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Talking Smart Growth from Montpelier to Washington D.C.

From Kate McCarthy, VNRC Sustainable Communities Program Director

Each year state and regional smart growth leaders from across the country gather for leadership development, to discuss smart growth issues, and to share innovations from our own work. This year, the ‘Smart Growth Caucus’ met in Washington, D.C. where we discussed rural and urban approaches to smart growth and how the smart growth movement is connected to climate change and social justice initiatives – big conversations that we plan to continue. As VNRC’s Sustainable Communities Program Director, I was excited and honored to attend and connect with colleagues from around the country.

For background, ‘smart growth’ describes a pattern of land development that uses land efficiently, reinforces community vitality, protects natural resources, and helps mitigate the negative impacts of growth and development. Smart growth, which is a guiding framework for VNRC’s sustainable communities work, is about promoting development that is good for the economy, community, and the environment. Key benefits of smart growth include the creation of diverse housing options; protection of farm and forestland; diverse transportation options and less dependence on the automobile; greater social interaction with neighbors; lower cost for public services resulting in reduced taxes; and a higher quality of life.

Having this year’s meeting in Washington, D.C. provided the opportunity for onsite learning, especially about transit oriented development projects. Transit oriented development projects promote good design, density, and bicycle and pedestrian connectivity around transit. Learn more about transit oriented development in VNRC’s Community Planning Toolbox.

For example, we visited the 14th and U St. neighborhood, as well as the massive Navy Yard infill redevelopment project. This project had several noteworthy elements. In the 14th and U St. neighborhood, historic preservation efforts allowed beautiful older buildings to remain the face of the street while larger buildings were placed behind them. This type of design allows for the pedestrians and street users to enjoy the atmosphere of the historic buildings without feeling overwhelmed by larger, more modern developments.

14th & U St. Neighborhood, Washington D.C.

The massive Navy Yard redevelopment had a mix of green space, mixed-income housing, office, and retail. As you can see in the images below, the waterfront featured restaurants, plazas, and an artsy bridge. Perhaps most impressive, was learning that the federal Department of Transportation has 8,000 employees based in the Navy Yard, but only 800 parking spaces thanks to the transit-oriented elements of the development that allow employees to access their offices and homes through transit options. Also impressive was the rent: While D.C. recently passed an inclusionary zoning policy, demand in these transit oriented areas is high, and so are the rents. The Navy Yard area carefully included mixed income properties but the sheer demand for in-city living, and the pace of development, mean that issues related to displacement, equity, and keeping communities intact are ever present and in need of sustained attention.

And looking to the future, we saw an automated Amazon deliver module. Perhaps something similar could be instituted for local businesses as well, like UberEATS food delivery does? Exciting ideas to ponder for the future of Vermont.

Kate McCarthy visits Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a visit to Washington D.C. if we didn’t also include visits with elected officials and their staffers on the Hill. Smart Growth America and Transportation for America organized the visits which started with a briefing on key transportation issues like the status of the budget bill, key programs at risk of being cut, and the benefits that different federal programs had brought to each of our states. In Vermont, for example, we’ve received over $33 million from a federal transportation program called Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER), which has provided flexible funding for projects ranging from passenger and freight rail in various parts of the state, to main street revitalization in St. Albans.

Meeting with legislators to discuss smart growth.

I took the opportunity to sit down with a staffer from Congressman Welch’s office to talk about the Community Design Block Grant (one of the longest running programs of the Department of Housing and Urban Development that funds local community development activities such as anti-poverty programs, affordable housing, and infrastructure), Historic Preservation Tax Credits, TIGER funding, and the work of Vermont Natural Resources Council and our many partners on-the-ground here in Vermont.

Visiting Rep. Peter Welch in Washington, D.C.

I was also fortunate to spend time with Nancy Smith, executive director of GrowSmart Maine. During a tour of the Capitol we connected with Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine.

VNRC’s Kate McCarthy in Washington D.C. with Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine and Nancy Smith, executive director of GrowSmart Maine. (Photos: Nancy Smith, GrowSmart Maine)

Stepping outside of Vermont to think about smart growth work with colleagues always builds perspective – and energy! My colleagues from around the U.S. and I face many issues in common: how to support renewable energy development that is contextual to place and community, how to promote agricultural enterprises appropriately, and how to best support decision makers in planning for long-term land use – to name a few key initiatives. I know we are lucky to be in Vermont, a state that values our natural resources and communities, and that invests in our downtowns and villages consistently. We can often talk candidly about how climate change will impact Vermonters and our land, and that will help us mitigate and adapt to changing conditions. Sharing successes and challenges, best practices, and ‘tips of the trade’ at national gatherings such as this always provides inspiration and sparks the imagination about how much more can be done and the many creative ways to build support for smart growth!

Special thanks to Smart Growth America, Transportation for America, and my colleagues from across the country for a great event.