Blog: Brad Garmon

Metro Detroit recently landed a $2.85 million Sustainable Communities grant to help the region become more dense and develop its transit options. Brad Garmon, land programs director at the Michigan Environmental Council, offers a free-thinking approach to connecting the historically disparate forces of housing, land use, and eco-consciousness.

Post 2: Transportation, housing, and environmental agencies join forces in a revolutionary trio

Yesterday, I introduced a new $2.85 million Sustainable Communities Regional Planning grant SEMCOG’s new $2.85 million Sustainable Communities Regional Planning grant –  one of only 45 in the country – headed into our region. I suggested that it offers Metro Detroit a rare chance to redefine itself around great places and important projects, and to engage more people and new partnerships in the conversation.

To explain how, I have to back up a bit and spend a minute on the project's funding source – a pretty radical new initiative at the federal level.

The Partnership for Sustainable Communities is an Obama administration initiative that's generating lots of excitement in the circles I run in – smart growth, affordable housing, community economic development, urban planning, green building, etc. – but hasn't necessarily found a mass audience yet.

Here's a quick rundown of a few characteristics that I think make this program – and therefore Metro Detroit's new regional planning grant – different than most anything that's come before.


This is the first time in recent memory – maybe ever – that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are all sitting in the same room making funding decisions together.

OK, maybe that doesn't sound too radical. But it is.

And just like the feds, Metro Detroit's big players in land use, housing, and environmental investment work in isolation. We have great agencies building affordable workforce housing; others are doling out tax credits to clean up a contaminated industrial parcel, and still others are figuring out where to put a new transit stop. But they're doing it separately.

The opportunity is to put these agencies at the same table, and give them a venue to lay their cards on a table at once to see what kind of hand the region is really playing with.  

The result would be better linkages between projects, and potentially huge synergies. Place becomes the nexus for investment.

A few other potentially game-changer funding programs also fall under the Partnership for Sustainable Communities banner, including Community Challenge grants – those landed in Flint and Traverse City – and TIGER II transportation planning and capital investments. Oakland County and Ann Arbor each secured one of those.

The combined sum of the grants for the three agencies is $409.5 million. And while that might sound like a lot, it's not a big amount of money for these agencies, and doesn't yet touch the bulk of their mainline funding programs like the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) or highway funds.

But I believe over time more substantial program resources, and even other agencies – perhaps agriculture and energy – will get pulled together in these types of interagency partnerships.


The model laid out by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities program makes infrastructure and public investment dollars competitive rather than programmatic.

Why is that significant? We're entering an era where federal resources – all infrastructure resources, really – will be more limited. And the traditional earmark approach that built our current sprawling region is on the way out.

In most instances, we can't afford to maintain what we've already built, and building more of the same just doesn't make financial sense. No one feels that more than an agency trying to fix bridges or update aging sewer systems with an ever-shrinking budget.

The alternative, then, is that a smaller number of better coordinated, more strategic investments get funded. Those will be projects of regional significance, with local partners and leveraged funds, and that achieve multiple goals at once – creating jobs while reducing pollution and advancing social justice, for example.


The Regional Planning Grant program isn't the biggest pot of money under the larger Partnership for Sustainable Communities banner – just like Ann Arbor's TIGER II capital grant for its Bridges project was magnitudes larger than the SEMCOG's regional planning grant.

But in truth it's the flagship program. Why? It puts regional, metropolitan level planning at the forefront of pubic investment decisions.

That shift reflects an increasing focus on what the Brookings Institution calls Metropolitan America – the robust assemblage of big city, suburbs and small rural towns where most people live, and which generate most of the country's economic output.

As we've known in Metro Detroit, knitting together a collection of independent fiefdoms into a functional regional unit is the big challenge and bigger opportunity of the 21st century.

Two more revolutionary components of this program – sustainability and collaboration – will take a bit more explanation, so I'll save those for tomorrow.