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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the 2009 National Awards for Smart Growth Achievement, As Prepared

12/01/2009
As prepared for delivery.

I’m proud to welcome you to this year’s National Award for Smart Growth Achievement. Every year we learn about new and creative ways to bring environmental sustainability to our communities. And this year is no exception. Projects are being recognized for innovative work in locations with as diverse populations and different economic and environmental needs as Tempe, Arizona and Charlotte, North Carolina. Or Chicago, Illinois and the agricultural communities of Lancaster Country, Pennsylvania. Congratulations to our honorees on your well deserved recognition. Thank you for once again taking Smart Growth to new heights.

Before we get to the awards, I want to talk about the importance of this work in this particular moment. Because we are in a defining moment for our environment and our economy. American communities spent a lot of the last decade growing and building – and not always in the smartest ways. We built new homes and new housing developments on the edges of cities and towns, far from downtowns and commercial centers. We built new shopping centers and office buildings. Some of them have parking lots as large as several city blocks. And that boom in residential and commercial real estate drove a large percentage of our economic growth – and many communities benefited. But then the bottom fell out. Our nation went into a financial crisis, which was in large measure the result of overextending ourselves on all this lending and building. The result for our economy was the worst decline since World War II.

Right now we are doing the hard work of pulling our economy up and out of that fall. People are re-thinking the way we grow and develop our communities. Businesses and homeowners in Georgia and Mississippi and Florida are looking for ways to be smarter about water use, and keep cool without using more energy. Families in New England are looking for ways to stay warm in the winter without breaking their budgets on heating oil. And people everywhere are looking for better ways to get around – remembering the $4 a gallon they were paying for gasoline last August.

As we rethink our strategies for development, and rebuild our foundation for prosperity, the leaders of the Smart Growth movement – the people in this room – face a great moment of opportunity.

Our situation is beginning to turn around. The President’s Recovery Act has cut taxes for the vast majority of middle class families and provided critical resources to local governments so they can keep teachers, fire fighters and police officers in their jobs. The economy is growing again for the first time in more than a year – and faster than at any time in two years. One of the most significant achievements in the Recovery Act is its focus on sustainability, clean energy, and green innovation. For the first time in a very long time, we have a President willing to stand up and say that the choice between economic growth and environmental protection is a false choice.

The tide is shifting towards Smart Growth thinking. Just last week I was in Edmonston, Maryland, where Recovery Act funding is transforming their main residential street into a Green Street. They are using creative ideas – some innovative, like wind powered street lights…some old fashioned, like rain gardens and native trees to provide shade – to make their neighborhood more sustainable, greener, and ultimately, more prosperous. That’s just one example.

I took a trip to Denver, where I visited a community that has practiced Smart Growth for the last ten years. People there can walk to the store or school. They’re using alternative energy to power their streetlights, and saving money on home utility bills with efficient technologies. And when the national economy took a downturn, that community stayed strong. Rather than shedding jobs and investment, they added business in the years when the rest of the country was hurting.

I saw other great examples on a Sustainable Communities tour through Chicago, Dubuque and back to Denver not long ago. I took that tour with Secretary Donovan from Housing and Urban Development and Secretary LaHood from Transportation, as part of our newly formed Partnership on Sustainable Communities. This – as you know – in an unprecedented interagency partnership to incorporate Smart Growth principles into the decisions and investments our agencies are making. Our housing investments will be made with consideration to our transportation investments – which will be made with consideration to our investments in environmental infrastructure – all in the name of building sustainable, healthy communities across the US. And we look forward to your contributions to that effort.

Another change is the growing interest in Smart Growth from some of our most underserved communities. People who have not typically had a voice on environmental and smart growth issues, are starting to make their voices heard. They, too, want communities that are environmentally sustainable and economically resilient. And that has been a two-way street. So much of the work that has been done on Smart Growth has focused on revitalizing struggling communities and providing new opportunities to the people in them. Smart Growth planners look at low-income communities facing disproportionate environmental, health and economic burdens, and they see the possibilities, not just the obstacles. I look forward to expanding that effort – and making sure that our Smart Growth efforts are benefiting the people in those neighborhoods. That, in turn, helps us to broaden our conversation on environmentalism, and helps give those communities a voice on environmental issues that affect them every day.

Finally, I’ve seen Smart Growth and sustainability principles taking hold in the rebuilding efforts in New Orleans. I grew up in the upper 9th Ward, and two weeks ago I made my first official visit there as EPA Administrator. While I was there, I visited some of the areas hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina, including the lower 9th Ward and my old neighborhood in Pontchartrain Park. I also went by our old house, which had been completely destroyed in the storm. My mother lost everything she had in the flooding – every picture, all of her clothes, every piece of furniture. Everything. And she was one of the lucky ones. She got out before the storm hit. She was not trapped on her roof or in the Superdome. She feels blessed not to have lost her life, or lost someone close to her.

My mother’s story is one of thousands that have been told over the years about the tragedy that hit this community. But today the stories are starting to change. More and more, they are stories of rebuilding, renewal and revitalization. Four years after Hurricane Katrina, rebuilding New Orleans has focused on making the city sustainable, and tapping the potential of a growing clean energy industry. People are building efficient homes, riding hybrid buses, installing solar panels and working in green-collar jobs. In fact, the land our old house is sitting on was recently bought by developers. They are going to turn the whole area – my old neighborhood – into a sustainable community.

The techniques developed over the years in Smart Growth projects – techniques that are advanced year after year by winners of the National Smart Growth Achievement Awards – are techniques that are saving my city. They are giving it a second chance, and new hope. And that – really – is a story of hope for the entire nation. Because while New Orleans is a unique example, there are communities all over the country that need rebuilding.

Struggling auto communities are looking to revitalize old industrial sites, so they can bring jobs in and get toxic contamination out. Urban communities are looking at waterfront property that can be converted into homes for people of all income levels. Smart Growth can not only build those homes, but also use that development to protect the quality of the urban waters. And suburban communities are seeking strategies to increase transportation options, so that they can cut down on fuel usage and vehicle emissions, and create new economic possibilities for their people.

In this defining moment for our environment and our economy, Smart Growth has a very, very important role to play. We have a vision of American communities that are clean, healthy, environmentally responsible and economically resilient. Your leadership brings us closer to realizing that vision, and helps everyone – from government and business to everyday citizens – take part in addressing the environmental and economic challenges we face as a nation.

Congratulations again to our honorees. We have important work to do at an important time for our nation. I look forward to your partnership as we move into a Smart, sustainable future. Thank you very much.