Spring Remembrances and Upcoming Presentations by MZ Strategies, LLC

We see daily the highs and lows that our nation continues to experience in advancing equity, affordable housing, and inclusive communities. Despite the unexpected flurries, devastating storms, and unpredictable temperatures we face today in our work of creating strong, prosperous and resilient communities, there remains truth in Reverend Dr. King’s famous quote, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

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The Amazing Resiliency of America's Cities

While we are witnessing the rise of urban bike paths, shared use mobility options, and a renaissance of housing and retail in our cities. These factors came into play through changes in policy, land use, and markets that have taken decades to develop and implement. Setting the table for change takes time. But once the ingredients are in place, change can happen quickly leading to gentrification pressures not previously imagined.

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Mapping America's Transportation Transformation

Throughout 2014, MZ Strategies conducted a national study to assess and map the key trends influencing transportation reform, particularly those occurring at the community level in which changing market factors played a key role. What we found is that in communities large and small, public leaders, community advocates, business leaders and entrepreneurs and philanthropy are working to transform how transportation serves their community. We've created a new webpage to share key documents from the Transportation Transformation project, including the recent Final Report providing key recommendations to funders and advocates seeking to reform transportation in their community.

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How Innovative MPOs are Changing the Face of Transportation Planning

Earlier today, Transportation for America launched The Innovative MPO -- a new report written by MZ Strategies, LLC that spotlights the variety of ways that metropolitan planning organizations are working to make transportation work better for the communities they serve.

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Acting Locally Requires Care and Feeding

Local transportation advocacy is a long-term commitment. Financially, that can be a challenge to sustain. Community organizing is a tough but vital job. Equally important is the ability to build technical capacity so they can be effective and informed. While it’s never easy for non-profits to raise sufficient funds, those organizations working on transportation or planning issues have an especially tough time. Let’s be honest, when asked to choose between an environmental cause like saving the polar bears, or a social cause like feeding the homeless, most people go with their heart. Streetcars, bike lanes, and mixed-use communities are also lovable, but to a much more limited subset of the population. (Photo credit: Twin Cities LISC)

 

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Five Years of Federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities

Earlier this week, and without any fanfare, the Federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities turned five. This anniversary is a bittersweet one for me. I was incredibly honored to serve as the Deputy Director for the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities (now the Office of Economic Resilience) at HUD to help stand up this historic effort. With new leadership at HUD, DOT and EPA, its time to weigh in and make the case for sustained government collaboration. We need efforts like the Partnership for Sustainable Communities -- not to grow government, but to make sure that we're recalibrating programs and policies so that they meet the new challenges and opportunities of a 21st Century America.  

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Transportation Innovations: Using the Tools We Have, Getting the Tools We Want

Arlington's Colombia Pike brings together active and inclusive public spaces with new investments in better transportation service. Photo: M Zimmerman, 2013

Arlington's Colombia Pike brings together active and inclusive public spaces with new investments in better transportation service. Photo: M Zimmerman, 2013

Recently, I was asked to guest blog for Living Cities and spotlight recent reports by MZ Strategies to help local communities use existing federal transportation funds to support equitable development. My favorite projects are those where I can engage with clients to find tangible ways to align existing funding programs and policies with local or regional goals.  Through this work, I’ve encountered both exciting new strategies and the depressing realities that arise when trying to unlock the funding toolkit.

Too many metropolitan planning organizations still are not able to directly fund projects or support local innovation but instead rely upon the state which adds cost, complexity, time – and that is assuming it gets built. Too many equity issues are being put aside over concerns regarding short term costs – creating bigger costs in the long-term resulting from regional disparities or environmental justice legal concerns. And too many public agencies are afraid to innovate, especially with private sector partners. Politically, it is often easier to spread peanut butter than to make strategic regional investments. These are hard challenges to overcome, but not impossible ones!

