Sure, we COULD put a sidewalk here. But then the communists would win!

The EPA on Monday announced 32 cities that were selected for its Sustainable Communities Building Blocks program. The program provides technical support for communities to encourage more sustainable development, including transportation planning that makes it safer for people to walk or bicycle if they choose.

Midwest cities selected were Bemidji, Minnesota; Muskegon, Michigan; Lincoln, Nebraska; Wichita, and St. Louis.

Smart growth, sustainable planning — whatever you want to call it — tends to fly under the radar when we talk about energy use. In the United States, 2/3 of the oil we consume goes toward transportation. While improving cars’ fuel efficiency is an important goal, it’s much easier to reduce that oil consumption by making it possible for people to take fewer trips by car in the first place.

What’s more, people want walkable communities. A recently released survey by the National Association of Realtors found that 77 percent of potential home buyers want to live in a neighborhood with sidewalks and pedestrian-friendly features, and half would prefer to live in an area with a mix of housing and businesses. Those types of neighborhoods are in short supply, and other studies have found that homes in walkable areas hold their value better than those in sprawling, car-centered development.

So the government is helping local communities give people what they want, and the end result is decreased dependence on oil. Who could possibly be opposed to such a thing?

Why, the Tea Party, of course.

Mother Jones magazine reported back in November on how Tea Party activists have been fighting mundane community improvement programs, fearing that they are a communist plot to drive us into “human habitation zones.”

At the root of this plot is the admittedly sinister-sounding Agenda 21, an 18-year-old UN plan to encourage countries to consider the environmental impacts of human development. Tea partiers see Agenda 21 behind everything from a septic tank inspection law in Florida to a plan in Maine to reduce traffic on Route 1. The issue even flared up briefly during the midterms, when Colorado Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes accused his Democratic opponent of using a bike-sharing program to convert Denver into a “United Nations Community.”

Now, no one’s claiming that community planning alone can eliminate our dependence on oil. But it can help, and simultaneously make neighborhoods stronger and more livable, while enraging paranoid conspiracy theorists to great comical effect. There’s literally no downside.

Photo by League of Michigan Bicyclists via Creative Commons

Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.

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