Are We There Yet? Creating Complete Communities for 21st Century America
We all remember being a child on what seemed like an endless journey to grandma’s house or the Grand Canyon and asking “Are we there yet?” In America’s cities and towns, we are having one of those “Are we there yet?” moments — although it seems the GPS is malfunctioning and we have lost the ability to chart a course toward our future.
What does “there” look like? How will we know when we are “there”? What are the critical investments we need to make in order to strengthen our regional economies and ensure that America remains globally competitive? What are the attributes of communities and regions that help the people who live and work there succeed? How can we ensure that every child – regardless of what zip code they are born into or the color of their skin — has access to opportunities to improve their lives and contribute to America’s prosperity?
America is confronting serious issues in this second decade of the 21st century: The gap between rich and poor continues to widen, the middle class is shrinking, and nearly one in four children live in poverty. At the same time, the U.S. is in a transitional period in our economy and our demographics are changing, presenting profound possibilities for creating a 21st century America that offers opportunities for all.
Reconnecting America believes that when communities — urban, suburban or rural — offer what people need, we begin to get closer to “there.” We see higher high school graduation rates, reduced rates of obesity and diabetes, and reduced traffic congestion and cleaner air. We see more people walking and biking and engaging in their communities and we see a reduction in crime. Our children live in safe and affordable housing, and we see citizens getting active in the democratic process and the creation of civic environments that foster more economic activity and jobs — which gives the U.S. an economic competitive advantage.
Some of these are measurable outcomes, some we only know when we see and experience them.
In the following chapters we lay out some fundamentals of daily life – how we live, how we work, how we move and how we thrive as individuals, as families, and as a part of communities. We have collected and analyzed data to develop original metrics, and we have studied the metrics others have developed, to come up with an analysis we believe can be useful for helping leaders in cities and regions track how close they are to “there.” We want to highlight some key features that will be described in greater detail throughout this report.
First, we are introducing two key terms: We envision creating “complete communities” across the country, places where people can live, work, move, and thrive in a healthier, more equitable, and more economically competitive way. We also write about “opportunity areas,” the places within our cities and regions where we can get a jumpstart on this vision.
Second, Reconnecting America has collected data to help all of us understand the existing conditions of our regions and to track progress at the regional level in all 366 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) in the country. A lot of work is underway by different organizations to measure progress at the neighborhood or even development scale. We believe regional measures can be very useful in capturing and compiling the impact of neighborhood change on regional performance. Though complete communities exist on a neighborhood scale, the benefits of complete communities are regional in nature because they produce better air quality, less congestion, lower obesity rates, reduced poverty, job growth — the list continues. Ultimately, efforts to improve individual neighborhoods must “trickle up” to change regional performance, or we’re not making a dent in the performance of our regions.
Third, we have graded every one of the 366 metro areas based on how they measure up to our vision, as detailed in the chapters entitled Living, Working, Moving and Thriving, with metro areas being graded on a curve against metro areas of a similar size. For instance, Altoona, Pennsylvania, is not measured against New York City, but against regions of similar size.
Finally, the narrative report describes real-life examples that we have collected — and in some instances that we have experienced firsthand — of leadership, innovation and collaboration occurring in all sorts of places and by all kinds of people. From Oklahoma City to Des Moines to Seattle, we have compiled stories that illustrate forward thinking with tangible outcomes — getting people to work, reducing obesity and engaging in a productive civic dialogue.
But there are more stories than we could include in this report, and some of these can be found at reconnectingamerica.org/arewethereyet. These stories and anecdotes aren’t tinged blue or red — these are stories of people of all political persuasions who are employing creativity, ingenuity and collaboration to make our cities and regions better places to live for everyone.
WHAT IS A COMPLETE COMMUNITY?
Our communities need basic elements to support economic opportunity and health for all people, regardless of income level, cultural background or political persuasion. In this report, Reconnecting America does not claim to have captured or addressed all of the complex – and sometimes intangible — elements that contribute to the quality and character of our communities, but we identify some essential elements that help transform our neighborhoods into complete communities.
These elements include a quality education, access to good jobs, an affordable roof over our heads, access to affordable healthy food and health services, the ability to enjoy artistic, spiritual and cultural amenities, access to recreation and parks, meaningful civic engagement, and affordable transportation choices that get us where we need to go.
Complete communities are inclusive, measured by how residents and workers benefit and not necessarily the shape or form they take, and may likely require other supportive assets we have not covered in this report.
What’s the difference between a “complete” community and an “incomplete” one? The metrics and the composite grades we have developed for every MSA in the country indicate whether one region, and the communities that comprise that region, is closer to being complete than another. A region with more As will have more of the components of a complete community than one with many Cs and Ds. The grades also give a sense of where the gaps are and help regional and city leaders focus resources and energy in the most productive places. “A Tale of Two cities” on the opposite page [available here] illustrates the case of two different regions — Greensboro, North Carolina, and Lincoln, Nebraska — and discusses how the history and context of these places contribute to the grades received.
