Rural America is tremendously diverse-economically, demographically, and environmentally-and approaches to supporting sustainable rural communities should be equally varied. The Livability Principles guiding the Partnership for Sustainable Communities provide a useful policy framework for investments to support sustainable rural communities. The six principles are listed below, along with descriptions of how they can enhance economic prosperity and quality of life in rural places.
Provide more transportation choices.
Many rural communities have limited transportation options. Rural roadways are often not designed to accommodate multiple modes of transportation, particularly walking, bicycling, and transit. Rural areas have also seen intercity bus service reduced over the past decades. This lack of options can limit access to jobs, medical care, and educational opportunities. In particular, seniors, low-income, and disabled persons living in rural America may be unable to reach necessary resources. For those who do drive, commutes to distant employment centers can be time consuming and require a large percentage of the family budget to be spent on transportation.
Residents of rural communities, like their counterparts in urban and suburban areas, benefit from neighborhoods that foster healthy and convenient walking, bicycling, and public transportation where feasible. Many rural communities were built on transportation corridors such as state highways, rail lines, or rivers and traditionally had compact, mixed-use designs with interconnected street networks that made it easy to walk or bicycle between neighborhoods and downtown. Village centers were ideal locations for regional transit services to pick up passengers. This foundation for expanded transportation choice both within and between towns still exists in many places. Looking at rural transportation through an intra- and inter- community lens can help guide investments from HUD, DOT, EPA, USDA, and other federal agencies.
In addition, intercity and regional mobility are drivers of economic growth in rural communities. Well planned transportation systems improve the quality of life and economic attractiveness of small towns by providing access to regional job markets, facilitating the transport of locally made goods to markets, and bringing tourists and other consumers to community businesses.
Promote equitable, affordable housing.
Some rural communities lack housing options. Much of their housing stock may be aging, resulting in low energy efficiency and high utility costs. Communities that offer a variety of housing types, such as single-family homes, townhouses, duplexes, and apartments in varying price ranges, are best positioned to attract and retain residents at all life phases-from single-person households to young families to retirees. The location of new housing can also provide a competitive advantage, as homes that are near schools, jobs, shopping, and services reduce residents' combined housing and transportation costs. Housing integrated into commercial areas, such as residences above first-floor stores and offices on main streets, may make it more convenient and affordable for residents to reach daily destinations while providing a local consumer base for businesses.
Enhance economic competitiveness.
Rural communities and small towns can thrive only if there are employment opportunities that support a good standard of living. While rural incomes may be substantially lower than those in metropolitan areas, rural regions possess unique resources and opportunities for economic development. Farms, ranches, renewable energy production facilities, and recreational amenities such as national parks and national forests all have economic value for rural communities. Innovations in agriculture can expand local and regional markets for agricultural products, resulting in more diverse, resilient economies. Continued expansion of broadband can also help strengthen and diversify rural economies, opening up new markets, connecting residents to job centers in larger communities, and reducing the need to travel to conduct business.
Federal investments are most effective if they are made in accordance with a community's economic vision. As a result, the Partnership should support rural communities' efforts to identify their competitive advantages through planning and visioning efforts.
Support existing communities.
Rural American communities are largely defined by their relationship to the agricultural and natural landscape, so conserving working and natural lands is a key strategy for protecting quality of life and the long-term economic viability of farming, forestry, tourism, and other natural resource-based activities. Redevelopment in small towns should support economic vitality without sacrificing the beauty and utility of the surrounding landscape. Rural America is home to many once-vibrant main streets with historic buildings and vacant commercial properties. Channeling investments into existing main streets can revitalize infrastructure and spur new economic opportunities. These assets can be the foundation for place-based economic development that promotes rural wealth creation. Outside of towns, directing and prioritizing investments can also meet community goals. For example, improving water and wastewater systems can protect subsurface fresh water sources and help farm families ensure the viability of agricultural operations.
Coordinate and leverage federal policies and investment.
Given the size and scale of rural communities, federal investments can make a significant impact, so it is critical that they support community goals and are coordinated across agencies. Federal investments are catalysts for additional public and private investment and can reinforce-or counteract-community plans that help guide development. However, many rural communities lack the capacity or resources to create plans and policies that codify their goals. As a result, the Partnership can support rural communities' efforts to craft visions for future development and to create and implement plans and policies that guide public and private investments.
Coordinating housing, transportation and environmental policies and funding produces better results for local residents. It uses taxpayer money more efficiently, meeting multiple economic, environmental, and community objectives with each dollar spent. To make their programs work as well as possible for the nation's communities, federal agencies must remove barriers to collaboration and provide opportunities to leverage funding.
For instance, federal investments in renewable energy development can improve economic conditions in rural America by creating jobs and reducing carbon emissions and dependence on oil imports. Where companies are investing in renewable energy facilities, coordinating transportation and infrastructure funding can ensure that employees have the housing and amenities they need, communities offer a high quality of life to attract a strong workforce, the environment is protected, and economic advances are sustainable. This same integrated approach can create opportunities in other areas such as recreation, tourism, and local and regional food systems.
Value communities and neighborhoods.
Rural communities and small towns should be valued for their distinctive and historic features. Communities that conserve and build upon these resources, such as historic downtowns and main streets, important natural features, and long-standing cultural and religious institutions will be better positioned to enhance quality of life for their residents. Iconic rural landscapes are often defined by farmsteads, historic barns, and working agricultural structures-visual representations of American agricultural traditions. Historic preservation, adapting old structures for new purposes, and designing to complement local character will strengthen existing communities while contributing to renewed economic vitality.