Mayors and town managers in very small towns have much to worry about. Should they also worry about the environment?
The environment can really be intimately linked with the success of a place. We’ve seen communities across the country that are dealing now with decades of past industrial contamination for sites that have now been taken out of productive use. So not only does the community have a potential health risk, but all the areas surrounding it is now less appealing for people to move into and to develop and create a vibrant community. People also really value having clean water, having a place to go and have a picnic by the riverside or by a lake. And if that water’s not clean, and the community doesn’t value what they have as their natural asset, then the town isn’t going to grow and prosper as much. So we found that when communities recognize that having clean air, having clean water, having cleaned up contaminated sites in their communities – they can really come together and have the economic revitalization that they are looking for.
Does EPA have a role in that even for the smallest of towns?
We do. We work with a lot of small communities. None are too small, really. We find that every town has natural assets that are important to protect. Obviously, we all need clean drinking water. We all breathe the air, we all have rivers and lakes and streams in our communities that we want to keep clean.
Do you actually help fund when infrastructure has to be replaced?
Often, we can help fund the planning of infrastructure. The Environmental Protection Agency in general funds the state revolving funds, which can fund clean drinking water and waste-water infrastructure. We also have a lot of money that can help communities plan for new roads, new streets, where to put housing. Other federal agencies or other funding sources even local sources can be used to help put that in the ground.
Does a town need a sophisticated grants writer to tap into that money or is it a friendly process?
It depends on which process you’re talking about. The Office of Sustainable Communities where I work has some technical-assistance programs that are not grant programs and don’t have the same sort of requirements. Some of our programs only require a two-page letter of interest to indicate what the challenges are that the community is facing and what they’d like to do to try to overcome them, and how EPA might be able to help. Every program is different in terms of what’s required, but there certainly are some that are very accessible to communities with low capacity. Because we recognize that when we’re trying to reach a small community, [lack of resources] can be one of the biggest hurdles to getting them the help that they need.
What would you like small town leaders to think more about?
Something that not everyone thinks about all the time is how connected all the decisions that we make are, about development. And so when we’re making decisions about where to put housing, for example, and what kind of housing to put there, are we thinking about the kind of road infrastructure that’s going to need to serve it? The kind of water infrastructure that will need to serve it? How much it will cost to bus students to school when the housing goes there? It’s all really connected and it’s all part of one large economic picture for a small town. And so making very thoughtful choices about where and how development occurs can be really important for the long-term sustainability of a place.
Aging infrastructure is a big concern around the country.
I think everyone needs to be concerned about the state of repair of their infrastructure and making sure that they have the resources and the capacity to maintain what it is that they’re building long term – including repair and maintenance – because certainly when we don’t maintain our infrastructure we can see problems occur of all types.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about your office?
We’re an office here to help communities who want to learn how to grow and build their communities to be economically vibrant. To be walkable, bike-able, great places to live for communities, and we help in all areas. We have a number of resources for communities that are looking to evaluate whether their codes and policies are in line with their goals, and we’ll help them get to where they want to be … to take a look at other examples of communities that are trying to do great things and lessons learned from across the country. As I said, we have our technical-assistance program where we can help communities that are really grappling with more difficult issues.