Spotlight on Sustainability: Tampa, FL uses new technologies to chart a new direction for the city

A downtown Tampa streetcar. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Willamor Media.

Leaders in Tampa, Florida are working to reverse the sprawl that has left their downtown area sparsely populated and stifled economic development. A Community Challenge Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is aimed to help make it happen.

The city’s planning efforts, organized under the banner of InVision Tampa, aim to create a vision plan for a downtown core, a transit corridor plan to increase transportation choices in the region, and update the city’s building codes. Each of these are designed to stimulate downtown Tampa’s residential, business, and retail economy, and set the entire city on a course for a better future.

“We are hoping to change the entire face of our urban core. Our urban core is quite a bit like other aging cities. Suburbanization and forces over 50 years have pushed people out,” says Randy Goers, Urban Planning Coordinator and Project Manager for InVision Tampa. “Over the next 15 years, we want to remake the urban core and create a dense, diverse, populated area.”

While Tampa, like many cities, has always had a central business district that composed its downtown, it was not until the 1980s that any residential development was put in place. The city is seeking to jumpstart residential downtown activity, identifying spots along the river as opportunities for redevelopment.


Spotlight on Sustainability: The unique challenges of smart growth in rural Montana

The Cabinet Mountains in northern Montana. Photo courtesy of Almost-Normal Photography.

How do you grow responsibly in frontier communities? What does smart growth look like in these extremely rural areas? How can you adapt smart growth principles – often associated with urban cores – to small town America? These are precisely the kinds of questions that Vibrant Futures Montana is working to answer with the help of a Regional Planning grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

To develop solutions for northern Montana’s unique issues, Vibrant Futures has been working hard to coordinate the efforts of local governments and communities which are spread out over an immense territory – over 31,000 square miles. “Between 11 counties and 3 reservations,. there has historically been no coordination between governmental entities as to how they would plan,” says Deborah Kottel, Interim Regional Coordinator at Vibrant Futures, They’ve never thought about how the counties could work together.”

Promoting cooperation and coordination is key to the region’s success, Kottel notes, and much of the group’s efforts have been devoted to creating and fostering relationships between the counties’ administrators. The counties can more effectively tackle the region’s challenges by working together.

In particular, Kottel says, the region must prepare for economic fluctuations. And as a planner, she understands how such specific regional challenges affect how planning must be carried out.

“When a tiny community’s economy relies on unpredictable industries like oil exploration, planning becomes drastically different than in a more steady city of any size. When the boom has ended, what happens? Can you turn worker camps into industrial parks? And if so, how do you do that? These are the kinds of questions we’re trying to answer.” The region also suffers from a scarcity of vital services, like medical and dental care, the lack of which has been pushing the aging parts of the population out of small towns and undercutting local businesses.

A recently implemented bus route, however, has done much to address the lack of regional connectivity between communities. “Simple things like putting in a reliable bus line can do so much and allow people to live in rural communities and let them live how they want while also connecting them to other people and other communities,” Kottel says.


Spotlight on Sustainability: A fresh approach to regional planning in southern Texas

A tugboat in Galveston, TX. Photo courtesy of flickr user BFS Man.

After receiving a HUD Regional Planning grant two years ago, the Houston Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) knew it had its work cut out. The grant region comprises 13 counties and 6 million people and a wide variety of city types, from rural to coastal, suburban and urban. Yet, in such a large and diverse region, the grant has done much to coordinate local planning efforts, says Meredith Dang, the Land Use Transportation Coordinator at H-GAC.

“As a region, we’ve done a lot of planning about individual concerns – like housing, transportation and infrastructure – but not on this holistic level, so we’re using our grant to look at how the issues interact and what sort of future the region wants to strive towards.”

The grant consortium is made up of 24 local organizations, with local governments, nonprofits, and university and research organizations involved, all groups that had not previously worked together. “The scale at which H-GAC has been able to cross the lines between government and nonprofit and education through the Consortium has created partnerships that have been really groundbreaking for our region,” Dang says.

Currently, the consortium is working together to come up with development strategies through a series of case studies. Two case studies in particular have emerged as key projects for the grant.

The first involves the city of Houston, where planners are looking to piece together a set of policy tools that encourages and incentivizes walkable, mixed-use development in a dozen business centers throughout the city as well as builds a framework that speaks to the kind of development people really want. The second is being carried out in the city of Galveston, where planners hope to develop a more complete method of cost-benefit analysis for sustainable development.


Spotlight on Sustainability: Planning for a self-sufficient Grand Traverse County, Michigan

Located in northwest Michigan and with a population of about 90,000 people, Grand Traverse County boasts a host of natural amenities and idyllic Great Lakes beauty. But like most places across the country, it has faced an economic slowdown in recent years.

