Amanda Kennedy, Connecticut Director, Regional Plan Association
The question of where and how to grow is central to securing a sustainable and equitable future for the 31-county New York – New Jersey – Connecticut region. With as many as four million new residents predicted for the region by 2050, Regional Plan Association staff and partners are wrestling with this question as the organization prepares its fourth Regional Plan of the tristate area since the organization was founded in the 1920s.
I’m often asked how RPA decides when it is time to prepare a new plan: it is when trends and conditions have shifted so dramatically that the goals of the last plan no longer fully state the region’s most important priorities. Our first plan, in 1929, called for the development of a regional highway and transit network, much of which was built out in the 1930s. Our 1960s plan called for renewed investment in cities like Newark and Stamford and the creation of large-scale protected parklands. The New York of the 1990s had been battered by an economic recession that put its status as a world city into question, so RPA’s Third Plan emphasized the importance of a transportation network that would support a more concentrated form of growth that stayed largely within the region’s core and major centers, connect residents to economic opportunities, and allow the New York metro region to continue to compete on a global scale.
Our fourth regional plan will tackle long-standing infrastructure issues, while acknowledging the new risks to our region that come from the impacts of climate change and from technological changes that are transforming economic systems and employment. The region is becoming increasingly stratified economically, with growing risks to middle- and low-income jobs that could have serious consequences to the region’s families, neighborhoods, and economy. RPA partners and staff are developing research and recommendations that will address issues and opportunities in housing, climate change, energy, transportation, open space, and economic development.
Transit-oriented development (TOD) has played a key role in the kind of sustainable, equitable development that Regional Plan Association has supported since the 1990s and sees as central to the region’s future vitality. A mix of housing types, employment, and services all within walkable proximity to local and regional transit services is the best foundation for housing the region’s diverse population, stimulating economic growth, and preserving a healthy and livable environment. Transit-oriented development in places like Stamford, Connecticut and New Brunswick, New Jersey has provided new housing options in areas that for decades saw little construction at all.
But TOD is largely dependent on actions by individual municipalities who must move to modify often decades-old zoning that prohibits the kind of walkable, downtown housing that can accommodate a mix of incomes and housing types. In Connecticut, for example, only half of Metro-North stations are in neighborhoods which encourage transit-oriented development. Our region’s 783 municipalities could use support from state and federal government programs that recognize transit-oriented development’s role in improving economic, environmental, and social conditions for the region’s neighborhoods.
In 2010, RPA partnered with 16 cities, counties, and regional organizations across Long Island, the Hudson Valley, New York City, and Southwestern Connecticut to accept $3.5 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that would support transit-oriented development projects at both the local and regional level. A year later, a similar coalition in northern New Jersey received $5 million in HUD funding. The partnership that RPA was a lead member of, the New York – Connecticut Sustainable Communities Consortium, brought together municipalities and government agencies that have not traditionally worked together, with four metropolitan planning organizations, nine cities, two counties, and two regional planning organizations meeting on a regular basis to understand how individual actions can result in better outcomes across the region. Local funded projects included an assessment of capacity for TOD on Long Island and selection of three pilot communities for further assistance, Baldwin, Lynbrook, and Valley Stream. In Connecticut, funding supported assessing the feasibility of additional rail stations along the New Haven Line. Bridgeport’s proposed Barnum Station has since received additional state money for design and will be built if Governor Malloy’s recent budget proposal is approved by the state legislature. In New York City, funding helped to identify where Metro-North stations in the Bronx could be better connected with neighborhoods and residents in order to encourage access from the Bronx to employment opportunities in Westchester and Fairfield County. Another project identified neighborhood improvements in East New York as part of a comprehensive introduction of new affordable housing, economic development, and neighborhood services to this part of Brooklyn. All of the Consortium’s activities prioritized engagement by both local residents and partner agencies, ensuring that the expertise and objectives of agencies such as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and state departments of transportation were part of local decision-making.
HUD funding for these projects was essential, as was the inter-agency Partnership for Sustainable Communities program, begun in 2009 to encourage federal cooperation between HUD, the Department of Transportation, and Environmental Protection Agency on coordinated neighborhood investments that support prosperous neighborhoods, access to jobs and housing, and reductions in pollution. Throughout the grant period, HUD staff continuously looked for opportunities for better federal participation in local sustainable development.
Although RPA’s Fourth Regional Plan is not yet complete, we anticipate that transit-oriented development will be an important component of housing millions of new residents. We’ll be looking beyond the traditional half-mile radius around rail stations to identify how local bus systems and trail networks can expand access to regional transit systems, and we’ll help develop guidance on which places in the region are best suited for growth. The Fourth Regional Plan will benefit from a stronger understanding of how to leverage infrastructure investments with supportive land use regulations and policies, so that major regional infrastructure investments result in stronger cities and towns, broader access to regional opportunities, and put less strain on our natural systems.