All Carrot, No Stick

A proposed Senate bill contains some of the most progressive ideas in urban planning today. The catch? The legislation doesn’t quite mandate anything.

One night in August, I spent a couple of long hours after a soccer match at New Jersey’s new Meadowlands Stadium trying unsuccessfully, along with some 77,000 other fans, to exit the parking lot. I began to despair. Stuck (maybe for all eternity) on a stinking, hot slab of asphalt on the wrong side of the Lincoln Tunnel, I realized that all the cute things we city dwellers do to diminish our environmental impact—the rooftop farms, the three-speed Schwinns—won’t begin to put a dent in global warming unless the habits of our tailgating brethren change too. Fat chance, I thought.

Then I came across the Senate’s Livable Communities Act of 2009, or S.1619 for the C-Span crowd. It’s a bill intended to revamp the way this country makes places. It was introduced with great fanfare in August 2009 by Senator Christopher Dodd, of Connecticut: “We must change the way we plan for the future of our communities and tackle these challenges with a coordinated strategy,” he said. The “coordinated strategy” refers to the unusual collaborative effort of the Department of Transportation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency. This past August, S.1619 moved a decisive step closer to becoming law when it was passed by the Senate Banking Committee.

Transit and bicycling advocates were enthusiastic about the bill because it suggested that all of candidate Obama’s talk about “change” might have meant something. It gave hope that this country’s postwar saga of building to accommodate and promote the automobile is finally over. And the bill should be of interest to the design community because it represents the adoption by the federal government of decades of progressive thought about land-use planning, housing development, and transportation. New Urbanist in flavor, the bill is a direct descendant of the Berkeley, California–based architect and planner Peter Calthorpe’s 1993 book, The Next American Metropolis, in which he lays out the concept of Transit-Oriented Development: “a mixed-use community within an average 2,000-foot walking distance of a transit stop and core commercial area.” Maybe transit-oriented clusters, increasingly popular in less obvious locations—like Smyrna, Georgia, and Lehi, Utah—will become the default mode of development. Maybe real planning will be the law of the land.

The bill establishes an office of Sustainable Housing and Communities. In truth, the office already exists, under the aegis of HUD. Its director is Shelley Poticha, who back in the 1990s helped Calthorpe write The Next American Metropolis. More recently she has been the head of Reconnecting America, a land-use-reform and transportation organization, and she was once executive director of the Congress for the New Urbanism. So it’s no surprise that the bill reads like a New Urbanist tract. It states, for instance, “Demographers estimate that as much as 30 percent of current demand for housing is for housing in dense, walkable, mixed-use communities, and that less than 2 percent of new housing is in this category.” It argues that less driving is “a necessary part of the energy independence and climate change strategies of the United States.” The bill contains remarkably enlightened rhetoric, but it doesn’t quite walk the walk. Like much of what comes out of the Obama administration, S.1619 is neither as far-reaching as its proponents would like nor as radical as its detractors claim.

And yes, the bill has detractors. The right tends to view it as an unprecedented attempt at social engineering designed to limit Americans’ options. “They want to delegitimize this land use pattern, restrict automobile use, and make suburban housing less affordable,” argues Ed Braddy on a blog called the American Thinker.

But in the past, the federal government has specialized in the kind of social engineering that Braddy and his ilk claim to despise. “Sprawl did get a kick-start with federal policy and federal investment,” says Calthorpe, whose new book, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change, is out next month. “We underwrote the subdivision, and we provided infrastructure for it. Lo and behold, it became the market’s choice. Well, when you subsidize something, it becomes more attractive in the marketplace. This bill is an attempt to level the playing field.”

Except that the playing field won’t be leveled anytime soon. If you read S.1619 closely, you’d realize that the bill wouldn’t do much actual engineering, social or otherwise. It wouldn’t mandate anything. No highway lanes or parking spaces would disappear. Hummers would not be forcibly confiscated. At the same time, it wouldn’t fund a nationwide high-speed-rail system, or America’s answer to Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City. Instead, it offers a tantalizing preview of how the American landscape could change under an administration that cares about these issues. Someday we might have “complete streets” (conceived for all users, not just drivers), comprehensive regional plans, and saner ways for the elderly to get around. But the bill wouldn’t make any of those things happen. Not directly.

It’s intended to “facilitate and improve the coordination of housing, community development, transportation, energy, and environmental policy in the United States” and “encourage regional planning for livable communities,” according to the bill’s language. As David Goldberg, communications director of Transportation for America, puts it almost apologetically, “You have to start somewhere.”

So what will the Livable Communities Act do if enacted? It will “encourage” change. More significantly, it will hand out some $4 billion in grants to help planning organizations and authorities set up projects that coordinate land-use planning with housing, transportation, and infrastructure. The idea, Goldberg says, is to “incentivize innovative approaches” with “relatively small pots of money applied around the country.” The approach is all carrot, no stick, with an emphasis on nurturing local and regional initiatives rather than ordering top-down change.

The most powerful thing this bill might do is change the culture of mortgage lending. Federal mortgage policy built the suburbs, and rules imposed on the banks by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac routinely stifled housing innovation. (Ask architects: many will tell you stories of altering the bank’s copy of unconventional house plans to help clients conform to mortgage regulations.) This bill calls for the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities to study “Energy-Efficient Mortgages,” which give homebuyers a financial incentive to use insulating glass, wind power, and geothermal energy. And the bill calls for a similar study of “Location-Efficient Mortgages,” which create similar incentives for buyers to purchase homes close to transit. Changing the rules for mortgages would change the value of homes. Braddy, the conservative blogger, is right about this: if lending guidelines favor energy and location efficiency, the McMansion is doomed. But again, this bill doesn’t change the rules; it authorizes a “study” on changing the rules.

In one way, S.1619 is a work of policy genius. Although it mandates nothing, the seed projects the legislation would fund represent great opportunities and might inspire real change. And the very existence of the bill demonstrates the importance of design culture. “Sooner or later, good ideas have to become part of public policy,” Calthorpe says. The design community should rally in support of the bill. Designers and architects should march in the streets and rally on the Mall.

S.1619 is also politic to the point of cowardice. Even though it’s entirely entrepreneurial and designed to allow local governments to do as they see fit, it’s not likely to have any more bipartisan support than the scaled-back health care bill. At press time, the spokesman for Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, couldn’t provide a likely date for a full Senate vote on the Livable Communities Act: “Impossible to say right now. A single Republican can hold it up.” The House has taken no action on its version, H.R.4690. I figure, if there’s going to be a fight, maybe it should be over something bigger, like incorporating the enlightened thinking of this little bill into the larger but more conventional $50 billion infrastructure package that President Obama recently called for. Because if we waste our time jousting over bills that merely “encourage” and “study” change, we’ll be stuck in that stinking parking lot forever.

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