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Moving Toward a Sustainable Future: Three Models of Regional Planning

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Summer/Fall 2015   


Moving Toward a Sustainable Future: Three Models of Regional Planning


      • The Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium, a coalition of local governments, metropolitan planning organizations, and nonprofit advocacy groups, produced a regional plan for the 12-county Northeast Ohio region. Their Vibrant NEO 2040 plan encourages greater integration of Northeast Ohio’s employment centers through inclusive economic and land use policies and a cohesive transportation plan.
      • The Land of Sky Regional Council in Western North Carolina is working with a consortium of governments, businesses, and nonprofits called GroWNC to balance expected population growth with the region’s existing natural assets by promoting smart infrastructure investments, diverse economic development strategies, and farmland and environmental preservation.
      • Washington’s Puget Sound Regional Council launched the Growing Transit Communities planning initiative to support equitable and efficient transit-oriented development in its growing region.

Regional planning seeks to integrate the policies of neighboring communities to address issues that exceed the purview of a single jurisdiction, such as transportation systems, housing markets, and natural ecosystems. The ability of a community to collaborate successfully across jurisdictional boundaries to plan for change influences not only its economic competitiveness but also its residents’ quality of life and access to opportunities. Through the Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant program, HUD supported the voluntary coordination of long-term housing, land use, economic development, and infrastructure decisions by local jurisdictions and planning agencies to address regional challenges (see “Partnerships and Planning for Impact”).1 This article examines three regions — Northeast Ohio, Western North Carolina, and Puget Sound in Washington — that received Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grants. In each example, a lead grant applicant brought together local stakeholders, including underserved or historically marginalized groups, to systematically study the current conditions of the shared region and develop a long-term vision and policy framework that integrates the needs of all residents and communities. Although crafted to serve the unique circumstances of a particular region, each framework promotes economic development, creating a range of transportation options, focusing new development in existing communities, and preserving ecologically important areas.

Changing the Trajectory of Northeast Ohio

The northeast corner of Ohio has faced years of economic decline and population loss. Where growth does occur, it is typically on undeveloped land in suburban and exurban communities that absorb residents from legacy cities. This population movement contributes to disinvestment in legacy cities; places Northeast Ohio’s natural resources in jeopardy; and enervates the fiscal health of cities, counties, and the region.2 To reverse this trend, a coalition of local governments, metropolitan planning organizations, and nonprofit advocacy groups launched the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC), which crafted a coordinated approach to land use, transportation, and housing policy for the 12-county region. Using a $4.25 million Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant, NEOSCC produced Vibrant NEO 2040, a vision and framework that encourage greater integration of Northeast Ohio’s employment centers (the cities of Cleveland, Akron, Canton, and Youngstown) through inclusive economic and land use policies and a cohesive transportation plan.3

Northeast Ohio’s Structural Challenges

NEOSCC predicts that continuing current development policies would force all 12 counties in Northeast Ohio into a fiscal no-win situation, forced to either raise taxes or cut services to pay for their increasing financial obligations. NEOSCC measured fiscal health as the ratio of tax revenue to government spending on infrastructure and services. The region, which has a mix of counties with positive and negative ratios, has an overall ratio of –0.3, meaning that spending slightly outweighs revenues. By 2040, however, NEOSCC projects that every county in Northeast Ohio will have a negative ratio and the region will have an overall ratio of –33.7. Furthermore, the financial situation of the healthiest county in 2040 will be worse than that of the sickest county in 2010.4

Northeast Ohio’s declining fiscal health is driven by two interrelated and compounding forces: the region’s overall loss of population and jobs and the movement of people and jobs from central cities to suburban and exurban communities. The region’s population was 3.8 million in 2010, 7 percent lower than its 1970s peak and well below the 5 to 6 million that demographers once predicted would live in the region.5 As the region’s population declined, the average number of residents per acre decreased from 5.43 to 4.18 between 1979 and 2006. During the same period, 4 to 5 percent of undeveloped land was developed, increasing the region’s footprint.6 Bethia Burke, director of grants and emerging initiatives at Fund for Our Economic Future, the organization that paid for the initial grant work to create the consortium, identifies this pattern as “growth without growth.”7 The region now has more housing, roads, sewer lines, businesses, and office buildings despite the falling population.8 NEOSCC found that “funds available for transportation infrastructure construction and maintenance are declining,” meaning that local governments will need to either raise taxes to meet their maintenance responsibilities or allow their roads to deteriorate.9

Modeling What the Future Holds

NEOSCC does not have the power to compel jurisdictions to implement its recommendations; instead, it relies on its ability to persuade. The organization operates as a forum for local officials and stakeholders to discuss and debate ideas that they can take back to their communities. NEOSCC’s view is that “a shared vision for Northeast Ohio’s future developed through a robust engagement process can give communities a reason to align their planning and resource allocation decisions to build a healthier, more economically and socially equitable region.”10

This robust engagement process was predicated on building widespread community support, explains Frederick Wright, chief executive officer of Akron’s Urban League and chair of NEOSCC’s Communication and Outreach workgroup. Because some residents had reservations about regionalism, Wright says, NEOSCC focused on explaining the benefits of aligning local goals and stressed the voluntary nature of the recommendations to assuage fears.11 NEOSCC held scenario-planning workshops in all 12 counties and launched ImagineMyNEO, an online game that challenged residents to build their preferred future.12 Scenario planning extrapolates possible futures given current conditions, a set of growth assumptions, and different policy objectives. These tools serve the dual purpose of providing information to residents in a digestible format and making it easier for residents to comment on regional values and preferred development alternatives.13 Wright reports that nearly 6,000 residents participated in crafting the regional vision.14

A map of Northeast Ohio showing NEOSCC’s vision for the region.
NEOSCC’s Regional Vision calls for stitching together Northeast Ohio’s communities by increasing transit connections and prioritizing investment in urban areas.

