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: 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.


Spotlight on Sustainability: Columbia, TN

The heart of Columbia, Tennessee lies along a highway and commercial corridor; the James Campbell Boulevard. It was built at the city’s peak when demand was high for retail space and office buildings, but in the past several decades the needs of the City have changed. With the third slowest growth rate in the state of Tennessee, Columbia is in decline. It has the highest unemployment rate of any city of its size in the state and 20 percent of the population living below the poverty line. Not only has Columbia failed to attract new residents, with more and more families choosing to settle in neighboring Middle Tennessee cities, but the city is losing the young millennial generation, that many recognize as key to attracting local investments and maintaining a vibrant economy.


Spotlight on Sustainability: Mitchell to Rapid City, South Dakota

The following is based on an interview with Bruce Lindholm, Program Manager, South Dakota Department of Transportation.

For farming communities in South Dakota, high transportation costs for crops has a major impact on the economy. Increased mileage and fuel prices mean that less money goes back into farmers’ pockets and into the local community. All of that is about to change with the help of a TIGER II grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, through the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities. The Mitchell-Rapid City Rail Line, in the midst of rehabilitation, will soon be able to transport agricultural commodities shorter distances and at lower costs than the trucks currently in use. Once completed, the Line will carry grain and fertilizer over 60 miles from Mitchell, SD to Chamberlain, SD.

The improvements will be a boon to the economy. “Significant savings in transportation costs will allow the local elevator to pay farmers 15-25 cents more per bushel for their product. That money goes back into the local economy,” says Bruce Lindholm, Program Manager at the South Dakota Department of Transportation (SDDOT). He and others at SDDOT are overseeing the reconstruction of the rail line through a predominantly agricultural and rural region of the state.


Spotlight on Sustainability: Thurston County, Washington

The following is based on an interview with Kathy McCormick, Senior Planner for the Thurston Regional Planning Council.

When the state of Washington adopted a Growth Management Act in 1990, local jurisdictions set about creating Comprehensive Plans; soliciting public participation in the process. Thurston County was one of them. Now, in the twenty-plus years since that piece of legislation was enacted, the region has grown by over 100,000 people, making it one of the fastest growing counties in the state. “We have a great foundation in the plans that exist from the 90s,” says Kathy McCormick, Senior Planner for the Thurston Regional Planning Council, “But, how can we continue to grow if people don’t know about those plans and how can we address the needs of a changing population if we don’t know what those needs are?” Over two decades later, the region is getting the chance to revisit those issues.


Spotlight on Sustainability: Northern and Down East Maine

The following is based on an interview with Ryan Pelletier, Director of Workforce Development, Northern Maine Development Commission

Faced with economic distress, outmigration, soaring unemployment, and numbers of low-income and underrepresented populations well over the national average, two counties in Northern and Down East Maine began searching for solutions. Aroostook and Washington counties, the two largest and poorest in Maine, recently joined together to form one Economic Development District. Combining eleven groups that represent the population of 104,175, the region was awarded a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Regional Planning grant through the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities.


Spotlight on Sustainability: Tampa, Florida

Q&A with Randy Goers, Urban Planning Coordinator for the City of Tampa, Florida, Land Development Coordination Division (HUD Community Challenge Grant Recipient) and Smart Growth America.

Smart Growth America: What is the goal of this project?
Randy Goers: The objective of our project is to establish a vision for development in and around downtown, as well as to develop a plan for growth around a major transportation corridor. Like many communities that have grown significantly in recent years, we’ve been reacting to growth and approving it as it comes in. We’re pretty much built out, so new development will be along our corridors. Numerous agencies have to be a part of the approval process, which slows it down and adds costs. In some instances, the added time and costs can be substantial. Then there is also conflict when new development bumps against preexisting residential or historic neighborhoods.