September 22, 2015

The sprawl and segregation that characterize America’s suburbs are the direct result of inefficient “low-density” land development processes. Those processes became so entrenched in recent decades that some gave up hope they could ever be changed. Yet a program of the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC – Kansas City’s metropolitan planning agency) suggests real possibilities for new directions. Interestingly, data have served as the central change agent.

MARC’s program, the Creating Sustainable Places (CSP) initiative, was first funded under a HUD Sustainable Communities grant. A new case study describes how it opened with an information campaign offering a number of findings that shook conventional thinking. For example:

  • That minorities would account for the most of the region’s future population growth and childless households and others likely to prefer higher-density living environments would account for a much larger share of growth than in the past, and
  • That the traditional approach to land development (low densities on the metropolitan fringe) could “cost the region $1 billion more per year for construction and maintenance than more compact development.”

CSP had identified three goals at the outset—social equity, environmental sustainability, and economic development. MARC’s analysis showed convincingly how the high costs implied by the traditional development system undermined all three.

The next step was to demonstrate that alternatives were feasible. MARC is Kansas City’s partner in the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP—a national peer network coordinated by the Urban Institute). All NNIP members maintain information systems with regularly updated data on neighborhood conditions in their areas and use them to support more effective local decisionmaking.

Working with local officials, civic leaders, and other stakeholder groups, MARC used its system to identify a set of high-access corridors (mostly in the suburbs) where higher-density development was most likely to be economically feasible. Planning teams in each corridor then used new automated tools to design and test the effects of alternative redevelopment scenarios (tools that could take advantage of the data MARC had assembled and estimate returns-on-investment and other outcomes implied by each of the alternatives). The analyses indeed showed that higher density mixed-use redevelopment in many of these locations, even with some affordable housing, now offered attractive private investment opportunities.

MARC later prepared a Fair Housing Equity Assessment (FHEA), analyzing data on all neighborhoods region-wide, classifying some as “racially concentrated areas of poverty” and others as “opportunity areas” and examining differences in characteristics and spatial patterns to identify ways to reduce poverty concentrations. MARC staff believe that the education resulting from their earlier work in the corridors (particularly their demonstration of the market feasibility of higher-density development in suburban locations) led to a much more positive reception for their work on the FHEA than it otherwise would have received.

The HUD grant ended in 2013, but there is strong evidence of continued momentum. CSP themes still dominate MARC’s agenda, and MARC has since pooled resources from several sources to create a new competitive grants program that has shifted funding toward CSP themes and projects (mostly in the corridors).

Other public and private stakeholders continue to work on implementing corridor plans, albeit some more forcefully than others. A multi-stakeholder equity network established under CSP is focusing on advancing fair housing goals. Toward that end, MARC was able to secure a US Department of Transportation planning grant that will be devoted to finding ways to improve transit connections between areas of concentrated poverty and areas of jobs and opportunity.

Lessons, central to the DNA of NNIP, include the advantage of relying on trusted local intermediaries to advance community goals, primarily by using data to support learning by the stakeholders themselves. Often the process changed the conventional wisdom—stakeholders came out of the efforts with a different mindset than they had when they went in. The key was providing neighborhood-level data and structuring it so as to directly support decisionmaking. Most often, the facts themselves did the convincing.

The work also exemplified NNIP’s emphasis on using data from multiple sources that capture a holistic view of neighborhood conditions and change—a sharp contrast to the kind of “planning in topical silos” that has frustrated progress so often in the past.

Clearly, MARC’s work has not yet “transformed” the development process, but it has opened conversations that many would not have thought possible even five years ago. From a policy standpoint, probably the most important lesson is the benefit of MARC’s choice to pursue its three CSP goals as part of the same integrated strategy. In so doing, it showed how these goals are mutually supportive and that success with any one may well depend on success with the other two.

Categories: What Counts?

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