WHAT IS AN OPPORTUNITY AREA?
To measure progress toward complete communities, we have identified neighborhoods in each region that we are calling “opportunity areas.” characterized by smaller blocks or moderate density housing or jobs, opportunity areas have some of the infrastructure in place to help get us “there” — neighborhoods that national research proves can lead to improved connectivity and increased rates of walking, biking, and transit use at the regional scale. While these places might lack other critical assets found in a complete community, such as parks, grocery stores, or a mix of housing choices, it is easier to transform an opportunity area into a complete community because the foundational elements or “bones” — such as street grid, water and sewer system, storm drainage, street lighting — are in place.
The good news is most regions — of all sizes — have opportunity areas in which to start creating complete communities. In our analysis of the 366 MSAs, only 49 do not have an opportunity area. That means just about every region in this country has a foundation upon which to start building a complete community. And those that don’t have an opportunity area (and even those that do) can get started by planning for neighborhoods with the fundamental characteristics of opportunity areas — streets that are safe and enjoyable for walking and homes, shops, jobs and other services clustered in hubs of community activity.
WHY THE FOCUS ON FIXED-GUIDEWAY TRANSIT?
Few of us live in the same neighborhood where we work, go to the doctor, or run our daily errands. In many cases our jobs, schools, family, recreation and places of worship can be miles away. That distance makes having quality public transportation choices an important part of the equation of building complete communities. In addition to having a well-maintained and efficient road network, we need to know that when we step to the curb to wait for a bus or train, it will show up often, on time, with a clearly marked route and, ultimately, take us where we need to go.
Reconnecting America is a strong proponent of all types of transportation and believes that taking the bus, driving a car, riding the train, bicycling and walking all need to be accommodated and supported in our regional transit systems. That said, for the purposes of the metrics developed for this report, we are primarily measuring how well connected we are to our “fixed-guideway” transit.
“Fixed-guideway” transit describes public transportation that operates on a track (streetcar, light rail, or commuter rail), or within a lane of its own that won’t get stuck in traffic (bus rapid transit and ferry service). In this report we measure performance in “station areas,” or neighborhoods located within a half-mile of fixed-guideway transit.
Several key issues necessitated our focus on fixed-guideway transit. First, no national source of information exists for bus lines, even high-frequency bus routes. In many regions it can be difficult to find even a bus map. This makes it incredibly difficult to gather quality bus data for every one of the 366 metro areas in the country.
Because of the challenges of accessing bus data, we have utilized the data captured through our opportunity areas analysis to evaluate how our 366 metro areas support walking and biking and transit. We have also evaluated the extent to which workers already take transit to work. We acknowledge this approach is insufficient, and we are hoping this report can serve as a national call for a coordinated effort among transit agencies across the country to make their bus data readily available in a consistent format so that we capture the full dynamics of transit systems in different regions.
Second, it is the permanent nature of fixed-guideway transit investments that provide assurances to developers that the infrastructure will be in place over the long term, whereas bus routes can be easily changed
— moved to another place or the frequency of service reduced. The permanent investment in fixed-guideway transit has significantly greater potential to catalyze the real estate market once the infrastructure is in place, strengthening the promise of potential profits for developers, and thereby spurring reinvestment and change in the community.
Moreover, because transit traveling on a fixed-guideway is generally able to avoid traffic, and has a clearly marked route, it is perceived as more reliable than regular bus service, which has to contend with the same congestion issues we face in our cars.
Building fixed-guideway transit is costly, however, and many regions will not be able to afford this investment for decades to come — if ever. Moreover, in many places, bus lines in mixed traffic are just as likely as light rail or streetcar to offer a predictable, comfortable transportation alternative.
In this report, we assert that, despite its potentially transformative impact on regions, fixed-guideway transit is not needed to create a complete community. Rather, our nation should focus on developing clear regional measures to evaluate how different modes of public transportation service support our communities and economies, including local bus lines.
In the current polarized national political climate where every decision seems to turn into a vitriolic ideological battle, we have lost sight of the big picture. While mired in a political system predicated on short-term gains and long-term denial, it is extremely challenging to chart a long-term vision for our cities and regions that adequately addresses critical issues such as the needed recalibration of our regional economies and workforce so that we can be out in front of global market forces.
We need a vision that provides children and families living on the economic margins with the support systems they need to improve their lives. Such investments across our country not only make economic sense but will serve all of us in the long term.
But don’t just take Reconnecting America’s word for it: Throughout this report we explore a multitude of perspectives on the value of building complete communities. We share examples of how people of all political leanings are deploying innovative strategies to advance and accelerate progress on issues related to Living, Working, Moving and Thriving. And, as the data illustrates, people are voting with their feet, moving to towns and cities and suburban communities where it’s easier and more affordable to get around and access daily needs.
For Reconnecting America, this is the start of an ongoing dialogue to bring to life what “there” looks and feels like in all kinds of places. How do we know we are moving in the right direction? How will we know when we are there? Let’s work together and make it a national project to build complete communities that will strengthen the promise of America’s future. Join us.