Sustainable Communities…What’s Missing?

Melissa Hege's picture

As planners, we try to live the urban lifestyle, minimize our carbon footprint, and even grow our own vegetables.  I once saw a colleague wearing a button which read "Riding transit is sexy." Lose the car, bike or walk to work. Hey, if you're adventurous, you can even take the bus. But this is easier said than done. I've lived in New Haven, Boston, Philadelphia, and now Miami. And as every year passes, I find it more and more challenging to cling to my planning ideals.


After relocating to Miami, I gave up my modest Philadelphia studio for a chic South Beach condo with city views. It was urban living at it's best--a planner's paradise. Years later we would give up the condo and move into a small historic neighborhood in an urban enclave of the City. With restaurants and shopping within walking distance and the promise of a trolley within a half mile of our house I could still enjoy an urban lifestyle, that is until I started to take a closer look at the public school options. And it occurred to me that we cannot build truly sustainable neighborhoods until we bring public education into the folds of our planning culture.


I was reminded of this when examining HUD's proposed Sustainable Communities Grant Program, in advance of the Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA). The Administration's initiative is an unprecedented effort to engage three Federal agencies: HUD, EPA, and DOT-to jointly promote multi-jurisdictional regional planning efforts which merge housing and transportation choices, protect the environment, and address climate change while advancing equitable development. In fact, HUD lists the following six goals in their program description:

1.    Provide more transportation choices.

2.    Promote equitable, affordable housing.

3.    Enhance economic competitiveness.

4.    Support existing communities.

5.    Coordinate and leverage federal policies and investment.

6.    Value communities and neighborhoods.


Sitting at HUD's "Listening Session", a public comment period which was launched in Miami, I drove just twenty blocks west from my house, literally on the other side of the train tracks, to an auditorium in one of the poorest parts of the City to listen to Shelly Poticha talk about one of HUD's most innovative new programs. And as I left the meeting, I realized that this grossly disinvested and neglected neighborhood where, sadly, drive-by shootings are a common occurrence, was part of MY school district. And it occurred to me, how can we ever create sustainable communities if we don't include viable education options? Housing, check. Transportation, check. Carbon emissions reduction, check. Absent-good public education choices.


The truth is that you cannot redevelop effectively if you don't plan for quality education. Everyone wants the best for their children. Here is a missed opportunity. Why didn't HUD join forces with the Education Department (ED) to examine opportunities to link educational improvements to the Sustainable Communities Program? The first thing I learned in school was the importance of evaluating all the existing conditions and connecting them tofind a solution. It took my transportation professor only a brief observation of a classroom in a low performing school to see that the children were struggling to stay awake and focus on the lesson. He soon discovered that many of these children lived along a major truck route which was most active in the middle of the night. The children were unable to sleep at night and, therefore, could not concentrate during the day and learn.


In the Administration's effort to promote economically competitive communities by allocating $150M through Congress' Appropriations Act, they are failing to recognize all the elements which make places sustainable, and are losing a great opportunity to link public education improvements to their Sustainable Communities program.


Melissa Hege, AICP, LEED AP, Director of Planning at Redevelopment Management Associates.



Discussion of public vs. charter schools on Democracy Now


You may want to visit Democracy Now's coverage of the debate between public vs. charter schools and the topic of public school privatization at You can type in public or charter schools in the search engine. There are a lot of discussions featuring education experts, teachers and parents about the practice of closing down inner city public schools and replacing them with charter schools, or consolidating local schools into superschools where kids have to be bussed further away (as is happening in rural and suburban communities also).

I think you are right that this is an important element. There also has to be funding/support for after school programs for youth, to keep them in a safe place after school lets out.

Lastly, the gun (and related) violence issue has to recieve greater resolution in urban communities. Who wants to or should be expected to remain living in an area with gun violence if they have the means to move out?


I thought it was common knowledge, and there was a social consensus on the subject, that raising kids amidst lawns, gardens, trees, etc was pathologically far superior to raising them in concrete jungles.

The "inner city schools problem" probably stems in large measure from the pathologies of the concrete jungle. It will be interesting to see if any schooling systems break this impasse. On principle, charter schools will do a better job, but charter schools would do a better job than public schools ANYWHERE the comparison is made. But I doubt that any comparisons of schoolchildren in the inner city and schoolchildren in the suburbs, will ever show superior outcomes for the former.

Good luck, too, to the planners who insist that they can provide compensatory "green space" in the inner city.


I don't think it's productive to delimit the problems of inner-city education to "urban" or "suburban" spaces. Are you suggesting that your doubts of the abilities of schoolchildren in the inner city stem from the density of concrete? I think the problems reach deeper and into socioeconomic inequalities and deficiencies in schools themselves.

If, in fact, your position is common knowledge, attained by social consensus, I am unaware of this and perhaps need to be educated otherwise.

Wodehouse is sad

Time and time again, the "conservative" commentator wearily says "I told you so", after the trendy liberal ideas have borne their fruit. But I probably will not be around long enough to see the results of putting a generation of kids back into the concrete jungle. The very idea saddens me deeply.

To emphasize what I inferred above, controlling for income levels and family circumstances and curricula and teacher quality, the kids that grow up surrounded by Green will do better every time. I am finding it deeply ironic and saddening that the very people who claim to value nature the most highly, regard it of no consequence for people, especially children, to be deprived of it for most of the time in their lives.

In fact, there would be a strong correlation in many cities around the world, between economic status, and the family's provision of these things for their children. This is especially the case in Britain. Only the wealthiest actually have a lawn. Again, I find it ironic and saddening that people who claim to both value nature and to stick up for the poor, regard this as of no consequence.

Growing up in green environments; Social factors

I share the perspective that growing up around green is indeed preferable. Books like Last Child in the Woods address this topic.

