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Building Environmentally Sustainable Communities

A Framework for Inclusivity

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Document date: April 01, 2010
Released online: May 14, 2010


The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has decided to include two key goals in all of its programs: encouraging sustainable communities and enhancing access to opportunity for lower-income people and people of color. This paper examines the relationship between these two goals through a literature review and an original empirical analysis of how these goals interact at the neighborhood and metropolitan area levels. We also offer policy recommendations for HUD.

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Against a backdrop of the administration's concern about climate change, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is committing significant resources to ensuring that housing and planning activities promote environmentally sustainable communities. Several recent actions demonstrate this commitment. In June 2009, HUD announced a partnership with the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and together they developed "livability principles" to guide federal transportation, environmental, and housing investments.1 HUD's 2010 budget establishes "encouraging sustainable and inclusive communities" as one of five core objectives and proposes a $150 million Sustainable Communities Initiative.2 In addition, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) committed billions of dollars to energy retrofitting and "green" design in federally assisted housing.3 All of these efforts will use housing, transportation, and land-use planning tools to achieve environmental goals.

Despite this increased interest in incorporating environmental goals, there is no single, generally accepted definition of sustainable development or sustainable communities. Many observers define sustainability through a narrow lens—focusing on actions to preserve and protect the environment. For example, sustainable development might include efforts to reduce carbon emissions by designing walkable neighborhoods or investing in public transportation to reduce reliance on cars. It might also include land-use regulations that reduce sprawl by encouraging high-density housing construction in already built-up areas while limiting growth on undeveloped land.

Some definitions of sustainability apply a broader lens, incorporating principles of inclusion and opportunity as well as environmental protection. This broader vision seeks to preserve the environment and foster healthy, vibrant neighborhoods that offer their residents affordable housing, public transportation, good jobs, high-performing schools, healthy food choices, and open spaces. It also seeks to ensure that such neighborhoods are inclusive by offering the benefits of sustainability and environmental, social, and economic opportunity to people of all incomes, ages, races, and ethnicities.

Although HUD's 2010 budget links sustainability and inclusion rhetorically, there is growing concern from advocates and key stakeholders that communities that are sustainable in the narrower, environmental sense will not necessarily be inclusive, and that efforts to promote environmental sustainability may come at the expense of efforts to improve those households' access to better social and economic opportunities. This concern is not unfounded. U.S. metropolitan areas continue to be highly segregated by race and poverty. To date, many sustainable development efforts have emphasized environmental goals and paid little attention to inclusion. Some actions to advance environmental goals have the potential to make it even harder to develop and preserve affordable housing, particularly in neighborhoods of opportunity. But environmental sustainability and inclusion can also be complementary, and an argument can be made that to fully achieve their environmental goals, sustainable communities must be inclusive.

Because definitions of sustainable development and sustainable communities are still taking shape at the local level, HUD's actions over the next decade, including how the agency defines environmentally sustainable communities, how it measures the success of such communities, and how HUD fosters inclusion in these communities, will play a critical role. Its statutory responsibility for expanding affordable housing and the obligation to affirmatively further fair housing can and should be integrated with the commitment to environmental goals. As policymakers at HUD define, promote, and develop environmentally sustainable and inclusive communities, they will need to consider the following questions:

  • What characteristics make communities environmentally sustainable and inclusive?
  • Are there points of tension between the two goals and how can HUD resolve or balance such tensions?
  • How do environmental sustainability and inclusivity complement one another?
  • How should HUD advance these goals through new initiatives?
  • What changes does HUD need to make to its current programs to encourage environmental sustainability and inclusion?

This paper provides a framework for exploring these questions and makes recommendations for policy development. It begins with a look back at the patterns of environmentally unsustainable and inequitable development that have characterized most of metropolitan America. We then look forward, discussing the interconnected goals of environmental sustainability, access to opportunity, and community inclusion. The third section presents measures of environmental sustainability, opportunity, and inclusion that HUD can use to decide where it should invest its resources, and to assess progress toward meeting its goals at the neighborhood and metropolitan levels. Finally, section four makes specific recommendations for federal housing policy and programs.

(End of excerpt. The full paper is available in PDF format.)

Topics/Tags: | Cities and Neighborhoods | Housing

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