The reality is that we live in challenging times, with complex problems requiring complex solutions. Funding these solutions is not simple. But, it is possible if the investment is worthy of support. How do we get there? In some of the regions, such as Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Washington; and Kansas City, MO part of the answer lies in public leadership – both of elected officials and of professional planning staff – and part of it lies in the power of transparent and inclusive decision making. These regions have created, and are using, a robust set of metrics to prioritize investments and track performance.

With open data and a multitude of apps now allowing us to access the world in the palm of our hand, people have come to expect quick and easy access to information. We reward creativity. The public sector needs to be no different. For transportation projects, this means making available information and graphics that tell the story about winners, losers, costs and benefits. It also means we need to use all the tools at our disposal. This can take many shapes. In Seattle, a small portion of federal transportation funds are set aside to invest in local projects that help rural town centers and corridors. In Los Angeles, regional sales taxes are leveraging significant federal and private sector financing to accelerate the build out of their transit system. In Atlanta, the region has established Equity Target Areas using data on race, poverty and other indicators to prioritize transportation investments. In Dallas, tolling funds can help to supplement funding resources to both pay for transit and also to swap with federal funds to accelerate smaller-scale sustainable transportation projects.

As Congress considers the Obama Administration’s proposal for reauthorizing these transportation funding programs, and considers future funding levels and policy changes now is a good time to let your Senator or Congress person know what is working for you, and what needs to change to allow for more innovative projects and inclusive processes. At the same time, state legislatures around the country are wrapping up with many looking at how to fund transportation or what kinds of projects to prioritize. What if instead of business as usual, state legislators made their decisions based on return on investment, impact to economic competitiveness or alleviating regional disparities? Now is a good time for all of us to make our voices heard to get the tools we want, and make sure we’re using all the tools we have!

Springtime Happenings at MZ Strategies, LLC

It’s a busy time for the MZ Strategies team. We invite you to participate in a national survey on transportation reform, read the latest article from Founder and Principal, Mariia Zimmerman on the legacy of HUD's Sustainable Communities Initiative, and join us at some of the upcoming events around the country we'll be participating in to share our views on building thriving and inclusive communities. To learn more, check out our latest blog post!

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Finding Planning Inspiration on a Cold Winter Night

Much of the country has been in a brutal cold weather vice these past couple of weeks with no signs of warmth breaking though soon. At times like this, I’m inclined to grab a good book, a cup of hot tea and find someplace warm to hunker down. Luckily there are some great reads out there to cure the winter blues. Read my take a few of the notable new releases by F. Kaid Benfield, ITDP, Smart Growth America and SSTI.

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Celebrating the Meaning of Community this Holiday Season

It's the Holiday Season, a time when TV shows and classic movies remind us of the important things in life, notably that we are all connected and that one person’s actions can make a difference. Watch a few and you'll be reminded as I was that community is also an important part of the Christmas season, and we all play a role.

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Navigating the Regional Transportation Funding Maze

I’ve spent a fair amount of my “summer vacation” examining how metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) use their planning and programming tools to support livable communities. This is a question that a growing number of regions are interested in learning to help them make better investments with scarce public resources. While still far too opaque, best practices are emerging. MZ Strategies, LLC is involved with several efforts to help spread the word.

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In Successful TOD, it’s the Little Things That Count

Density without design may fail to generate anticipated return on investment  -- both in terms of creating new riders and in transforming neighborhoods. A common mistake for planners and transit officials is to pursue TOD projects with a belief that building near transit will automatically create significant new ridership and increased property values. Too little attention is paid to the smaller scale strategies that can help to make TOD a success. Included in this category are smaller scale strategies that focus on improving the safety, convenience, and feel of a place to signal that people are welcome and transit is a preferred way to travel. Apart from design, top of the list should be education and outreach to enlist those who would be your obvious allies if only they knew it. Included in this category are hotels and convention centers located near transit, as evidenced by my recent trip to Miami, Florida.

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