On Wednesday morning, seven of us (from the Itasca Project, foundations, and other organizations) started the day with Douglas Foy, former head of the Office for Commonwealth Development - a position created by Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts to attempt to promote "smart growth". Romney sought to consolidate a number of state government "silos" and develop more rational, integrated plans for housing, transportation, environment, community development. Foy spent time this week with public officials, business leaders, and others, to discuss new approaches we might take in Minnesota regarding housing, energy, and transporation policies.
A few of the interesting facts and opinions that Mr. Foy presented:
a. About half of Americans do not drive a car; they depend on other means of transportation. These people include children too young to drive, people with certain disabilities, people who cannot afford to drive or who do not own a car, etc. Foy asserted that the notion of the automobile as a "democratizer", enabling people to get where they want to go independently, is an erroneous notion. Policies that we enact related to automobiles will directly affect only half of the population; those policies will only indirectly relate to the transportation needs of the other half of the population.
b. Car costs are part of housing costs. That is, where you live determines whether you routinely need a car to get around for work, social activities, shopping, and so on. So, if you pay $5,000 - $10,000 in expenses for your car each year, that costs you as much as adding another $100,000 or so to your home mortgage. Therefore, someone could purchase a more expensive house, in a more convenient location, and could get by with one less car. (As energy pricess increase, this principle becomes even more important.)
c. Cities can have much higher energy efficiencies than other places. In fact, New York City, by any objective standards, may be the "greenest" (that is, most energy efficient) city in the country. Cities can also efficiently nurture social networks that provide care. Foy suggested that "senior care" best occurs in an urban area, where neighbors can look out for one another and services are close by. He criticized arrangements that "cluster" older people in remote locations.
d. Preservation of open space requires "smart growth" urban policies. He suggests that, if we want to save open space in northern Minnesota, the answer lies in increasing the density of land use in the municipalities within the Minneapolis/St. Paul region.
As we move ahead, regardless of whether we agree with all of Mr. Foy's perspective, a key message for us is the importance of regional interdependence. To solve the issues of this century, and to maintain a vibrant, competitive, prosperous Twin Cities region, we need to understand our common social and economic interdependence. We need to build this understanding among both leaders and the general population, so that we wisely use our resources to provide housing, transportation and other necessities to all the residents of the Twin Cities, as well as the state. At Wilder, we are working on that. I'll keep you posted; and I hope you'll partner with us.