James A. Brooks, National League of Cities
Christopher Hoene, National League of Cities
Juliet Gainsborough, Bentley University
Robert Lang, Virginia Tech
Kate Lowe, Cornell University
Mai Nguyen, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Rolf Pendall, Urban Institute and Cornell University
Todd Swanstrom, University of Missouri, St. Louis

Preparing for the Next 100 Million Americans: Renewing Fast-Growth Regions

The Infrastructure working group is examining how metropolitan areas are preparing for, and responding to, challenges for building and reinvesting in transportation systems, affordable residential neighborhoods, and water supply systems.

All three of these systems have been subject to short-term shocks and crises; in these fast-growth regions, they also will be subject to long-term strains. The case-study regions are located in states with varying legal frameworks for local and regional planning, infrastructure investment, fiscal management, and local government structure. This variety of settings allows the group to develop a more finely tuned understanding of how federal, state, and local rules and institutions interact to make regions more or less resilient in the face of the strains and shocks of fast growth.

Transportation — Denver, Houston, Charlotte, Orlando, and Miami are building or planning for new rail infrastructure, with varying degrees of success. In all cases, local and regional rail advocates face competition, sometimes from within and usually from other regions. The most acute competition is over scarce resources.

The political campaigns and coalitions that have been built to fund the rail systems appear also to build relationships and new support for compact, mixed-use, and mixed-income development patterns. In some regions, this support is manifested in transit-oriented development, which has shifted from a planning catchphrase to a new organizing concept for regional growth.

Denver and Charlotte are both successfully building equity into their transit-oriented development.  Miami, by contrast, has succeeded neither in bringing new rail to low-income neighborhoods nor in building mixed-income neighborhoods where rail already exists. The differences among their governance processes is the subject of a forthcoming publication, “Bringing Equity to Transit-Oriented Development: Stations, Systems, and Regional Resilience.”

Housing — Houston, Riverside-San Bernardino, Denver, Miami, and Charlotte have very different ways of building and rebuilding their most modest residential neighborhoods. Government planning, direct democracy, and private-sector decision making all play varying roles, thanks in part to local political cultures and in part to state rules.

The foreclosure crisis hit Riverside and Miami hard, but less so in Houston (although it had its own crisis in the 1980s). The working group is examining how planning and private-sector decision-making have affected the severity of the crisis and the local responses to it.

Beyond the short-term duration of the foreclosure crisis, the group is also investigating how these regions are preparing for the coming maturation and “handoff” of their older neighborhoods, usually in the central cities and early suburbs. Unlike the Midwest and Northeast, the Sunbelt was largely undeveloped when urban renewal occurred in the 1950s and 1960s.

Often policymakers and others are faced with the dilemma: should we invest in people or in places? Instead, the Infrastructure working group conceives of people and households as having a series of vulnerabilities. They live in housing units and neighborhoods that have various forms of precariousness. These housing units and neighborhoods are subject to turbulent environments. The resilient region, for community development, is one in which local, regional, and larger institutions work to avoid, mitigate, and recover from the harms that come to vulnerable people and households in the face of environmental turbulence.

Water supply and quality is now a key concern in most large, fast-growing U.S. metropolitan areas. Systems throughout the nation are under stress, and in some instances the lack of water may limit future growth. Worries about water supply are not limited to the arid West. Some of the biggest water challenges may be found in the East, in particular the Atlanta metropolitan area.

More important, water concerns are almost never limited to a single urban region. Rather, large metropolitan areas are connected. Water use in Las Vegas affects Phoenix and Los Angeles. Likewise, Atlanta’s lack of water and the actions its takes to secure an adequate supply ripples throughout much of the South.

The working group is underscoring the interconnected and fragile nature of the water supply in Sunbelt. Resilience will require super-regional and even national water policy. Policies for governing water will be needed to allow metropolitan areas to adapt to meet their local challenges, within a unified set of federal principles guiding resource use.

The need for new governance institutions is particularly acute in light of global climate change, the real impact of which should be felt by 2050. In addition, the current federal policy of treating surface and ground water as separate and distinct resources will need to change. The two clearly form one unified system.

Key Findings of the Infrastructure Working Group

Transportation systems

  • Political campaigns and coalitions that have been built to fund new rail systems also build relationships and new support for compact, mixed-use, and mixed-income development patterns.
  • “Equity actors” have helped win rail campaigns and, at the same time, successfully posed new demands for mixed-income housing as a part of transit-oriented development.

Residential neighborhoods

  • Responses to past housing crises in Houston and Denver appear to have buffered these regions from some of the worst effects of the current foreclosure crisis.
  • Mandates for land-use planning and housing needs forecasting did not protect Miami and Riverside from the foreclosure crisis.
  • Little has yet occurred to plan and prepare for the coming “handoff” of older baby-boomer neighborhoods to new working-class and low-income households.
  • Vulnerable people—especially immigrants, households in poverty, and single-parent households—are often concentrated in rentals, apartments, and older housing units that themselves are built in limited number of neighborhoods. This concentration of precarious housing units represents a challenge for governance as well as for the households themselves.

Water supply and quality

  • Sunbelt metro areas all face water-supply challenges, but the “dry sunbelt” appears better prepared thanks to a long history of institutional development and infrastructure investment.
  • Federal policy treating surface and ground water as separate and distinct resources will need to change.