Mitt Romney should stick to his record as Massachusetts governor when it comes to smart growth.
Flipping through the 2012 GOP platform for positions on this important issue, we find breathlessly inflammatory items such as:
•Accusing the Obama administration of replacing "civil engineering with social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit";
•"We condemn the current Administration's continued assaults on state governments in … land use decisions."; and
•"We strongly reject Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty and we oppose any form of U.N. global tax."
That last one bears some explanation. We remember when a laundry list of concepts for sustainable development was put together by the U.N. about 20 years ago, called "Agenda 21." It was intended to provide ideas for national and local governments around the world. As with many U.N. publications, its influence is hortatory at best. No one in the U.S. seriously contemplates adopting it wholesale, although it does contain some laudable ideas, such as urging that communities "[E]ncourage non-motorized modes of transport by providing safe cycleways and footways in urban and suburban centres in countries, as appropriate" and "[D]evote particular attention to traffic management, efficient operation of public transport and maintenance of transport infrastructure."
The Republican platform thus fires several shots across the bow of those in the administration who have been working to invest in smart growth, as best embodied by the Sustainable Communities Partnership among the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This partnership invests billions of dollars in planning, design and construction of innovative development and transportation projects nationwide.
However, these are the very same kinds of activities initiated and directed by Governor Romney and his team in Massachusetts. In fact, the Obama Administration's sustainable communities program is modeled in part on a Romney initiative.
When he first came into office, Mr. Romney planned, as described in a PowerPoint presentation, to "elevate sustainability to a state priority" and "set an integrated agenda for agencies and departments whose activities shape the quality of our environment." Upon taking the helm, he created a new supercabinet agency, the Office of Commonwealth Development (OCD), linking transportation, housing, environment and energy policies. Doug Foy, former head of the activist Conservation Law Foundation, led the new agency through its first three years. This entity, and the staff who ran it, made a serious down payment toward sustainable community development in Massachusetts.
The Office of Commonwealth Development was tasked with lining up the state's substantial (hundreds of millions of dollars) capital spending via a new "Commonwealth Capital" fund in order to ensure:
•consistency of projects with smart growth;
•alignment of municipal policies and zoning with state interest in smart growth;
•coordination of agency decision-making.
This new office and fund were just two of the tools put in place for boosting the state's role in sustainable community development under Governor Romney. His administration created a "fix-it-first" program for infrastructure investment. It started a "communities first" program that produced a project design manual including requirements for routine accommodation of bicyclists and pedestrians in road-building, better known as "Complete Streets" and originally included in the federal transportation bill until the GOP-controlled House of Representatives nixed it.
It awarded grants for smart-growth planning in Massachusetts. And in 2005, Mr. Romney bragged about these grants, saying, "By targeting development to areas where there is already infrastructure in place, not only can we revitalize our older communities, but we can also curb sprawl as well." Mr. Romney also signed a new law, called "Chapter 40R," that ties serious state incentives for cities and towns that rezone to accommodate more compact, walkable development.
In short, Massachusetts Governor Romney aggressively managed state dollars and rules to drive sustainable community development in the Bay State.
But now he's flipped by jettisoning sustainability principles and hewing to an extremist GOP platform. This is extremely disappointing, and worthy of more media coverage. Governor Romney not only endorsed but pursued smart growth and sustainable development as chief executive of Massachusetts. It was a good, fiscally and environmentally responsible program then, and it deserves support now.
The bottom line? Presidential candidate Mitt Romney should take a cue from Massachusetts Governor Romney by supporting sustainable community development.
Parris N. Glendening was governor of Maryland from 1995 to 2003. Deron Lovaas (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior advisor for the NRDC Action Fund.