NEOSCC first tested a business-as-usual or Trend scenario, which assumed that migration patterns and job creation will remain constant and jurisdictions will continue their current development policies. Under the Trend scenario, NEOSCC found that abandonment will not only increase in Northeast Ohio’s four main cities but will also spread to smaller towns and first-ring suburban communities such as Ashtabula, Alliance, and Massillon. Currently, 86,000 abandoned homes are in the region, a number projected to grow to 175,000 by 2040.15

Believing that the outcomes of the Trend scenario are unsustainable, NEOSCC tested three alternative scenarios to determine the effect of different policy considerations. The scenarios considered what would happen if population and employment growth remained constant but local government implemented the Vibrant NEO framework (Do Things Differently), population and employment growth improved but jurisdictions made no policy changes (Grow the Same), and growth improved and Vibrant NEO was implemented (Grow Differently).16

Implementing the framework would have a significant and positive impact on Northeast Ohio. Do Things Differently would double the amount of parkland conserved, reduce lane miles by 77 percent, lead to 155,000 fewer abandoned homes, and consume 82 percent fewer acres of land and 84 percent fewer acres of prime farmland. Residents would also have more transportation options, with 50 percent of jobs and 35 percent of residents located near transit (compared with 41 percent and 25 percent, respectively, under the Trend scenario). Most important, the region’s fiscal outlook, as measured by the ratio of the cost of government services and infrastructure to tax revenue, would improve from its current –0.3 to 10.4.17

After testing the growth scenarios, which assumed 875,000 new residents and 500,000 new jobs, NEOSCC found that Northeast Ohio cannot simply hope that new development will ease its fiscal difficulties.18 Under the Grow the Same scenario, the region would have a negative cost-to-revenue ratio of –6.4, and rural and sparsely developed communities, which currently pay the least for public services, would see the worst future fiscal outcomes. Growing Differently, however, would be a boon to the region. Its cost-to-revenue ratio would be 13.8, and more than half of the region’s jobs would be located near transit.19

A photo of the warehouse district in downtown Cleveland.
The Warehouse District in downtown Cleveland has seen increased investment in recent years, resulting in new residents, businesses, restaurants, and entertainment.

The Vibrant NEO Framework

NEOSCC did not see its role as deciding on a precise “plan” for the region’s future; rather, it facilitated a coherent regional vision that local governments and stakeholders could voluntarily implement. Residents of Northeast Ohio said that they aspire to build a region that is “competitive, growing, and fair.”20 According to Hunter Morrison, executive director of NEOSCC, “What we heard broadly is that people wanted to do things differently. People want more choices: more housing choices, more transportation choices, a clean environment, and good jobs.”21 Vibrant NEO promotes choice and a competitive region and supports existing communities by renewing investment, increasing transportation options within and between cities, preserving natural areas, and promoting local government collaboration.22

The Vibrant NEO framework is a collection of 9 recommendations and 41 initiatives to realign infrastructure, housing, and land use incentives to promote long-term economic growth.23 The framework created a “menu of initiatives that local governments can decide to implement,” says Grace Gallucci, chair of NEOSCC and executive director of the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA), a metropolitan planning organization and the lead applicant responsible for tracking NEOSCC’s Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant.24 Some of the initiatives include developing a regional network of job centers connected by multimodal transportation, remediating and redeveloping abandoned parcels, encouraging more mixed-use development, and preserving natural areas for future generations.25 Burke notes that these strategies are mutually reinforcing: “If you don’t prioritize urban infill, you lose the green space. If you don’t prioritize the green space, it becomes difficult to find the funding to do infill.”26

Outcomes and Implementation

Morrison identifies the conditions and trends data, scenario mapping, and development strategies as significant outcomes of Vibrant NEO. “What we’ve collected,” Morrison says, “is a rich and robust set of pilots and best practices that other communities can learn from.”27 NEOSCC also created a regionwide land use map and a zoning map by aggregating and digitizing information from every jurisdiction in Northeast Ohio. Such tools and digital information are important to local communities because they allow officials to understand what would happen if “we just let things go on autopilot,” says Donald Romancak, the community development director of Lorain County. Romancak explains that NOACA and NEOSCC broke out the county-specific data for Lorain, which is helping the county’s towns and cities determine how to balance development pressure while preserving their identity. “We are working with our local communities, talking to them about different possibilities. We’re not just out there preaching [that] we’ve got to change.…[I]t’s a lot easier to accomplish things when people ask you to help them do something they want.” For example, Romancak and his staff are working with three cities and their mainstreet organizations to identify strategies from the Vibrant NEO toolbox that will help create and maintain an “active and robust downtown.”28

Vibrant NEO empowered local officials and residents to discuss regionalism and sustainability in a way that was previously difficult, says Gallucci. She contends that convening such a diverse group of stakeholders to talk about the region’s problems and then achieving a consensus on a vision was a huge accomplishment. Seventy-four percent of NEOSCC survey respondents said that their future depended on the economic success of the region.29 Although Northeast Ohio and its communities face daunting challenges, the ubiquity of those challenges may help build a cohesive region. Wright compares the region’s situation to that of a boat with a hole at one end, letting in water. For years, the hole was seen as only the problem of the people getting wet. But that leak, which is worsening, threatens to sink everyone. Vibrant NEO is working to change the atmosphere in which decisions are made, marking the first step of a larger conversation to improve the trajectory of Northeast Ohio.

