The short version of our White House story: inner ring suburbs have to be a central part of the conversation about sustainability in metro regions.
The longer version . . .
PlaceMatters had an unusual and exciting opportunity last month to spend a day at the White House, presenting on a panel during the Forum on First Suburbs, Inclusion, Sustainability, and Economic Growth. During my presentation, I offered three observations about metropolitan policy and the challenges faced by inner ring suburbs. First, I pointed out that the policy discussions about metropolitan areas sometimes focus heavily on the urban core, and sometimes on the outer ring suburbs, but rarely focus on the unique challenges and opportunities of inner ring suburbs. Second, I noted that sustainability policy discussions are often sidetracked by fiercely ideological conversations, and that finding less charged ways of talking about these issues will help us tackle those conversations. Finally, I highlighted the difficulties but great promise of regional collaboration, as exemplified by our regional collaborations here in the Denver Metro area. Imperfect, to be sure, but important and powerful nonetheless.
What are the implications of these observations? I noted three:
1) Federal policy matters. Federal transportation policy in the last century enabled and encouraged traditional suburban land use patterns. The decisions that the White House and Congress make now will continue to shape those patterns well into the future.
2) The White House and Congress have a wealth of options for promoting stronger metropolitan regions. Through policy, funding, and legislative efforts they can support a range of helpful goals: encouraging more compact growth, investment in transit, diversity in housing options, and access to jobs among them.
3) If we are respectful of the potential ideological differences and mindful of the challenges of regional thinking, there is a substantial intersection between the constituencies focused on the challenges of metropolitan region vitality and the challenges of environmental sustainability, housing diversity, social equity, and job creation.
Inner ring suburbs offer a potpourri of contradictions. They are increasingly diverse (ethnically and economically), they are easy to bypass in building out regional transit systems but are often cheaper to accommodate because of their proximity to the inner core, they face declining property values yet they provide consideration redevelopment potential.
In other words, the development of inner ring suburbs often epitomized a suburban sprawl land use paradigm, yet they now can offer exceptional opportunities to integrate smart growth with a thoughtful vision around housing, jobs, and sustainability. Indeed, given their significance in terms of area and population, any metropolitan strategy that overlooks the unique challenges and opportunities of inner ring suburbs is likely to fail.