop in a manner that would avoid this.
Successful MPO’s are those which represent the long-term investment and growth capabilities of a community. Unsuccessful and failing MPO’s are those which represent a small number of interests as demonstrated by the legislative capture effect. Currently, MPOs are required to address impacts to green infrastructure before approving any regional transportation plans. Our MPO has taken a basic step in acknowledging the Livability principles. However, the establishment of a standing committee on Sustainable Community Development would raise Tuscaloosa from the status of minimal compliance to active engagement. The SCD Committee would work in conjunction with other MPO committees to provide information, seek funding sources, and market our community’s efforts to grow in a sustainable, attractive manner. By bringing together historical preservationists, urban planners, academic experts, community activists, and local entrepreneurs, this Committee would revitalize and engage the public discussion about local development.
The Partnership for Sustainable Communities offers extensive funding for local development and transportation programs. A Partnership Agreement guides the way in which local and state agencies can make use of funding from the PCS. It also assists our community in creating principles for growth which attract families, young professionals, and recent graduates of our university. This will be critical in the coming years as the economy tightens and energy policy issues continue to restrict consumer choices..
In 2010, the Obama White House announced specific ways in which PCS can be applied at the community level. It seems that we have used some of these grants for the Tuscaloosa Forward Plan, including the FY2010 Capacity Building for Community Development and Affordable Housing Grants NOFA. The city of Anniston has also made more extensive use of this funding through the The East Alabama Regional Partnership for Sustainability of Anniston which was awarded $225,000. However, the haphazard and splotchy use of such funding sends mixed messages about the direction of our community’s growth. Mixed messages make funding decisions more difficult for national officials and legislators, who also have their own political careers to sustain.
I believe the national espousal of these Livability Principles opens the door wide open for the Sustainable Community Development Committee. In order to build a Tuscaloosa that is beautiful, livable, promising, and economically-viable, our MPO must enable and encourage every citizen who wants to lend a hand to this effort. Rather than read about UA hazing parties in the national press, I would prefer to read a story about a progressive Southern town named Tuscaloosa that develops for the future while honoring the beauty and lessons of the past- a town that attracts Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and a rich variety of nonprofit research groups and organizations ready to hire recent graduates from our wonderful university. The SCD Committee will send all the right image signals to potential investors and developers. It will also provide our MPO with a ready-made Idea Factory which can cull new ideas and discover possible funding sources for them while reaching out to the grassroots to test what appeals to local citizens.
Role of SCD Committee
This committee would meet once every odd-numbered month to serve an advisory role for the area MPO with respect to “green infrastructure”, attracting knowledge-economy based business, and the procurement of funding opportunities for “sustainable development”. Specific policy components and advisory opinions to be addressed by SCD Committee might include:
In addition to providing advisory opinions, this Committee would also serve a constructive, positive role in the community by:
Possible Members of SCD Standing Committee
Ideally, this committee will include a diverse cross-section of residents with a deep social, economic, and emotional investment in the flourishing of our community. Tech-savvy professionals are needed to assist in drafting proposals to draw knowledge-economy investments. Urban planners are needed to provide vision, expertise, and guidelines for development and growth in line with existing plans and regulations. Representatives of “green industry” are needed to incubate and grow possibilities for economic development in this area. Nonprofit professionals are needed to seek funding opportunities and envision a city brimming with prospective employment for idealistic recent graduates. Community activists are needed to develop strong relationships with local community groups and convey their perceptions to the MPO Policy Committee.
 The Green Infrastructure Permitting and Enforcement Series provides EPA and state permitting and enforcement professionals with a guide to integrating green infrastructure approaches into NPDES wet weather programs. Online at http://water.epa.gov/infrastructure/greeninfrastructure/gi_regulatory.cfm#permittingseries.