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Building a sustainable region, a community at a time

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 8, 2012 - There is an old saying about the best-laid plans, but Jennifer Howland will gladly tell you that no blueprint is one-size-fits-all.

"What we envision is not a plan where everything would be the same no matter which community you are in," she said. "It's more about giving local communities options that they can select from and take steps based on their own sets of priorities to achieve a more sustainable future for their citizens."

As sustainability planning manager with the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, Howland has had a lot of time to think about those priorities of late and she's very much hoping the community will join her in that process. Since late 2010, Howland's agency has been working on a regional plan for sustainable development. Bankrolled by a $4.7 million federal grant, the effort is designed to create templates to guide communities as they hammer out integrated, sustainable solutions to complex challenges from housing to water quality to public transportation. The resulting ideas can then be used by city planners in formulating policy.

Set to run through 2013, the funding has attracted 10 agencies, all of which are providing both expertise and projects to meet the requirements from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD has doled out $100 million across 45 regional areas. Only three cities received grants larger than St. Louis.

In the end, it's all about people in the community, Howland said.

"We're going to find out what sustainability means to them," she said. "It's not what East-West Gateway or any of our consortium partners think it is. It's what the region wants for its future."

Snapshots of the Community

But for East-West Gateway and its partners that means a lot of talking and a lot of feedback to assess the needs of a diverse area with millions of people spread across seven counties, one large city and two states. The attempt to make that process manageable has led to an approach that more closely resembles political polling than sustainable planning -- that is, taking a sample.

That sample will come via "community planning areas," or CPAs, which are being set up to get a sense of the varying needs of different locales. Some are rural like the small towns clustered along Interstate 55 in the Festus-Crystal City area or the stretch of Illinois Route 3 connecting Columbia to Waterloo. Others are suburban like the development hugging the MetroLink line between Clayton and Shrewsbury, and still others are exurban enclaves like the Wentzville, Lake St. Louis, O'Fallon corridor in St. Charles County. Each one represents a different type of area -- hopefully providing a useful gauge of the kinds of problems faced by each.

All in all, 12 such tracts have been recommended for designation out of the 17 nominated: four in St. Louis County, two each in Madison and St. Clair counties and one apiece in St. Charles, Jefferson and Monroe counties. St. Louis acts as its own CPA.

Catherine Werner, sustainability director in Mayor Francis Slay's office, said the city is doing transit-oriented development planning related to MetroLink stations, streetscapes and a multi-modal access study for downtown.

"The city views itself as the heart of the region, and we are interdependent on each other for the overall sustainability that results," said Werner, interviewed by email. "The core 'livability' principles associated with the HUD-funded grant align nicely with the city's efforts to be sustainable in a triple-bottom-line manner -- economically, socially, and environmentally."

For folks in urban planning circles, this is no idle exercise. Big dollars may ride on the results. Glenn Powers, St. Louis County's director of planning, said that the multi-disciplinary approach may cast a wide net, but that's precisely the challenge city planners are faced with when they seek federal money. He notes that Washington is indicating it will direct grants toward cities with an integrated, rather than piecemeal, approach to building a sustainable model.

"Essentially, you have to get your transportation, land use planning and environmental planning together on a single peg so all these things talk to each other," he said.

Rosalind Williams, planning and development director for Ferguson, is the point person for her CPA, which encompasses her city and eight other municipalities from Country Club Hills to Kinloch. She said all the communities in her area face similar challenges from obsolete, aging housing and commercial property to disinvestment to residents heavily dependent on public transit.

"I'm hoping that the inner-ring communities will be able to get their story across to the region that we need more attention and investment," she said. "Whatever happens within the region has ramifications for our future growth."

Input and Output

But feedback doesn't happen overnight. Solving that puzzle is a big part of what partner organization Focus St. Louis will be doing by helping to set up public meetings and engagement sessions in the CPAs.

But don't expect the typical public meeting.

"We don't want to just set a microphone up at the front of a room and have a bunch of people come in and talk," said Mark Fogal, community policy and engagement director for the group. "That's not a real effective way of getting input."

A better one involves a bit of technological wizardry via "keypad polling" which involves handheld devices that instantly register audience opinions, creating bar graphs on a nearby screen that provide a focal point for discussion while preventing a vocal minority from hijacking a meeting.

"Not only do we get a chance to get input, but it really helps to generate discussion," Fogal said. "'Wow, everyone agreed with me' or 'Hey, I said this but everyone else said that. I wonder why.' It really helps draw people into the issue."

Eventually, scenarios can be drawn up that compare and contrast the costs and benefits of different strategies.

"The scenarios can make explicit what some of the tradeoffs are that these policies have," he said. "The critical aspect to all of this is that we're doing some focused public engagement in smaller localized communities."

The grant and its associated studies encompass everything from energy use to the environment. The latter is the raison d'etre of Southwestern Illinois Resource Conservation and Development, another partner in the grant.

"Our role is kind of two-pronged," said Megan Riechmann, community and environmental planner for the group. "We are the only strictly environmental nonprofit organization on the team so we serve that purpose for all the partners. We are also the only independent Illinois partner."

Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville participates but only as part of a larger entity.

Riechmann's outfit will deal with everything from bicycles to wetlands restoration.

"We would have been doing most of these projects anyway, but I'm glad they could contribute to the matching dollars that could help bring the money to the region," she said.

Learn and Replicate

Eric Kohring, a fair housing specialist with Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing Opportunity Council, another participant, said his organization would look at regional housing.

"I have grand hopes for it," he said. "My biggest fear is that it would just be a plan sitting on a shelf. None of us want that so we're all working very hard to get as much feedback from the community, community leaders and government agencies to see how we can make it as effective as possible so it's something they will use, something they can implement effectively."

Grant partner Metro Transit has been working on transit-oriented development, or TOD.

That is "one of the most critical components of this endeavor," said communication director Dianne Williams via email. "TOD is a planning approach that rethinks how we plan, fund and build our communities in a manner that combines sustainable community planning practices, constructive development partnerships and intelligent transportation solutions."

Cindy Mense, chief operating officer of grant partner Trailnet, said her organization was working with as many as 40 different communities or school districts to promote sustainability. Some, like Old North St. Louis and Rock Hill take advantage of the group's "bikeable walkable community plan" while others like Washington University and the Central West End use the TravelGreen initiative, which encourages alternative transportation. Meanwhile, school districts from Webster Groves to Normandy are encouraging children to walk to class.

Trailnet's participation is particularly appropriate, not just because it has already done so much community engagement but because its efforts mirror the grant's goal of a cafeteria-style blueprint that can be tailored to fit a locality's needs. From there, municipal officials can take over the process.

"What we are really striving to do is turn these things into models where we can learn from it and replicate it," Mense said. "We can use our relationships to engage these communities into thinking more about sustainability."

Only time will tell.

"We really hope this is a turning point for St. Louis," she added.

David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis.

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.