Unlike most other places, though, the communities and local governments in the area decided to take advantage of the recession, using it as a chance to pause and assess what residents wanted for the future. That unique, forward-thinking perspective has helped Grand Traverse County create a vision for the region as a whole moving forward.

Coming out of an extended phase in which its local governments and planning commissions simply tried to manage growth, Grand Traverse County sought to create a system that would better account for expected development and direct it toward shared County goals. With the input of tens of thousands of the public gathered through surveys, public meetings, and discussions, the Grand Vision was born. Encompassing six priorities –transportation, growth and investment, housing, food and farming, sustainable energy, and natural resources – the Grand Vision is a commitment from local organizations and people to move towards a shared plan for the region.


Spotlight on Sustainability: Des Moines, IA


Named by Forbes as the Best Place for Young Professionals and the Best Place to Raise a Family, the Greater Des Moines population is growing and is expected to grow by 35% more by 2035. But, progress is never achieved without facing some challenges along the way— in this case the challenge is creating jobs and remaining economically competitive, while still fostering safe and affordable places for families to live, work, and play.

To address these burgeoning issues, and ensure the vitality and long-term economic health of the region, the Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (DMAMPO), in conjunction with a large group of local organizations and officials representing area communities, is working to coordinate future growth and development through the creation of The Tomorrow Plan, funded by a 2010 Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Regional Planning grant.

“The Tomorrow Plan is allowing us to take a step back and truly assess where our region currently is, as well as where we are headed. We have to be proactive and prepare for the future in order to continue to attract and retain the top talent and business that has made Greater Des Moines one of the top regions in the country,” says Bethany Wilcoxon, Project Manager for DMAMPO.


Spotlight on Sustainability: Madison, WI

Unsustainable growth, lack of economic opportunities, community health concerns, and loss of natural resources—these are issues facing cities and towns across the country, and Madison, Wisconsin is no exception. But, regional planning organizations in the Greater Madison area are now attempting to confront these endemic issues in a strategic and sustainable way that utilizes Madison’s strengths rather than allowing its weaknesses to be barriers to an effective response.


Spotlight on Sustainability: Austin, TX

The neighborhood of Colony Park in east Austin, Texas, is historically underserved and underutilized. Despite previous local investment in new infrastructure and a recreation center, there is still a significant lack of mixed-income housing and transportation options for residents. A new community pilot project aims to change all that. With a $3 million HUD Community Challenge grant through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, the City of Austin has a unique opportunity to foster a mixed-income neighborhood that could be used as a model for sustainability and economic development.


Spotlight on Sustainability: Denver, CO

In the areas of Denver surrounding the South Platte River, industrial buildings, coal-fired power plants, and blighted communities contrast with newer greenspace, trails, natural spaces and emerging mixed use developments. Over the past few decades, efforts at revitalization have made major progress in creating more walkable and recreational spaces, as well as cleaning up the river itself. But many of the surrounding neighborhoods and industrial areas are still disadvantaged, isolated, and underutilized. The City of Denver is now conducting a study to identify opportunities to spur economic development and revitalization in these communities.


Spotlight on Sustainability: Pittsburgh's Waterfronts

After facing a major economic downturn in the 1980s due to a drop in steel business demand and production, Pittsburgh is on the rebound, with city leaders looking to transform former industrial corridors into vibrant riverfront neighborhoods.

Today, the former “Steel City” is known as a growing hub for high-tech innovation, education and health care. Pittsburgh’s art scene, job prospects, safety and affordability recently earned it the title of “Most Livable City in America” by Forbes Magazine, and the city’s economic rebound has proven so successful that its story is serving as a model for other recession-hit cities.

Still, Pittsburgh’s comeback is not without obstacles, as many of the areas best suited for in-demand development were not originally envisioned as such, said Lena Andrews, senior planning specialist at the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh.

“Pittsburgh’s riverfronts were used as transportation corridors for industrial production, and were characterized by factories, barges and pollution,” Andrews said. “While the environment has improved since then, the land surrounding them has remained relatively unchanged. The riverfronts were designed around industry rather than the community, and the land around them does not connect to our neighborhoods.”


Spotlight on Sustainability: Western New Hampshire

With more and more emphasis being placed on personal health in relation to healthy, vibrant communities, western New Hampshire has joined the numerous places around the county working to improve access to healthy food choices for all sectors of the population. Through funding provided by a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Challenge Grant, the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission (UVLSRPC) is spearheading an effort to not only assess the geographic availability of healthy food options in relation to housing, but to then work with municipalities who hope to turn that analysis into a concrete set of policy changes that ensure accessibility, lower obesity rates, and improve public health.