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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - July/August 2015

July/August 2015
Issue No:
Vol. 79 No. 1
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Changing The Landscape of Livability

by Shana Baker and Anna Biton

Since 2009, the multiagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities has worked to ensure that Federal policies and investments better serve U.S. citizens.


Research shows that people want to live in walkable neighborhoods with a variety of housing types, shops, restaurants, and amenities. The Wyomissing Square Mixed-Use Center in Reading, PA, an infill development on a 13-acre (10.5-hectare) brownfield site, offers all of the above: apartments, retail shops, office space, a hotel, and restaurants. The apartments pictured here are built above a restaurant.


Communities across the United States face complex challenges in strengthening local and diverse economies, meeting changing demands for housing and transportation, and protecting the environment and public health. U.S. transportation investments over the last 50 years have often been poorly coordinated with other investments in land use planning, housing, and commercial development. This poor coordination has contributed to a prevalence of low-density, scattered, auto-dependent, and transit-inaccessible communities, and disinvestment in many of the Nation’s core urban centers and early suburbs. Many communities and housing options across the country were built for a different time and are not what U.S. citizens want today.

Research from the real estate industry shows that many people want to live in more convenient, walkable neighborhoods. A National Association of Realtors survey showed that half of U.S. residents prefer a neighborhood with a variety of housing types, including multifamily and single-family homes; shops, restaurants, and amenities within walking distance; and nearby public transportation. Walkable communities are particularly important to Millennials (born between 1981 and 1999), who will soon make up the largest percentage of the U.S. population; one research firm estimates that about 70 percent of them see walkability as “important” or “vital” when choosing a home.

Since 2000, U.S. residents have seen their combined costs for housing and transportation grow faster than household income, according to the Center for Housing Policy. This trend disproportionately affects households at or below the U.S. median income. Housing and transportation costs together account for nearly half of total income for median-income households and an even greater share for moderate-income (between 50 to 100 percent of median income) households.

To address these challenges, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formed the Partnership for Sustainable Communities in 2009. The partnership coordinates Federal housing, transportation, and other infrastructure investments to help neighborhoods become more prosperous, reduce pollution, and enable people to live closer to jobs. The partnership also helps communities improve access to affordable housing, increase transportation options, and lower transportation costs while protecting the environment. The partnership agencies incorporate six principles of livability (see “The Partnership’s Six Guiding Principles”) into Federal funding programs and policies to support locally developed projects.




Since its inception, the partnership has provided grants and technical assistance to ensure that Federal policies and investments improve quality of life. The partnership has developed tools for use in assessing, planning, and designing sustainable communities. The partners also increased flexibility and removed barriers to the use of Federal funds, promoted safe and accessible transportation choices, and supported disaster recovery and resiliency planning in impacted communities. In addition, the agencies convened leaders at all levels of government to share lessons learned and engage stakeholders in helping shape the partnership’s efforts. What follows are highlights of the partnership’s accomplishments to date.

Grants and Technical Assistance

Since 2009, the partner agencies have funded 1,066 projects in all 50 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, totaling approximately $4.6 billion. The goal has been to use commonsense approaches to make grant and technical assistance programs better respond to communities’ needs. For example, many of the three partner agencies’ programs have evolved to consider housing, transportation, and environmental protection comprehensively--mirroring how these elements are linked in communities. The agencies also evaluate proposals based on how well they will achieve multiple benefits from individual investments.

“The partnership is helping us align our transportation investments with the goals of providing affordable housing and preserving the environment,” says U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx.

Grant and technical assistance programs in all three agencies have incorporated language to encourage projects that support the partnership’s guiding principles, align with local or regional integrated planning processes, and engage community residents, including historically underrepresented and overburdened populations, in planning and implementation.


The Partnership’s
Six Guiding Principles


  • Provide more transportation choices.
  • Promote equitable, affordable housing.
  • Increase economic competitiveness.
  • Support existing communities.
  • Leverage Federal investments.
  • Value communities and neighborhoods.


Programs that have used this language include HUD’s Sustainable Communities Regional Planning and Community Challenge Grant Programs. These programs have made a significant impact across the country. Nearly 40 percent of U.S. citizens live in a community that has benefited from one or more of these grants. These two programs alone represent a $240 million Federal investment in local planning efforts, and they were matched with $253 million in private investment and local funds. Over time, the partnership anticipates that this investment will spur many hundreds of millions of dollars in new economic growth.

One organization that has benefitted from a HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant is the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization representing residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Nick Tilsen, executive director of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, says the grant helped community members take control of their lives and future.

