U.S. News

Congress looks at making cities more "livable"

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate moved closer on Wednesday to making the concept of “livable communities” a part of national law that would provide federal grants to help local governments implement comprehensive city planning.

Almost a year after Sen. Chris Dodd, the Banking Committee chairman from Connecticut, introduced a bill, the committee held its first hearing. The bill proposes giving livability grants to metropolitan organizations and creating an interagency office on sustainable communities within the executive branch.

The grant amounts would depend on the size of the city and the use of the money. The bill would authorize $100 million in total each year through 2013 for planning grants and $3.75 billion through 2013 for implementation grants.

A similar bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in February.

Dodd described the bill as combining housing development, public transit, and infrastructure and land-use planning into one comprehensive approach to city development. Currently, many of those decisions are made separately from one another, and Dodd and others said the partitions have led to urban sprawl.

Livability advocates promote public transportation and bike paths and building energy efficient homes. The payoff of combining city planning will be great, according to Dodd.

“Our nation is facing a number of significant problems, including a struggling economy, an explosion in home foreclosures, the looming threat of climate change, an increasingly worrisome dependence on foreign oil, deteriorating infrastructure, and, yes, worsening traffic congestion,” he said.

Other senators said the bill will reduce the rates of asthma in children, draw younger people back to abandoned downtown areas, reduce obesity by promoting walking and bicycling, and get workers to their jobs on time.

Critics say the bill is vague, extends the reach of the federal government too far into the dealings of local governments and costs too much.

Support may also wane, as fiscal conservatives in Congress pledge to cut back on spending programs and have recently fought other measures to send money to state and local governments.

“Livability” has been percolating as a theme within the executive branch.

The Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation have formed a partnership to better coordinate their programs. Their leaders spent most of the winter touting livability at national conferences of city, county and state leaders held in Washington.

“Rural, suburban and urban counties have been pursuing local strategies to create livable communities and implement sustainable development for decades,” Julia Gouge, a county commissioner from Maryland representing the National Association of Counties, told the hearing.

Last month, the Ford Foundation announced a five-year $200 million plan to promote “a new metropolitan approach that interweaves housing, transportation and land-use policy to foster greater economic growth.”

Editing by Andrea Ricci