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Supporting Sustainable Rural Communities



Rural communities across America are working to strengthen their economies, provide better quality of life to residents, and build on assets such as traditional main streets, agricultural and working lands, and natural amenities and resources. The Partnership for Sustainable Communities-made up of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-is coordinating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to reinforce these initiatives and ensure that the four agencies' spending, policies, and programs support rural communities' efforts to be economically vibrant and environmentally sustainable.

HUD, DOT, EPA, and USDA already make significant investments and implement policies in rural America through mechanisms such as USDA Rural Development loans and grants, HUD's State and Small Cities Community Development Block Grant and Housing Choice Voucher programs, DOT's rural transit expenditures, and EPA's clean water and drinking water state revolving funds. Additionally, the Partnership supports community and regional planning efforts in rural areas. For example, in 2010, HUD awarded $28 million in Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grants to regions with populations less than 500,000 and $15 million in Community Challenge Planning Grants to rural places with fewer than 200,000 people. The 13,000-resident City of Glens Falls, New York, for instance, received funding to develop a strategy to provide affordable workforce housing downtown, identify vacant properties for infill development, and amend its zoning ordinance to increase energy efficiency. The Housing Authority of Randolph County, with a population of 28,000, received a grant to develop a county-wide plan that identifies areas for farmland preservation, assesses opportunities for expanding bus service, and increases pedestrian and bike connectivity.

Strengthening federal support for rural communities by coordinating and aligning these programs is a key Partnership goal. In August 2010, the Partnership established a Rural Work Group comprised of staff from HUD, DOT, EPA, and USDA to guide its approach to rural sustainable communities. This report, which summarizes the work group's efforts, explores how the Partnership can contribute to more resilient economies, healthy environments, and quality of life in rural America. It also sets out a framework for the Partnership's future work with rural communities.

The report includes the following sections:

The Rural Context

Rural is difficult to define. A rural community in a relatively high-population state can look dramatically different from a similarly sized rural community in a less populous state. One definition cited by the USDA Economic Research Service describes rural areas as nonmetropolitan counties. By this definition, nearly two-thirds of the nation's 3,142 counties are rural, and rural communities comprise 17 percent of the population (49 million people) and about 80 percent of the country's total land area.[1] However, these statistics, while important, do not describe the interaction between communities and their surrounding landscapes that is so integral to understanding the challenges and opportunities in rural areas.

From a land use and development perspective, rural America includes towns and small cities as well as working lands, or lands that are managed for economic value such as farms, prairies, forests, and rangelands. Historically, rural land was often used for the production and extraction of resources. Towns were developed at transportation hubs-rail stations, river ports, major crossroads-providing the places where agricultural or natural resources could be traded or shipped. Many rural communities were built around main commercial streets and relatively compact, walkable neighborhoods, along with valuable infrastructure that served their civic, cultural, and social needs. The working lands surrounding the towns often provided the reason for their existence, and continue to do so in many places. The rural landscape is more than attractive vistas-it is integral to the social and economic life of the community.[2]

Today, rural communities face an array of challenges. Resource-based economies are vulnerable to the impacts of commodity prices, technological changes, land value dynamics, and other market influences. Some communities whose economies are contracting are experiencing unemployment, poverty, population loss, the aging of their workforces, and increasing demands for social services with fewer dollars to pay for them. In some rural areas, these are not new trends, but generations-old issues. Additionally, residents of remote communities have limited access to jobs, services, and transportation options. Long, expensive commutes to distant employment centers can eat up a large percentage of the family budget, or families have to live sparsely on the small amount of local work available. People who don't have access to personal vehicles or who do not drive, such as low-income residents and senior citizens, lack mobility and have even less access to jobs, healthcare, and other services.

Other rural communities located close to metropolitan areas or amenities such as ski areas, national parks, and other tourist destinations are struggling to preserve their rural character in the face of growth pressures. These places are experiencing the conversion of farmland and natural land to development, which has an impact not only on the environment, but also on resource- and tourism-based economies. The new property development in these communities is often spread out, resulting in increasing demands for infrastructure in places where it is difficult and costly to provide.

Rural communities often lack the capacity or financial resources to address these issues. Some small, rural jurisdictions have limited local government staff, experience, or funding, which can mean few resources dedicated to comprehensive planning, regional collaboration, and other efforts to identify shared community goals and visions that can help shape growth and development. What's more, rural communities may lack access to private and public capital, making it difficult for them to obtain funds for economic development and revitalization. For example, philanthropic organizations that exist in larger communities are less present in rural areas, reducing resources that might assist local governments and organizations. The result can be development that fails to take advantage of the communities' assets, has limited long-term benefits, and creates long-term costs for the community.

An increasing number of rural communities are looking for development approaches beyond the conventional dispersed land use patterns that make it difficult for them to meet their fiscal, social, public health, and environmental goals. They are using a range of strategies to pursue economic opportunities while maintaining the rural character that residents value.

Sustainable communities approaches are as diverse as rural America itself. Communities select the most appropriate approaches for their context and adapt them to respond to local needs and interests. Some places are exploring new ways to generate income from working lands with the development of renewable energy facilities, including wind farms and solar panels. Others are directing public and private investments to main streets and village centers. Still others are planning and building walkable, convenient, and affordable neighborhoods. As the case studies in this report show, rural communities are finding solutions that allow them to take advantage of their assets, attract and retain businesses and residents of all ages, and ensure that economic development results in lasting improvements.

Updated: 4/3/2012
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