“The Lakota people have always been warriors, fighting for our future,” he says. “The HUD grant supported our development of a tribally approved, regional plan for the future of the Pine Ridge Reservation.”

The Oglala Sioux Tribe adopted the Oglala Lakota Regional Plan in October 2012. The plan has already helped bring an additional $8million in funding from USDOT’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) Discretionary Grant program, which the tribe will use to pave an east-west road that connects the reservation’s communities. This road serves as a route to bring supplies onto the reservation and take locally made goods out; paving it will save residents time and money.

Thunder Valley is now implementing a model community development initiative as part of the tribe’s regional plan. Under this initiative, Thunder Valley will build a mixed-income, mixed-use development with 31 single-family homes, plus rental townhomes and apartments. In addition, the project will include a youth shelter, community facilities collectively called the Empowerment Center, retail space, a workforce development center, a small demonstration farm and greenhouse, and a daycare and fitness facility.

“This project shows what the future of rural Native American communities could look like and could be a model for sustainable affordable housing and poverty reduction,” Tilsen says. “It’s truly a community-based solution by Oglala Lakota people to develop a plan for our future.”

Providing Tools For Communities

The Partnership for Sustainable Communities has developed a variety of tools that help assess, plan, and design sustainable communities. These tools cover a broad range of topics, including community design and planning, transportation and housing, and the environment.

“Communities know better than anyone else what they need,” says EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. “Through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, we at the Federal level are organizing ourselves to give communities tools to address economic and environmental challenges in the way that works best for them.”

Some of these tools are highlighted here. For a complete list, go to the Federal Highway Administration’s Livability Initiative Web site at

Sustainable Community Indicator Catalog. This tool helps communities identify indicators that can measure progress toward their sustainability objectives. Indicators focus on the relationships among land use, housing, transportation, human health, and the environment. Using this tool, communities can identify indicators that are most closely aligned with the issues of greatest concern to them.


Five men are putting the roof on a straw bale house as part of a Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation program in South Dakota to develop skills, knowledge, and capacity for tribal residents. Thunder Valley’s model community initiative aims to create sustainable and interconnected communities that provide better housing, places for business to thrive, and a healthy supportive environment for youth, older residents, and families.


Location Affordability Portal. Developed by HUD and USDOT, this portal helps consumers, researchers, and policymakers better understand how transportation costs affect housing affordability. The portal features two tools--My Transportation Costs Calculator and the Location Affordability Index--as well as cost data on housing and transportation at the neighborhood level, covering 94 percent of the U.S. population. This collaboration marks the first time that robust, standardized data on housing and transportation costs have been available at a national level to help families make more informed decisions about where to live and work, and to help policymakers pursue more sustainable investments.

Smart Location Mapping. EPA developed two data products to measure the built environment and transit accessibility of neighborhoods across metropolitan regions. The first, the Smart Location Database, summarizes indicators associated with the built environment, including density of development, diversity of land use, street network design, and accessibility to destinations, as well as various demographic and employment statistics. The second, the Access to Jobs and Workers via Transit Tool, compares the accessibility of neighborhoods to jobs via public transit service.


Tools to Assess, Plan, and Design Sustainable Communities

Sustainable Community Indicator Catalog
Location Affordability Portal
Smart Location Mapping
Sustainable Communities HotReport
CPD Maps
Environmental Justice Equals Healthy, Sustainable, and Equitable Communities
PlaceFit Community Characteristics Database
Community Vision Metrics


Sustainable Communities HotReport. This report uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau to give community leaders and residents a quick and easy way to determine how their community is performing on indicators related to transportation, housing, economic development, income, and equity. Users can view charts, tables, and maps showing trends over time and can compare performance among peer communities.

CPD Maps. HUD’s Office of Community Planning and Development (CPD) worked with USDOT to expand a Web-based mapping tool, CPD Maps, by adding transportation data to the tool, which helps States and local governments plan the use of HUD block grants. The tool helps communities visualize how transit access can affect affordable housing locations and other investments. CPD Maps also display the boundaries of areas that received Sustainable Communities Regional Planning grants in the context of other demographic and investment data.

Environmental Justice Equals Healthy, Sustainable, and Equitable Communities. This guide, developed by EPA, HUD, USDOT, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shows how housing, health, transportation, environment, and other factors interact in creating sustainable and equitable communities. The resource provides information to help communities learn about their role in addressing longstanding environmental and health challenges, and revitalizing neighborhoods.

PlaceFit Community Characteristics Database. FHWA developed the database as an investigative tool that can help residents identify communities with characteristics that appeal to their needs when relocating for a job, schooling, retirement, or a variety of other reasons.

