EPA Grant Helps Right-Size Saginaw, MI

This post is part of an ongoing series about organizations that have received grants from the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. Did your organization receive one of these grants? Tell us about it!

Lapeer Ave in downtown Saginaw, originally uploaded by Ian Freimuth.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently selected 25 communities from across the country to receive technical assistance under its Smart Growth Implementation Assistance program – and one of them was Saginaw, Michigan. Saginaw was selected to receive assistance developing a plan to right-size its urban land area and coordinate its infrastructure investments. Both objectives are directly connected to improving sustainability and livability for the city’s residents and businesses.

Saginaw is a midsize, manufacturing-based city located in the heart of Michigan. Over the past decade, roughly 10% of its total population has moved out of the city limits. This population loss, coupled by an increase in abandoned and vacant properties, means nearly 5,500 properties in the city are currently unused and unmaintained. In total, nearly 25% of the city is physically empty or on the verge of demolition yet still requires a full range of public services, like sewer, water, roads, lighting, and police and fire protection.

Saginaw’s story is similar to many rustbelt cities built on the back of the once burgeoning American manufacturing industry. Decades ago, these communities flourished with stable jobs, steady incomes, and established residents. Slowly, Saginaw saw its jobs moving south or overseas as firms looked to cut costs and job loss in the city’s manufacturing industry forced residents to look elsewhere for work. The resulting decline in population has led to the predictable challenges that ail many Midwest and Northeast cities: property abandonment and foreclosure, physical infrastructure decay, and a reduced tax base.

These problems become more pronounced over time without a thoughtful planning effort and effective policy interventions. In Saginaw, a broad coalition of political leaders, government entities, business groups, and civic associations has banded together to coordinate redevelopment strategies and seek funding for a comprehensive planning effort. Leading this effort are the Saginaw County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, Land Bank Authority, and City of Saginaw. Together, these organizations applied for technical assistance from EPA’s Smart Growth Implementation Assistance program, which provides communities across the country with technical assistance to incorporate smart growth techniques into their future development. Saginaw was one of 25 communities across the country chosen to receive funding to conduct a comprehensive planning effort.

Saginaw will use EPA’s assistance to develop a plan for the reuse of vacant and abandoned property and to manage infrastructure investment in these areas. City leaders are using this opportunity to transform the city’s challenges into new opportunities to promote Saginaw’s heritage of mixed-use development, compact building design, walkable neighborhoods, and range of affordable housing options.

EPA’s Implementation Assistance program is one example of how the federal government is helping communities across the country integrate smart growth principles into their planning and development efforts. Leading this work at the federal level is the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, an interagency collaboration between the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Department of Transportation (DOT), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These agencies work intimately to coordinate federal investment and planning decisions, provide a vision for sustainable growth, and help communities revitalize underused sites.

“Most planning is not proactive, it’s reactive,” said Cynthia Winland, Saginaw County Brownfield Coordinator. “In Saginaw, we’re tackling new challenges that require progressive thinking and new solutions. We need federal support more now than ever to revitalize our city and spread lessons we’ve learned to communities across the country.”

Saginaw is just one example of many communities throughout the nation attempting to reinvent themselves after decades of sweeping economic and social change. The Partnership for Sustainable Communities supports these communities by providing smart investments, proven expertise, and a capability to research and showcase effective strategies used by states and localities throughout the country.

Winland went on to add, “Urban leaders and planners face unprecedented challenges when planning for infill development and coordinating investments in aging infrastructure. The Partnership for Sustainable Communities is an integral partner in these efforts by providing localities with practical strategies to become more sustainable, livable, and economically competitive.”