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Northeast Ohio's regional sustainability plan needs a stick

Marc Lefkowitz  |  12/13/11 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in NEO Sustainable Communities

San Diego is a classic example of a sprawling metropolis-mile after mile of low density development scattered over mesa and ocean side. Crisscrossed by highways, the region has no cohesive sense of place.

Enter their Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) and their 2050 Regional Transportation Plan. It's the first to respond to a state law charging the California Air Resources Board (CARB) with setting regional targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and by 2035. It also calls for California Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), such as the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) to prepare a SCS.

Compared to the auto-centric transportation playbook of the past, the plan does shift investment to bike and pedestrian facilities, and emphasizes connecting places with capital projects including light rail and bus-rapid transit lines.

Despite the carve out of 36 percent of the total for new transit projects, two environmental groups are suing the San Diego MPO, charging that it "over-invests in freeways at the expense of public transit, increased pollution and exacerbated global climate change." Indeed, it does target 34 percent to highway improvements (largely for the addition of high occupancy vehicle lanes to existing freeway corridors).

Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, San Diego is hitching its goal of half a million new jobs and 400,000 new homes to a new vision-a more dense urban setting that has a lower impact lifestyle built in. Whether it goes far enough to meet new California GHG reduction mandates is important, but arguably less so than the narrative that more density and more transit connecting these dense nodes of development are the product that Americans want now.

The plan will include metrics for social equity, including how it integrates with the region's affordable housing plan. It will connect with current public transit and with the state's high speed rail investments. It envisions protecting sensitive habitat and open space.

Good.com writes that regional planning like this is the new city planning.

"Multiple cities may comprise a region, and even though their fates are intertwined, it's only natural that each would want to advocate for privileges and protections for its own citizens. Regional planning is a way to productively engage in that negotiation, addressing issues that transcend city limits and involve shared resources-whether natural, built, or human."

San Diego's Sustainable Community's Strategy has a state law to hold its feet to the fire.

That big stick is missing in the HUD/EPA/DOT sponsored regional planning efforts like Northeast Ohio's $4 million Sustainable Communities Initiative (to tie transportation, housing and environment into a regional plan).

A year into Northeast Ohio's regional sustainability plan, it's still unclear where the effort is heading. There appears to be little external communication or citizen participation while the majority of participants on the board of directors appear to be the usual suspects who have been leading the region to more sprawl in the last few decades. The initiative needs to show a willingness to step out of the ranks and plant a flag on the issue of how to make demand side management of transportation (i.e. dense, affordable transit-oriented development) happen in the region.

We don't mean to throw rocks at the impulse behind attempting reform, however, the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Community team, so far, hasn't shown us a lot of dynamism. What the initiative needs is to listen to the voices within its board calling for real reform, not the same rehash of regional plans that sound pretty but collect dust on a shelf.

A number of board members are aiming higher-for a plan that directs the MPOs participating to stop paying lip service and start investing real dollars in sustainable land use and transportation. They see this regional planning effort as providing the data and support for the MPOs to adopt hard targets such as reductions in vehicle miles traveled (VMT), reductions in green house gas emissions, and coordinating transit with job growth centers. Until that happens, sustainability in Northeast Ohio will only happen at the fringes instead of where it counts the most.

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