Community Vision Metrics. FHWA developed this tool to enable practitioners to search for performance indicators relevant to their specific circumstances, communities, and quality of life goals.

Increasing Flexibility and Removing Barriers

To make it easier for communities to implement their own visions for growth, the partnership agencies have worked to make their programs and guidance more flexible. The agencies also removed barriers that could inhibit developers from investing in communities.

For example, FHWA announced the Special Experimental Project No. 14 [SEP-14]–FHWA/HUD Livability Initiative in 2010 to better coordinate transportation and housing expenditures. Previously, FHWA and HUD had conflicting requirements related to hiring contractors. For example, HUD’s Section 3 program requires preferential hiring of low-income residents living in a project area. This conflicts with FHWA rules that prohibit preferential hiring. For contracts approved under FHWA’s SEP-14 program, however, the prohibition on hiring preferences can now be waived to accommodate HUD’s Section 3 requirements. Under this waiver, FHWA permits States to request SEP-14 approval for contracting practices intended to enhance livability and sustainability as part of any project jointly funded by FHWA and HUD. The SEP-14 program makes it easier for communities to build the infrastructure they need and generate local jobs.

Since inception of the waiver in 2010, FHWA has approved three project work plans under the SEP-14 program. One project to improve the intersection of PA Route 56 and Johns Street in Johnstown, PA, was originally approved with funds from the Pennsylvania Community Transportation Initiative (PCTI). Pennsylvania DOT rejected all subsequent bids, however, because those funds were insufficient. For the successful rebid in March 2013, the scope of the project was reduced to accommodate available PCTI and HUD funding. The city of Johnstown, being granted via SEP-14 approval to combine both PCTI and HUD funding, saw a considerable savings from the elimination of duplicate payments, advertising costs, and potential and known economic impacts to the surrounding construction zone.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and EPA also have worked together to remove obstacles for community development, particularly efforts to redevelop brownfield properties. Brownfields are property whose expansion, redevelopment, or reuse may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant. Cleaning up and reinvesting in these properties protects the environment, reduces blight, and takes development pressures off green spaces and working lands.


FHWA supports the installation of well-designed, well-connected bicycle facilities. Protected bike lanes are physically separate from vehicles and are distinct from the sidewalk. Here, the Seattle Department of Transportation is adding a protected bike lane on the west side of Roosevelt Way, NE.


The partnership helped to align investments in the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, shown here. The project converted traffic lanes and parking spaces into a dedicated offroad trail for bicyclists and pedestrians.


Previously, FEMA’s policies had rendered any contaminated properties ineligible for FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, even if the State environmental agency had already approved the property for reuse through its own cleanup program. However, EPA and FEMA’s different definitions of “clean” stood in the way of many promising redevelopment opportunities for State emergency management agencies that were interested in working on brownfield sites.

EPA worked with FEMA to change its contamination policy. FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Assistance Guidance update, released July12, 2013, includes a new policy on hazardous materials that aligns FEMA and EPA perspectives on contamination. The guidance now states that if an appropriate local entity has determined that the site is now “certified clean,” and that “no further remedial action is required to protect human health or the environment,” it will be eligible for redevelopment under FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. The update removes a longtime obstacle to communities accessing FEMA grants for hazard mitigation and provides more resources to invest in the development of brownfield properties.

For example, local leadership in Midland, MI, identified a repetitively flooded commercial structure and, in October 2013, approached the Michigan State Hazard Mitigation Officer about applying for a FEMA grant to have the flood-prone structure removed. The site was known to have been previously contaminated. As a part of the application process, the State provided FEMA with a letter indicating that no further action was required to protect human health or the environment. FEMA accepted this documentation as a clean site certification and awarded funding for the project in September 2014.

Promoting Safe And Accessible Transportation Choices

In addition to the health benefits of physical activity, encouraging walking and bicycling helps reduce traffic and pollution from vehicles, and it provides inexpensive transportation options that are particularly important for people on a limited income. In the past, narrow interpretations of national design guidelines prevented communities from implementing connected bicycle and pedestrian networks, despite design resources that demonstrated their viability and benefits.

But on August 20, 2013, FHWA signaled the agency’s support for a flexible approach to the design of pedestrian and bicycle facilities in a memorandum designating specific resources that can inform the design of safe and comfortable pedestrian and bicycle facilities that fit their community contexts. The memorandum, “Bicycle and Pedestrian Facility Design Flexibility,” also highlights green-colored bike lanes as a successful example of a treatment that has been introduced through the interim approval process outlined in section 1A.10 of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. The manual, which FHWA has administered since 1971, is the national standard for all traffic control devices, including pavement markings, highway signs, and traffic signals used on public streets and highways in the United States. All 50 States, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have adopted either the 2009 edition of the manual, or a State equivalent that is in substantial conformance with the 2009 manual, as their legal standard for traffic control devices within their State.