Photo shows children holding pinwheels standing in front of an actual windmill.
GroWNC calls for expanding small-scale wind farms in rural areas such as Madison County’s Wind for Schools project, which installed three wind turbines in local schools. Jonathon Austin

Preserving Western North Carolina’s Distinct Character

Land of Sky in Western North Carolina, a rural region of forests, farmland, and small towns nestled between the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky mountain ranges, expects to add 176,000 new residents over the next 30 years — an amount equivalent to twice the size of the region’s current largest city. The Land of Sky Regional Council (LOSRC), a planning body with representatives from 4 counties and 15 municipalities, predicts that this rapid growth could jeopardize the natural assets and rural communities that make the area attractive and drive important economic sectors.30 With a $1.6 million Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant, LOSRC gathered a consortium of 2 counties; 9 municipalities; 8 state and local agencies; and 52 nonprofits, businesses, and trade groups to develop GroWNC, a voluntary policy framework that promotes smart infrastructure investments, diverse economic development strategies, and farmland and environmental preservation.31

Challenge and Opportunity

LOSRC predicts that 630,000 people will call Land of Sky home by 2040, a 40 percent increase over the region’s 2010 population.32 According to Justin Hembree, executive director of LOSRC, residents and businesses are attracted to the region because of its natural environment.33 Sitting in the heart of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, the region boasts an eclectic mix of river valleys; swift streams; forests of dogwood, birch, maple, oak and pine; mountain views; and rich soil. Farming is one of the region’s largest industries; in 2007, Land of Sky boasted more than 180,000 acres of prime farmland generating $135 million in market value.34 Tourism is another pillar of the area’s economy — many people come to enjoy the region’s biodiversity and unique microclimates.35 Hembree explains that “growth issues and sustainability need to be a major factor, because if we are not able to sustain and protect our natural environment, we are going to lose out in terms of fueling our economic engines.”36 Over the past few decades, some of the area’s assets have become threatened. For example, the percentage of farmland under cultivation fell from 50 percent of the region in 1950 to 16 percent in 2007. LOSRC attributes this decline in part to the limited amount of buildable land; the mountainous topography of the region often forces new development onto farmlands and forests.37

GroWNC Scenario Planning

GroWNC is the region’s first comprehensive vision developed with input from local residents and officials from all jurisdictions. According to Jeff Staudinger, assistant director of community and economic development with the city of Asheville and a contributor to GroWNC, “we asked first and foremost how and where do we want to grow, what are the attributes of that growth, and what is irreplaceable if it were lost?”38 More than 5,000 people participated through workshops, online forums, and surveys. Residents and local business owners were placed in leadership roles. A major component of GroWNC’s outreach and analysis was scenario planning. Unlike Vibrant NEO, which tested different growth assumptions for two policy frameworks, LOSRC’s scenario planning assumed consistent job and population growth and tested four development frameworks — Business as Usual, Economic Prosperity, Resource Conservation, and Efficient Growth — to help residents understand policy tradeoffs. LOSRC also created an online mapping program, GroWNC MapViewer, which allowed residents to visualize current conditions, change over time, and the outcomes of the four different scenarios.39

A panoramic view of a farming community with hills in the background in Western North Carolina.
Farming is a pillar of the Western North Carolina economy, but the amount of farmland has shrunk over the past 50 years. Carrie Turner
Business as Usual represents a probable future based on the continuation of existing policies. Currently, 47 percent of the region is classified as “natural,” meaning that it contains less than 1 dwelling unit (DU) per 20 acres. If trends continue, by 2040 the acreage of natural land would drop by 9.1 percentage points. Low-density development (0.25 to 1 DU and fewer than 60 employees per acre) and moderate-density development (0.25 to 5 DU and more than 60 employees per acre) would consume much of the natural land. Low- and moderate-density development would increase by 3.9 and 3.3 percentage points, respectively. Business as Usual would increase the number of dispersed homes and businesses, leading to increased vehicle miles traveled and the inefficient extension of municipal services.40

The Efficient Growth scenario tested land use and transportation outcomes in which future development was concentrated in existing communities and vacant properties were redeveloped. In this scenario, the amount of natural land would still decrease by 2040, but by only 6.2 percentage points, and low- and moderate-density development would be 2.2 and 1.3 percentage points lower, respectively, than the Business as Usual scenario. The Resource Conservation scenario, which tested land use policies that limited development in areas of natural or cultural importance, would retain the highest acreage of natural land at 41.6 percent, a loss of only 5.4 percentage points. Under the Economic Prosperity scenario, policies would encourage brownfield redevelopment and conservation of prime agricultural land, leading to 2.2 percentage points more natural acreage and 1.7 percentage points less low-density development than the Business as Usual scenario.41

Residents voted on the important scenario elements and outcomes, and those results were aggregated to create a Preferred scenario. Across socioeconomic groups, local residents expressed a desire to preserve the region’s natural resources and rural communities and identified areas already served by infrastructure as “consensus growth areas” appropriate for development.42 The Preferred scenario is seen not as a prescriptive plan but rather as a collection of suggested steps to achieve a common vision. It encourages new roads, homes, and businesses in existing communities by supporting the redevelopment of brownfields, industrial sites, and old retail centers and preserves farmland and natural areas. Critical watersheds are protected, as are ecological corridors that connect natural areas. The Preferred scenario improves water and air quality over Business as Usual as well as conserving more land, providing more transportation options, and concentrating more development within existing communities.43


