Agriculture and food system development were featured agenda topics at the recent New Partners for Smart Growth Conference, an annual conference sponsored by the Local Government Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Department of Transportation, the Centers for Disease Control and several other public and private organizations.
I went to the Smart Growth conference on behalf of USDA Rural Development to demonstrate USDA’s commitment to investing in the future of rural communities. Smart Growth principles can offer innovative strategies for using scarce federal dollars efficiently to promote sustainable and sound investments on main streets everywhere, and are valuable in helping rural communities consider how to creatively use existing resources and infrastructure to serve and celebrate their unique identities.
But how does this work on the ground and what is USDA’s role?
USDA’s programs can be successfully used to support infrastructure development to achieve multiple community goals. For instance, a recent smart growth investment in Clendenin, West Virginia was discussed at the conference. A 19th century boom town, Clendenin took a hit as the economy changed over the last century. Yet, glorious and historic architectural bones remained, including an old school building. With help from the USDA’s Community Facilities Loan and Grant and the Rural Business Enterprise Grant, a local non-profit took on renovating the building which now houses an expanded community health clinic and affordable senior living units.
Regional food systems are also emerging as a core element of Smart Growth principles. At the conference, Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems presented preliminary findings from an upcoming report showing that nearly 40 percent of 2000 local governments are encouraging green roofs and edible landscaping in residential and commercial areas; over 10 percent promote programs reusing vacant lots or buildings for food production or processing and nearly 15 percent note that food system issues are addressed by some type of planning documents, including comprehensive plans, climate change plans, sustainability plans, land use plans, economic development plans, transportation plans housing plans and more. The full report is due later this spring and will help assist local governments and civic planners assess how and where regional food systems are successfully integrated into smart growth development. For more information about regional food system investments in your area, take a look at the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass.
Smart growth approaches in small towns and big cities provide some of the best road maps for innovation and for supporting communities, especially when resources are scarce. USDA is working with other federal departments to actively weave smart growth principles into many programs and projects. For instance, the Brattleboro Co-op, funded by USDA, won an EPA award for Smart Growth development for integrating community retail and senior housing on a rural main street and in the Dakotas, USDA is investing in a smart grid project to improve energy efficiencies. USDA is also exploring ways to work with arts organizations to preserve local cultures and heritages, another element of Smart Growth principles.