By clarifying its support for well-designed, well-connected bicycle and pedestrian facilities, FHWA gave local and State transportation officials greater certainty and more flexibility to connect bicycle and pedestrian networks and craft plans that meet their communities’ goals. Since then, several States have announced plans to better accommodate bicycle and pedestrian networks.

In April 2014, the California Department of Transportation identified a need to provide more flexibility in its highway design standards and procedures, especially in the context of urban environments and multimodal design. Similarly, in September 2014 the Colorado DOT published a memo to support a flexible approach when designing and planning the State’s transportation system, and to identify resources that provide context-sensitive solutions that accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians.

Supporting Disaster Recovery and Resiliency Planning

The Partnership for Sustainable Communities has leveraged existing relationships and coordination to act quickly to support communities recovering from natural disasters. Following the September 2013 floods that displaced more than 18,000 people in Colorado and wreaked an estimated $3 billion in damages to housing, infrastructure, and the local economy, the partnership agencies supported local and regional resiliency efforts. FHWA worked with State and Federal partners to develop a statewide resiliency framework, revising design standards and processes to better address resiliency.


The September 2013 floods in Colorado caused sections of U.S. 36, pictured here between Lyons and Estes Park, to collapse into the Little Thomson River. The partnership agencies worked with FEMA to provide local communities with flood recovery resources and plan efforts to prevent future flooding.


The partnership agencies worked together with FEMA, participating in more than 50 meetings with residents and State staff across 6counties in Colorado. These groups held additional resource meetings with communities to discuss efforts to prevent future flooding and provide resource guides. In April 2014, HUD and EPA participated in a funding workshop for community leaders and recovery partners to discuss capacity building. HUD has provided more than $300 million in Community Development Block Grant Disaster Relief funds to all the communities impacted by the September floods. The partnership agencies continue to meet with State and local partners to discuss ways to provide support to communities for long-term planning.

Similarly, after Superstorm Sandy hit the east coast of the United States on October 29, 2012, partnership staff engaged immediately, meeting with FEMA to support all of its recovery support functions. The work included reviewing the recovery support strategies, providing training on the partnership’s mission and goals, plus pinpointing available interagency resources. Other work involved identifying ways to integrate national and regional planning processes and resources. Partnership involvement helped to better integrate sustainability into recovery support activities.

The New York City region’s transportation network encompasses the largest public system in the Nation, made up of subway, bus, commuter railroad, and ferry networks. When Sandy hit, nearly every element of New York’s transportation system shut down. Sandy’s storm surge flooded vehicular tunnels, subway stations, roads, and airports. Transportation outages followed, impairing mobility and access to, from, and within the city and the region, and affecting 8.5million public transit riders, 4.2 million drivers, and 1 million fliers.


Superstorm Sandy caused this street flooding in Hoboken, NJ. The Partnership for Sustainable Communities has supported community-driven recovery efforts that have resulted in plans for cost-effective, sustainable stormwater management and flood control.


Two efforts from HUD’s Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant Program underway before the storm--Together North Jersey and the New York–Connecticut Sustainable Communities Consortium--strongly supported the region’s recovery after Sandy made landfall. Responding to the recovery challenges and needs at the municipal level, Together North Jersey modified local subgrant programs to support community-driven recovery efforts in Hoboken, Jersey City, and Ocean County, NJ, which had been hit by storm surges of more than 14 feet (4.3 meters). The work has resulted in plans for cost-effective, sustainable stormwater management and flood control, and opportunities to build upon EPA-funded technical assistance and other partnership investments in the region.

New York City’s Department of City Planning also had worked with the partnership before Sandy hit, crafting an approach to resiliency and land use in its coastal communities. Using funds provided to the New York–Connecticut Sustainable Communities Consortium under the HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant Program, the New York City Department of City Planning had completed two coastal climate resilience studies in the months prior to Superstorm Sandy’s landfall. These studies helped the city respond quickly and strategically to the storm’s widespread damage.

One study, Designing for Flood Risk, focuses on preparing buildings to withstand coastal flooding, while also supporting walkable neighborhoods and improving quality of life. The other, Urban Waterfront Adaptive Strategies, identifies strategies that can make urban coastal areas more resilient to hazards associated with rising sea levels. This study informed A Stronger, More Resilient New York, a comprehensive plan that contains actionable recommendations both for rebuilding the communities impacted by Sandy and increasing the resilience of transportation, infrastructure, and buildings citywide. Together, this body of work presents a roadmap for supporting existing communities and providing for a more sustainable future in waterfront neighborhoods.