GroWNC is a voluntary decisionmaking framework that includes recommendations, best practices, and a searchable strategies toolkit that local governments and agencies can use to find policy ideas. For those that participate, GroWNC is a “fantastic resource” that highlights successful projects within the region from which others may learn, says Cynthia Barcklow, a planner with Buncombe County. Barcklow states that planners can use the information and analysis to pursue projects and grants that previously may have been too difficult to attempt; in addition, the collaborative atmosphere that pervaded the process makes the framework accessible.44

Barcklow cites Asheville’s East of the Riverway Multimodal Neighborhood Project as an example of a local sustainability project working in concert with GroWNC.45 Funded in part by an $850,000 Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, planning for the East of the Riverway project occurred in tandem with GroWNC.46 “These were highly synergistic processes, with many of the same players involved,” says Staudinger. “The policies developed for GroWNC were shared with the East of the Riverway and vice versa.”47 The project area contains more than 1,000 acres of ecologically, economically, and culturally important sites between the French Broad River and downtown Asheville. The project integrates existing transportation, greenway, revitalization, and energy plans adopted by the city to foster a multimodal transportation network and the redevelopment of old industrial sites along the French Broad River. Using $1 million in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grants to Asheville and LOSRC, the city remediated nine brownfield sites in the project area. One of those remediated sites became the $175 million expansion of the New Belgium Brewery, which is expected to open by the end of 2015.48 One of New Belgium’s stated reasons for choosing the riverfront location was to avoid consuming undeveloped farmland.49

A view of the main street in Brevard, North Carolina.
Downtowns and main streets, such as in Brevard, North Carolina shown above, benefit from regional policies that promote renewed investment in developed areas. Linda Giltz
Hembree explains that GroWNC serves as a “super workplan” that supports and informs all other regional projects, providing “a huge library of data as well as a framework for developing more specific plans.”50 For example, the agricultural needs and strategies identified during GroWNC were used as the basis of WNC AgriVentures, a LOSRC project that received $1.63 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other institutions and was a winner of the Obama administration’s Rural Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge in 2012. WNC AgriVentures promotes job creation and a stronger agricultural cluster in the region by filling in the gaps in the local farming production chain.51 GroWNC helps move these types of project forward, says Hembree, because “we know these are regional priorities — they were identified through this very comprehensive process.”52

Lessons Learned

Early in the planning process, governments and residents expressed concern that GroWNC was an extension of Agenda 21, a set of nonbinding policy recommendations created by the United Nations in 1992 to support sustainable development that some have come to see as undermining local authority. One county eventually pulled out of the process, causing officials to refocus outreach efforts and stress the voluntary nature of the GroWNC framework to gain the support of local governments. The purpose was not “to dictate to our local governments from up-high policies, procedures, or ordinances that they needed to enact to comply with our plan,” says Hembree.53

Instead, GroWNC began a two-way conversation with residents. GroWNC contracted with a firm to create a professional, branded look and conduct outreach, which Barklow and Hembree say was important for explaining that local residents retained control over the region’s future and that their local governments would not cede land use authority.54 Barklow, Hembree, and Staudinger expressed their belief that more voices — especially dissenting voices — enhanced the overall project because its success depends on convincing a large and diverse group of stakeholders that building a sustainable region is in everyone’s best interest.55

Equitable and Efficient Transit-Oriented Development in Puget Sound A photo showing community residents seated at round tables participating in a planning meeting.
Regional Equity Network encouraged and financially supported resident participation in the Growing Transit Communities planning process. Puget Sound Regional Council

Over the past decade, voters in Washington’s Puget Sound have approved $25 billion in new transit improvements, including a 55-mile light rail system. To ensure that the region realizes the full potential of these investments and that the new transit system serves equity and sustainability goals, the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) launched Growing Transit Communities (GTC), a planning initiative funded by a $5 million Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant. The initiative brought together representatives from 10 cities and counties, 14 agencies, and 17 nonprofit organizations to align land use and transportation policy in Puget Sound’s 3 new transit corridors.

The Opportunities and Challenges of a Growing Region

Puget Sound has seen tremendous growth in recent years; its population increased by 19 percent between 2000 and 2015. Total employment in the region increased by 7 percent between 2000 and 2013, driven by high-tech industries such as information technology, which grew by 38 percent, and aerospace, which grew by 7 percent.56 As a growing region, Puget Sound is able to support new transit investments, such as a 3.1-mile extension to its existing 15.6-mile Link light rail system. After Puget Sound approved the extension in 2006, voters agreed in 2008 to expand the system by 36 miles along three corridors: north and east of Seattle and south of Sea-Tac Airport.57 Eventually, the system will stretch from Tacoma to Lynnwood in Snohomish County and Redmond in King County. Residents of Seattle, King County, and Snohomish County have also recently voted to expand their transit systems and enact improvements.58

