Lobbying for Livability


March 2010

Lobbying for Livability


"Livable communities" is the new argot in the Obama administration. The term evokes images of walking and public transportation-friendly communities with green spaces—and the death of dreaded suburban sprawl. But what livable communities will become remains to be seen as Congress and the administration hammer out the details of the plan.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development formed the interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities to help improve access to affordable housing, provide more transportation options, and lower transportation costs while protecting the environment in communities nationwide. The partnership plans to use six "livability principles" to coordinate federal transportation, environmental protection, and housing investments.

In the spirit of this interagency agreement, several members of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee introduced the Livable Communities Act (S. 1619). The bill aims to help towns and regions across the country plan and implement development projects to integrate their community's needs for transportation, housing, land use, and economic development. It also seeks to cut traffic congestion, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fuel consumption, protect green spaces, create more affordable housing, and revitalize existing urban centers.

The Livable Communities Act would:

  1. Create competitive planning grants for towns and regions to use to create comprehensive, long-term plans that integrate transportation, housing, land use, and economic development;
  2. Create challenge grants that towns and regions could use to implement their long-term plans by investing in public transportation, transit-oriented development, brownfield redevelopment, complete streets, and affordable housing;
  3. Establish a federal Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities at the Department of Housing and Urban Development to administer and oversee these grant programs; and
  4. Establish a federal Interagency Council on Sustainable Communities that would include representatives from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal agencies to coordinate federal sustainable development policies.

Supporters of livable communities applaud the environmental and quality-of-life benefits that bills like the Livable Communities Act intend to provide. Critics, however, say that the government should not intervene in citizens' private lives. Critics also point out that livable communities plans call for far less space between houses than many suburban neighborhoods currently provide.

Regardless of the politics of the issue, livable community plans present an opportunity for PEs to engage in a multidisciplinary, collaborative approach to community planning. NSPE has not taken a position on the Livable Communities Act; however, NSPE supports positioning PEs on a design team and using qualifications-based selection to award design work generated by livable communities grants.