The new regional sustainability plan will help our communities embrace necessary change.

You have just been dropped into a sustainable community. What do you see that’s different from the community you know today? You may see renewable energy for electricity and transportation, compact development, and clean water and air. As you walk past rainwater-friendly sidewalks and passive solar homes, hearing the hum of electric vehicles, you think of the intangibles. You think about economic sustainability and quality of life. Judging by the arts district and what they have lined up for tonight, things look pretty good.

Now you are back in your community. Can you build a path to sustainability? That is what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is asking of Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties in the Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant program.

An Interagency Partnership

There is no question that communities need to make different choices in order to become sustainable. Our region’s leaders must consider development, transportation, housing and energy-efficiency decisions as interdependent—not mutually exclusive. That may seem like a no-brainer to the layperson, but typically, the transportation department is not the land use department, nor the housing department.

By creating the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, the federal government has provided leadership in building these interagency partnerships. Through this program, HUD, the DOT and the EPA collaborate regularly to ensure their policies and programs align with agreed-upon criteria for sustainability. To guide its work, the Partnership developed six livability principles:

Out of this partnership, the HUD Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant Program was born. It empowers jurisdictions to work collaboratively to achieve these principles of livability and provides a special emphasis on equity, inclusion and access to opportunity.

Sustainable Communities in Central Illinois

In February of 2011, the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission was one of 45 agencies in the nation that entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the amount of $1.2 million to identify the path to sustainability through regional planning, the development of a small business incubator, and the creation of new partnerships inclusive of those traditionally underrepresented in regional planning processes. This is a three-year planning program for Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties that will be complete in February of 2014.

Local partners in this effort formed the Heart of Illinois Sustainability Consortium, which includes local housing authorities, units of government, the Heart of Illinois Continuum of Care, Peoria Park District’s Youth Outreach Program, ArtsPartners of Central Illinois, Peoria Opportunities Foundation, Illinois Central College, Economic Development Council for Central Illinois and the University of Illinois Extension Office. This sustainability planning initiative is known locally as Brilliant.Bright.Community.

Exploring the Plan

The Brilliant.Bright.Community regional sustainability plan focuses on a variety of community elements, including land use, transportation, environment, economic development, arts and culture, and food availability. Members of the consortium are leading planning efforts in their respective subject areas. ArtsPartners, for example, is leading arts and cultural planning, while the Peoria Housing Authority is the leader in housing planning. The unknown factors being explored by program partners include:

Community planning is not the same today as it was even 10 years ago. With digital mapping and modeling software, the consortium is looking to hold a scenario-planning event in the spring of 2013. At this event, regional leaders—elected officials, nonprofits, governmental staff and other neighborhood champions—will be invited to work collaboratively on regional development scenarios, both rural and urban. These scenarios will then be plugged into models that will provide projections on infrastructure costs, traffic congestion, fuel consumption, access to jobs, and much more. This scenario-planning process can serve as a guide by providing a big-picture, regional approach to development.

Small business is a significant segment of the economy, and Peoria County is working to be proactive to support this area of economic development. In addition to regional planning through Brilliant.Bright.Community, Peoria County is exploring ways to create a small business incubator, with an emphasis on assisting minority- and women-owned businesses. This incubator, referred to as the Peoria Area Opportunity Center, would accelerate the development of successful entrepreneurial companies by providing hands-on assistance and a variety of business and technical support services during those vulnerable early years.

The main goal is to produce businesses that are financially viable when they “graduate” from the incubator, usually within two or three years after entering the program. This incubator would serve as a catalyst to help ignite the goals of the regional planning initiative by supporting underserved populations in business development from a centralized location. It will improve our region’s economic competitiveness by taking advantage of the skills and capabilities of populations that have historically been largely underutilized.

Are We Open to Change?

Now, recall the differences you experienced between the sustainable community and your community as it is now. To close the gap in those differences, we all need to be open to doing things a bit differently. Things like how and where we shop, what foods we buy, and where we live and work. Even how we play will need to shift to more sustainable practices.

On the other hand, if our region’s leaders can truly benefit from sustainability planning, perhaps the change will happen behind the scenes, so gradually and so naturally, that the average person might not even notice. Perhaps it’s already happening. Someday, you may just find yourself walking past a rain garden to a local farmers market with a free outdoor jazz concert after a great day at the museum, thinking,“I like what we’ve done in this community.” iBi