One consequence of this growth, however, has been the rising cost of housing, which has forced families to move farther away from jobs, transit, and other amenities; Seattle’s real (inflation-adjusted) housing prices increased by 20.6 percent from 1998 to 2012.59 Recognizing these new investments as a historic opportunity to improve equity, regional leaders launched GTC, a planning initiative spearheaded by PSRC. GTC is the implementation component of Puget Sound’s existing plans, Vision 2040 and Transportation 2040, which are mandated under Washington’s Growth Management Act, a law that requires local governments to create comprehensive plans consistent with a regional plan.60 The Vision 2040 framework concentrates population and employment growth over the next 25 years in designated growth centers, primarily metropolitan areas and core cities.61 GTC supports this framework through its three main goals: attracting more housing and job growth around transit stations, promoting affordable housing near transit, and fostering greater opportunity for residents through transit.62

Making Transit Serve the Needs of All Residents

According to Tony To, executive director of HomeSight and vice chair of GTC, early plans lacked financial support to communities, which was a major impediment to robust engagement. Although officials were paid for their time, says To, “community members and individuals from voluntary organizations were expected to take time off of work,” and as a result, “the community could never expect to be fully engaged.”63 During GTC, underserved and traditionally marginalized populations were encouraged to participate through the Regional Equity Network, which was formed in partnership with Impact Capital. The Regional Equity Network provided funding to help residents conduct their own outreach, meet with officals, and create recommendations to influence the plan. In total, the Regional Equity Network administered $550,000 in grants to community organizations to facilitate resident involvement in the planning of the transit corridors, which grantees leveraged for an additional $574,500 in community resources.64

To help ensure that the benefits of transit investments are equitably distributed, the Regional Equity Network worked with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University to measure and map access to opportunity in the region. Kirwan analyzed the conditions of neighborhoods (defined by census tracts) using education, economic, transportation, housing, environmental, and health indicators. These indicators, which Kirwan developed based on input from the GTC’s Fair Housing subcommittee, PSRC planning staff, members of the Regional Equity Network, and other stakeholders, were aggregated to create an overall opportunity score, and neighborhoods were sorted by opportunity level: very low, low, moderate, high, and very high. “Equity” was defined as allowing all people to “have access to the resources and opportunities that improve their quality of life and let them reach their full potential.”65

A map showing very high to very low opportunity areas in the Puget Sound region.
Areas of high opportunity tend to be north of Seattle in predominantly white neighborhoods, whereas minority communities south of the city tend to have lower opportunity. Kirwan Institute for the Puget Sound Regional Council
The opportunity mapping “allowed us to see how opportunity is physically located” and the “communities that are underinvested,” says To. The Regional Equity Network found that 57 percent of African Americans, 54 percent of Hispanics, and 53.7 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native populations lived in areas of low or very low opportunity. Whites and Asians, on the other hand, were much more likely to live in areas of high or very high opportunity (42.5% and 43.5%, respectively).66 Most HUD units (51.6%) are in areas of high or very high opportunity, but only 33.8 percent of housing choice voucher holders live in such areas. The opportunity mapping was incorporated into GTC station area planning and made available to affordable housing developers, local government officials, and transportation planners to guide investment in areas of low opportunity and strengthen connections to high-opportunity neighborhoods.67

Implementation: The Northgate Catalyst Project

GTC performed most of the “on-the-ground analysis of the existing and potential station areas to see what opportunities will exist,” says Ben Bakkenta, a program manager at PSRC who worked on the project. The analysis and opportunity mapping were used to create a framework of 8 development approaches for the 74 transit communities that will help local governments decide how and where to guide development around transit stations. The eight approaches considered not only market forces but also the social dynamics of each community. As Bakkenta explains, “Who is impacted? Who has the potential to benefit? Alongside the market analysis, [the answers to] these questions give you a much richer knowledge of a particular station area or community.”68

Using this framework is ultimately the responsibility of each local government, which controls infrastructure investments, permitting, and zoning. PSRC is currently working with 16 local jurisdictions, 9 public agencies, and 17 nongovernmental organizations that have signed a regional compact to carry out the GTC strategies.69 To demonstrate the feasibility and best practices of transit-oriented development (TOD) in the region, PSRC launched catalytic projects in each corridor. Along the north corridor, PSRC, Seattle, King County, and Sound Transit are collaborating on the Northgate Catalyst project, which uses the neighborhood’s new light rail extension to shift the area from auto-oriented development to TOD.70 Northgate was designated a regional growth center in Vision 2040 and is one of Seattle’s “mixed-use centers.”71

The 4.3-mile north corridor extension will be composed of three new stations: U District, Roosevelt, and Northgate.72 Sound Transit’s tunnel-boring machines are currently digging the underground portions of the line that add onto the University of Washington extension, which is nearing completion.73 Work on the north corridor is expected to be finished by 2021. The site of the Northgate station is currently anchored by a suburban mall, Seattle Community College, and one of the largest medical and office centers outside of downtown Seattle. The area also includes a bus transfer center operated by King County Metro Transit and serviced by 13 King County bus routes and 2 Sound Transit regional bus routes.74

PSRC and Seattle expect the Northgate neighborhood to absorb substantial residential and employment growth over the next 25 years.75 To guide Northgate’s transformation into a mixed-use, transit-friendly community, GTC funded the creation of the station’s urban design framework, a collection of design concepts that address the neighborhood’s look and feel, incorporate recommended streetscape improvements, and identify areas within the neighborhood that are appropriate for development.76 GTC also funded the planning for a pedestrian bridge to connect Seattle Community College to the new station.77