Cities Where Regional Roundtables Were Held


“By providing a rigorous and replicable set of urban waterfront adaptive strategies, the city was able to respond to Hurricane Sandy and the risks of a changing climate by adopting a comprehensive climate resiliency plan that includes measures tailored to local conditions and focused on reducing risk,” says Daniel Zarrilli, director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency.

Bringing Key Players Together

The partnership also has worked with regional and local leaders to discuss important issues facing their communities. In 2013 and 2014, it held a series of roundtable discussions with communities across the country to learn how best to support them in achieving their visions for the future. Hundreds of representatives from Federal, State, and local government, tribes, businesses, nonprofits, neighborhood associations, metropolitan planning organizations, philanthropic organizations, communities, and the public came together over the course of 23 roundtable meetings to jumpstart local projects and to let Federal agencies know how they can best support communities.


Participants listen to a presentation at the El Paso Livability Summit in August 2014. The partnership has helped organize annual livability summits in Texas to share information on key environmental, transportation, workforce, and housing issues affecting local communities.


In addition to the roundtables, since 2010 the FHWA Texas Division has worked with other regional agencies to organize and host an annual Texas Livability Summit. Located in a different region of the State each year, the summit brings together key players from throughout the State to share information on environmental, transportation, workforce, and housing issues affecting their communities.

The most recent summit was held in August 2014 in El Paso and drew approximately 110 participants from a range of organizations. The summit covered such topics as implementing complete streets policies and projects, developing new transit options, implementing bicycle sharing, and promoting affordable housing that is also environmentally friendly.

Follow-up evaluations from past summits indicate that the events have effectively communicated policy goals at the regional level. By bridging the gap between urban planners, engineers, university researchers, students, regional transit operators, and the public, the summits have encouraged new partnerships and problem-solving opportunities in a multidisciplinary environment.

“The Livability Summit came at a fortunate time for the central Texas region,” says one participant who attended the Austin summit in July 2011. “Our region was beginning work [under a] regional planning grant and it was the start of new cross-agency and [cross]-disciplinary partnerships. The case studies gave us a preview of where we could go, and the facilitated breakout discussion groups began to break down our bureaucratic walls.”

In response to feedback from the community and discussions at roundtables and summits, the partnership is focusing its future activities on the following:

Advancing economic opportunity and mobility. Work in communities to provide access to employment, education, and services; prevent displacement and increase connectivity; improve workforce training; and promote equitable outcomes for the environment, public health, and the economy.

Adapting to a changing climate, while mitigating future disaster losses. Work both with new Federal partners and within partnership agencies to offer guidance, best practices, and new Federal resources to adapt to and mitigate climate change.

Implementing community investments. Work to identify resources within and beyond the Federal Government to support the implementation of community-based development priorities stemming from partnership investments in planning and technical assistance.

Moving Forward

Changes in local economies, in the demands for housing and transportation, and in efforts to protect the environment and public health affect where and how communities are built. Many of these changes--such as shifting economic bases and growing demand for walkable places, coupled with recent weather extremes--can present unfamiliar challenges to communities. They need resources, guidance, and innovative solutions to make the most of opportunities and mitigate any harm. The partnership will continue to help communities find ways to cope with the changing climate and encourage new investment and economic growth that benefit all residents. Every investment, program, and policy can be a chance to make a community more resilient and prepared for whatever the future holds.

“The Partnership for Sustainable Communities is about achieving one goal: expanding opportunity for American families,” says HUD Secretary JuliÁn Castro. “HUD is proud to work with regions to cultivate and connect all the community assets needed to thrive, from jobs to transportation. Working with local leaders, I’m certain that the investments our agencies have made will enhance the health and wealth of communities for decades to come.”

Through these efforts, EPA, HUD, and USDOT will continue to help communities make better informed and more strategic investments in housing, transportation, and infrastructure to help residents improve their lives.

Shana V. Baker is the livability team lead in the FHWA Office of Human Environment, where she manages projects related to livability, environmental justice, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and context-sensitive transportation solutions. Baker has an M.A. in urban planning from The University of Akron and a B.A. in political science from Bethune-Cookman College. She also has a professional certificate in logistics from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Anna Biton is a community planner at the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, where she focuses on human environment, transportation planning, and performance management. She has a master’s degree in city and regional planning from the University of North Carolina and a bachelor of science degree in environmental engineering science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

For more information, visit or contact Shana V. Baker at or 202–366–4649. Partnership for Sustainable Communities: Five Years of Learning from Communities and Coordinating Federal Investments is available at