However, breakdown of social fabric and services, job loss, incarceration for drugs use/dealing and related problems with gangs and gun violence in urban communities are leading causes of urban decay, not so much the absence of green. Of course, greening communities does help reduce some of these problems- such as the construction of a community garden that brings neighbors together and provides constructive projects for youth.

Thank you

Thank you, HRPlanner. Agree on all points.

The fatherlessness epidemic is probably the single biggest contributor to our problems. Also, Heather MacDonald has written some convincing analysis on the need for adequate policing as a precondition for urban renewal; indeed, it might be argued that the renewal will occur even if the policing is the ONLY thing done.

Communities organizing for change

I think a recent article that Tim posted re community residents coming together to tackle their problems was inspiring. Newark, NJ is another example- a citizens townwatch group has formed that "polices" the streets at night, in an attempt to make them safer.

The change has to come from the policy, personal and community levels. Environmental quality always has to be factored in.

Pathologies vs ideologies.

I thought it was common knowledge, and there was a social consensus on the subject, that raising kids amidst lawns, gardens, trees, etc was pathologically far superior to raising them in concrete jungles.

No. Only amongst certain ideologies, not across the social spectrum.



What do you know about the social spectrum?

Oh come on, just how much of a closeted minority can you guys show yourselves to be? You wouldn't know the social spectrum if it landed on your head. I suppose the kids are just another designer accessory for you and your trendy apartment and your arty metrosexual circle of friends.


Hand-flapping notwithstanding, the literature, news stories, Realtor strategies, and patriotic common sense show that large-lot single-fam in far-flung McSuburbs are preferred by certain demographics-ideologies. Density with nearby parks stories have been common on this site lately, and the reasoning therein shows clumsy harrumphing and grasping with terms like 'metrosexual' are humorous and enjoyable to read.



Harrumph, harrumph

I prefer to be described as harrumphing authoritatively.

Wall Street Journal (April 16th), headlined “More Singles Buying in Suburbia.” It reported that today’s housing bargains are attracting a larger fraction of single people to buy homes; in 2009, some 21% of home buyers were single females (vs. 15% in 2001) and 10% were single males (vs. 7% in 2001). And more than half of these singles chose a house in the suburbs, as opposed to urban or rural areas.

Children in the City

Note the building where our latest Supreme Court justice grew up, on the lower right at

Densities of American cities are far lower today than they were 50 years ago. Yet educational achievement is lower and the crime rate is higher than it was 50 years ago. There is the historical comparison that disproves your claim.

Charles Siegel

De-aggregated effects count

Yeah, but where is the educational achievement lowest and the crime highest?

I do agree, by the way, that there are significant other contributors to these problems. (While I am being boldly un-PC I will state that the fatherlessness epidemic is the main one). But I stick to my point, that it is better for children's health and mental development to grow up amongst grassy lawns and verges, back yards, trees, gardens and parklands. (There will always be much more of the latter where land is cheap).

Suburbs are dens of immorality

Lets be honest ...

These "green lawns" and cul-de-sacs of suburbia are accompanied by homogeneous families, racism, sexism, materialism, etc. Sure these kids might "do well" in school & in the world, but this is more a relic of them fitting into the system that was created for them than their "success" as citizens.

I think Melissa brings up an excellent point.

Things will change... you know why?

A recent study by the Brookings Institution finds that whites are moving back to the city. Although the population of whites may be decreasing, their political and social power remains. And so I imagine that this demographic shift will result in public officials doing exactly what you espouse: making urban neighborhoods more sustainable - to accommodate the new "urban pioneers." And guess what will happen to those suburbs, and their good schools and parks?

Well, the aforementioned study shows that suburban areas are becoming increasingly comprised of minorities. If you look at our society's pattern of investment, and planning's tradition of accommodating and spurring this investment, suburban schools and parks will decline and become our new "problem" areas. It's already happening. Although minorities tend to get blamed for this disintegration, they're not the ones responsible for the shifts in public service and public investment. The responsibility is on people like you, who ignore the problems until it is convenient for them to make change. Welcome to the battlefield, Melissa.

Promise Neighborhoods

You may want to check out the Obama Administration's new Promise Neighborhoods initiative for the Dept. of Education. Based on the successful Harlem Children's Zone project, the goal is to connect educational performance with many of the wider factors in the community that you mention. It's not formally tied to Sustainable Communities, as far as I know, but it's been funded $210 million for the next year. I think Miami may be one of the 20 cities selected for the initial round of grants.

HUD and the DOE are also starting to work together with the Choice Neighborhoods initiative, which is suppose to extend the scope HOPE VI to include such things as schools, clinics, employment centers, etc.

Urban and green

There are landscapes besides concrete jungles and large-lot exurbs. How about single family homes and duplexes with modest sized yards, 6 - 8 units per acre, with apartments and shops on commercial streets every few blocks, and accessible parks? This is the form of the streetcar neighborhoods where I have enjoyed living in several different cities. Some examples of these kinds of neighborhoods: the western part of St. Paul around Grand Ave., 50th & France in Minneapolis, the Kensington neighborhood in San Diego, Jamaica Plain in Boston. The exact same neighborhood form can have good schools or bad ones, low crime or high crime, probably depending on the wealth of the residents.

Add health to this equation too

Another missing policy arena: health (by which I do not mean solely health CARE, although access to care in one's neighborhood or within a navigable distance is certainly a piece of it).

The sustainability elements will speak somewhat to issues such as the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables in many neighborhoods, design for walkability/bikeability and other contributing factors to help. But planning with the goal of having measurably healthier citizens would enrich the discussion--and improve the ability of those kids to concentrate in class.

The CDC just released a statement on transportation policy, which is a step in the right direction:


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