A photo showing the partial façade of the Tacoma Dome station.
The Puget Sound Regional Council carried out subarea planning for the neighborhood around Tacoma’s Dome Station, once the southern terminus of the Sounder regional rail south line and home to the Tacoma Link.
PSRC has designated the Northgate station as an “expanding housing choices” community, which indicates a high risk of displacement for lower-income populations. To help offset this risk, PSRC and its partner organizations are creating tools to build affordable housing. PSRC used part of its Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant to research best practices for a revolving loan fund to support the acquisition of land for affordable housing near transit stations. In partnership with Enterprise Community Partners and Impact Capital, PSRC completed a business plan for the fund and is working to secure an initial $5 million. To date, the fund has received $2.5 million from the city of Seattle, King County, and a consortium of cities in King County, and the remaining $2.5 million was recently approved by the Washington state legislature, according to Bakkenta.78

Lessons Learned

Partnerships and collaboration are central to GTC’s goal of building equitable and sustainable communities around transit stations. The responsibility of the Northgate station area, for example, is spread among several agencies and jurisdictions. The primary catalyst for pursuing TOD is Sound Transit’s light rail investments in the neighborhood. The city of Seattle controls zoning and permitting within the station area; although PSRC may have helped create the station area plans, the city must decide whether to implement them. King County controls a significant amount of land in the area, including the bus transfer center, and operates a number of local bus routes. Without King County and Sound Transit’s investments, a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly community as envisioned by both Seattle and GTC would not take hold. Residents must also support TOD at Northgate for it to be effective. Residential and community buy-in is possible, To says, where “agencies and jurisdictions support the equity components” such as affordable housing and protection for local businesses. He argues that “balancing equity and growth benefits everyone because it ultimately reduced the cost to the public through more effective solutions and [by] minimizing disparities” among the residents.

Puget Sound’s communities have a long history of supporting projects such as GTC, says Bakkenta, because of the institutional change brought about by Washington’s Growth Management Act. Under the act, PSRC reviews and certifies that local plans are consistent with regional plans and can withhold infrastructure funding from jurisdictions with inconsistent plans. The act also empowered Puget Sound’s jurisdictions to use urban growth boundaries (UGB), a tool that limits development and services such as roads and sewers outside of established communities. Since the launch of the Growth Management Act, 85 percent of new growth in Puget Sound has occurred within the UGB.79 Bakkenta argues, however, that although the act gives regional plans a certain amount of heft, its true value was in institutionalizing regional planning. GTC’s policies and recommendations still needed widespread support because PSRC could not simply compel jurisdictions to think regionally, and PSRC still needs to “walk a tightrope between local government and regionalism,” says Bakkenta. As a result, PSRC is using voluntary tools such as the nonbinding regional compact and local workplans to implement the GTC framework.

Conclusion A map showing different opportunity areas and light rail lines in the Puget Sound region.
PSRC hopes to use Puget Sound’s new light rail lines to connect all residents to areas of high opportunity. Kirwan Institute for the Puget Sound Regional Council

Vibrant NEO, GroWNC, and GTC each work to make their respective regions more sustainable and equitable. NEOSCC focused on the growing cost of infrastructure obligations and the financial impacts of dispersed land use patterns. LOSRC sought to protect Western North Carolina’s economically, culturally, and aesthetically valuable assets. PSRC coordinated Puget Sound’s historic transit investments to expand access to opportunity. Although some details differ, the three consortiums used collaboration, robust engagement, and sound data analysis to introduce policies that are regarded as beneficial to the entire region as well as to individual communities.

In all three regions, the data these organizations compiled were essential for convincing officials and residents of the benefits of coordinated investments. Romancak explains that “at the end of the day, it’s very hard to argue with the data. It’s hard to look at how things have gone and allow that scenario to continue to play out and think that anyone in this area could be considered a winner.”80 Staudinger similarly explains that although an “urban-rural tension” persists, GroWNC showed that “Asheville and rural communities have a symbiotic relationship” by demonstrating “how neighboring communities benefit from what Asheville is doing” and how Asheville depends on the economic activity of surrounding communities.81

Using a common set of indicators helped move the conversation away from the “raw politics” of winners and losers, says Morrison of NEOSCC, making agreement easier.82 The collaborative process and the voluntary frameworks were broadly seen as essential to developing cohesive plans and as integral to successful implementation. Widespread support among officials and buy-in among residents are necessary for both political and practical reasons. Land use, housing, and infrastructure decisions are spread among city, county, and state actors and metropolitan planning organizations that are reluctant to relinquish authority. In Western North Carolina, even the rumor of diminishing local government power caused some participants to pull out. Residents are also more likely to support a plan that they have helped craft. To explains that providing resources to include community voices in the process encourages residents to “actually support growth,” which “saves governments a lot of money, because they don’t have to fight a lot of unnecessary battles.”83

The emphasis on collaboration and voluntary frameworks, although helpful during the planning process, has created difficulties when translating the plan into action. According to Burke, “part of the work ahead of us is to reconstitute the board to have more [of an] implementation focus, [but] that transition has been a challenge.” Because local governments and private organizations are ultimately responsible for implementing regional visions and because the consortiums have limited funds to support projects, tying any specific change, policy, or project back to the regional vision is difficult. Some ongoing projects in Northeast Ohio are furthering the aims of Vibrant NEO but are not funded by NEOSCC. For example, the Thriving Communities Institute is mapping vacant properties in Cuyahoga County, a step that furthers the Vibrant NEO initiative to “coordinate existing land bank efforts to acquire, assemble, manage, and dispose of vacant property” but is not financially supported by NEOSCC.84

