Is Austin Getting Left Behind on the 'Livability' Front?

'Sustainability' is much more than a 14-letter word

On May 7, Shelley Poticha, senior advisor for sustainable housing and communities for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, strongly urged Austin and Central Texas to get better aligned with the federal Inter­agen­cy Partnership for Sustainable Communities. The keynote speaker at the Envision Central Texas 2010 Community Stewardship Awards luncheon, Poticha is a leader of the HUD-Environmental Protection Agency-Department of Transportation integrated funding initiative, which is built around six "livability principles." She urged more than 200 regional leaders in attendance to work to win an award from the $98 million in Sustainable Communities Planning Grants. Applications are due in the next two months.

Poticha, who had ridden the MetroRail that morning, praised the progress she'd witnessed in the area and ECT's efforts to convene a true regional conversation about planning for future growth. But she scolded Austin, saying: "I don't think you've gone far enough! I really urge you to take the next leap." She said every time she comes to Austin, she's told effective regional collaboration remains elusive. "I hear you can't do it because of state laws, or it's a big region, or there's no money. But this is one of the most talented and creative areas in the country," she said. "Get over the hump; find a way to power through. I want you to continue to be on the cutting edge ... but there are a lot of places around the country that are catching up."

She said the grant money requires outcomes tied to a federal set of livability principles. Those are closely aligned to goals advanced by ECT, Liveable City, and other local groups and to the priorities emerging in the city of Austin Comprehensive Plan and Strategic Mobility Plan.

"We're going to be looking at partnerships," Poticha stressed. "We're asking you to work collaboratively, at a regional scale, across jurisdictional lines, and even with the state." The grants require advancing multiple goals, including affordable housing, a regional transportation solution, economic competitiveness, and job creation, all while reducing vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse-gas emissions and working to improve the environment. The same selection criteria will be used for TIGER II (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants – the region's best hope of getting federal funding soon for rail transit. She recommended crafting an approach that includes universities, the nonprofit sector, philanthropic groups, private interests, the development community, and health care groups.

"We are looking for regions to tackle the really tough stuff," she continued. "Communities and applicants that step forward with honest assessments of problems and needs will be rewarded." She also indicated that getting one of the planning grants would greatly enhance Austin and Central Texas' chances of getting follow-up project grants – such as the proposed plan to pursue federal funding for rail transit.

The recipients of the 2010 ECT Community Stewardship Awards, announced at the luncheon, are consistent with the federal livability principles: Franklin Gardens, a senior rental housing facility in Austin; Midtown Commons at Crestview Station, a mixed-use, transit-oriented development on the Red Line; Sustainable Sites Initiative, a partnership led by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which created the nation's first rating system for sustainable lands; Kyle Plum Creek Preserve and Nature Trail, which includes 350 acres of open space, six miles of nature trails, two lakes, picnic sites, a wetland preserve, and a wildflower meadow; and Taking Charge of Water Quality in the Plum Creek Water­shed, a program in Hays and Caldwell counties.

For more information about how to get involved in a regional grant application process, visit

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Katherine Gregor, April 9, 2010

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Envision Central Texas, Shelley Poticha, Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities

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