In Puget Sound and Western North Carolina, the preexisting regional planning bodies have made transitioning to implementation easier because they can incorporate GTC and GroWNC into their other projects. Hembree notes that whenever LOSRC begins a new project, “one of the first questions we ask is, ‘How does this tie into the GroWNC plan?’” LOSRC is currently translating elements from GroWNC to add to the region’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, which will guide economic development policies in the coming years.85 PSRC created a board within their organization focused specifically on integrating TOD into other projects, and most local jurisdictions have signed a regional compact in which they agree to employ GTC.86 Both Hembree and Bakkenta, however, acknowledge the necessity and difficulty of sustaining a high level of engagement with local partners during the transition to implementation.87

Despite these challenges, Vibrant NEO, GroWNC, and GTC precipitated an important, but difficult to measure, shift in how individuals view regional concerns, empowering people to think about issues that often are pushed into the background. Bakkenta argues that, in part because of GTC, “the whole notion of equitable development as a regional conversation has become elevated.”88 Changes in how people think about and discuss their region, however, are subtle and can take years. “These are difficult conversations,” says Morrison. “It takes numerous negotiations over time. But it’s the direction of the conversations that matters… and on that, we are making progress.”89

Related Information:

Growing a Sustainable Future in Central Florida

  1. Lisa T. Alexander. 2010. "The Promise and Perils of 'New Regionalist' Approaches to Sustainable Communities," Fordham Urban Law Journal 38:3, 637, 649; Gerrit-Jan Knaap and Rebecca Lewis. 2011. "Regional Planning for Sustainability and Hegemony of Metropolitan Regionalism," in Regional Planning In America: Practice and Prospects, Ethan Seltzer and Armando Carbonell, eds. Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 178; Carleton K. Montgomery. 2011. "Introduction," in Regional Planning for a Sustainable America: How Creative Programs Are Promoting Prosperity and Saving the Environment. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1.
  2. Sasaki Associates. 2014. Vibrant NEO 2040, prepared for the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium.
  3. Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium. "History and Mission" ( Accessed 2 July 2015.
  4. Sasaki Associates, 37.
  5. Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium. n.d. "Conditions and Trends," 2; Ohio Development Department Economic Research Division. 1969. "Statistical Abstract of Ohio 1969," 77.
  6. Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium. "Northeast Ohio's population has been spreading out" ( Accessed 2 July 2015; Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium "Conditions and trends," 3.
  7. Interview with Bethia Burke, 18 June 2015.
  8. Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium "Conditions and trends," 3.
  9. Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium. "The funds available for transportation infrastructure construction and maintenance are declining. Northeast Ohio is unlikely to see additional freeway or rail transit network development in the foreseeable future and will need to maintain the infrastructure it has in place" ( Accessed 2 July 2015.
  10. Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium. n.d. "Vibrant NEO Guidebook For a More Vibrant, Resilient, and Sustainable Northeast Ohio," 2.
  11. Interview with Frederick Wright, 17 June 2015.
  12. Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium. "Have you imagined about Northeast Ohio yet? Imagine MyNEO is now live" ( Accessed 2 July 2014; Interview with Frederick Wright.
  13. Arnab Chakraborty and Andrew McMillan. 2015. "Scenario Planning for Urban Planners: Toward a Practitioner's Guide," Journal of the American Planning Association, 1–5.
  14. Interview with Frederick Wright.
  15. Sasaki Associates, 33.
  16. Ibid., 44.
  17. Ibid., 52–3.
  18. Ibid., 45.
  19. Ibid., 53.
  20. Ibid., 3.
  21. Interview with Hunter Morrison, 23 June 2015.
  22. Sasaki Associates, 94.
  23. Interview with Bethia Burke; Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium. 2014. "Vibrant NEO: Vision, Framework and Action Products," 4 March presentation.
  24. Interview with Grace Gallucci, 19 June 2015.
  25. Sasaki Associates, 122–52.
  26. Interview with Bethia Burke.
  27. Interview with Hunter Morrison.
  28. Interview with Donald Romancak, 15 June 2015.
  29. Sasaki Associates, 12–3.
  30. Land of Sky Regional Council. "Our Region" ( Accessed 2 July 2015; LandDesign. 2014. GroWNC Regional Plan, prepared for the Gro-WNC Initiative, 1.
  31. GroWNC. "About GroWNC" ( Accessed 2 July 2015; GroWNC. "GroWNC Consortium"  ( Accessed 2 July 2015.
  32. Land of Sky Regional Council. 2013. "Existing Conditions," 22.
  33. Interview with Justin Hembree, 25 June 2015.
  34. Land of Sky Regional Council 2013, 15.
  35. LandDesign, 17–8.
  36. Interview with Justin Hembree.
  37. LandDesign, 22–5.
  38. Interview with Jeff Staudinger, 25 June 2015.
  39. LandDesign, 10; 43–51; GroWNC. “Maps” ( Accessed 2 July 2015; GroWNC. "Public Involvement Archive" ( Accessed 17 July 2015.
  40. GroWNC. "Business as Usual" ( Accessed 17 July 2015; LandDesign, 53.
  41. GroWNC. n.d. "How We GROW Matters," 2–11.
  42. LandDesign, 51.
  43. Ibid., 51–3; GroWNC. "Preferred Scenario Growth Concept" ( Accessed 17 July 2015.
  44. Interview with Cynthia Barklow, 19 June 2015.
  45. Ibid.
  46. City of Asheville Office of Sustainability. 2012. "Reducing Energy Use in the East of the Riverway," 1–5; City of Asheville. "Current Initiatives" ( Accessed 2 July 2015.
  47. Interview with Jeff Staudinger.
  48. City of Asheville. n.d. "Asheville East of the RiverWay Sustainable Neighborhood"; City of Asheville. 2014. "East of the Riverway Connections," 18 March Public Workshop presentation; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2013. "City of Asheville, Land-of-Sky and Federal Partners Mark 4th Anniversary of Partnership for Sustainable Communities/Partnership has invested and leveraged $5.83 million in Asheville-area projects," 1 August press release.
  49. New Belgium Brewery. "Frequently Asked Questions" ( Accessed 2 July 2015.
  50. Interview with Justin Hembree.
  51. GroWNC "WNC Agriventures" ( Accessed 2 July 2015; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2013.
  52. Interview with Justin Hembree.
  53. Ibid.
  54. Ibid.; Interview with Cynthia Barklow.
  55. Interview with Justin Hembree; Interview with Cynthia Barklow; Interview with Jeff Staudinger.
  56. Puget Sound Regional Council. "Regional Data Profile: Population & Households" ( Accessed 2 July 2015; Puget Sound Regional Council. "Regional Data Profile: Economy" ( file/regionalprofile-economy/). Accessed 2 July 2015.
  57. Puget Sound Regional Council. 2013. The Growing Transit Communities Strategy, 4; Sound Transit. "Regional transit history 1997 - 2003" ( Accessed 17 July 2015; Sound Transit "Regional transit history 2005 - 2007" ( Accessed 17 July 2015.
  58. Robert Drewel. 2011. "Integrated Planning for a Sustainable Future in Puget Sound," in Regional Planning for a Sustainable America: How Creative Programs Are Promoting Prosperity and Saving the Environment, Carleton K. Montgomery, ed. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 141.
  59. Jeffrey P. Cohen, Cletus C. Coughlin, and David A. Lopez. 2012. "The Boom and Bust of U.S. Housing Prices from Various Geographic Perspectives," Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, September/October, 350.
  60. Puget Sound Regional Council. n.d. "The Washington State Growth Management Act with Applications for the Central Puget Sound Region"; Washington Department of Commerce. "A Short Course On Local Planning," 77–115; Strategic Economics and Center for Transit Oriented Development. 2013. "Implementing Equitable Transit Communities Regional & Local Recommendations for the Central Puget Sound Region," prepared for the Puget Sound Regional Council, 2–4.
  61. Puget Sound Regional Council. 2008. Vision 2040.
  62. Puget Sound Regional Council 2013, 4.
  63. Interview with Tony To, 29 June 2015.
  64. Puget Sound Regional Council. 2011. "A Regional Equity Network"; Regional Equity Network. 2014. "Growing Transit Communities Equity Grant Program: Final Report," 3; Interview with Tony To.
  65. The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. 2012. "Equity, Opportunity, and Sustainability in the Central Puget Sound Region: Geography Of Opportunity In The Central Puget Sound Region," 3.
  66. The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, 7.
  67. Ibid., 12.
  68. Interview with Ben Bakkenta, 16 June 2015.
  69. Puget Sound Regional Council. 2013. "Growing Transit Communities Compact" ( Accessed 2 July 2015; Puget Sound Regional Council. "Regional Compact + Partners" ( Accessed 2 July 2015.
  70. Puget Sound Regional Council. 2013. "Corridor Specific Implementation Priorities," 69–70.
  71. Puget Sound Regional Council 2008, 50; Barbara Wilson and Katie Sheehy. 2010. "Seattle Transit Communities: Integrating Neighborhoods with Transit," Seattle Planning Commission, 14–6.
  72. Sound Transit. n.d. "Link Light Rail System: Northgate Link Fact Sheet."
  73. Ibid.
  74. City of Seattle. 2013. "Northgate Urban Design Framework," 6.
  75. Puget Sound Regional Council. "Northgate SAP" ( Accessed 17 July 2015.
  76. City of Seattle. "Urban Design Framework Northgate Urban Design - What & Why - Seattle Department of Planning and Development" ( Accessed 17 July 2015.
  77. Puget Sound Regional Council. 2012. "Growing Transit Communities North Corridor Task Force Draft Summary notes for May 9 2012," 1–2; Puget Sound Regional Council. n.d. "PSRC's FHWA-Funded Projects that Delivered in (Federal Fiscal Year) 2013"; Seattle Department of Transportation. "Northgate Pedestrian & Bicycle Bridge" ( Accessed 14 July 2015.
  78. Interview with Ben Bakkenta; Puget Sound Regional Council. "A Regional Equitable Development Initiative Fund for Transit Communities" ( Accessed 12 July 2015; Puget Sound Regional Council "Northgate SAP."
  79. Robert Drewel, 137; Puget Sound Regional Council "The Washington State Growth Management Act with Applications for the Central Puget Sound Region"; Puget Sound Regional Council. 2008. "Development Patterns Shift Under Growth Management Act."
  80. Interview with Don Romancak.
  81. Interview with Jeff Staudinger.
  82. Interview with Hunter Morrison.
  83. Interview with Tony To.
  84. Interview with Bethia Burke.
  85. Interview with Justin Hembree.
  86. Interview with Ben Bakkenta.
  87. Interview with Justin Hembree; Interview with Ben Bakkenta.
  88. Interview with Ben Bakkenta.
  89. Interview with Hunter Morrison.


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