Faces of Public Health: Q&A with Chris Zimmerman

Feb 28, 2014, 1:35 PM


As the demand for walkable communities keeps growing, experts are moving from asking “If they build it, will they come?” to questioning how to fund the new developments, as well as keeping our eyes on issues such as transit, affordability and improving population health. As of January sharing best practices for those and many other issues is the job of Chris Zimmerman, who recently joined the staff of Smart Growth America as Vice President for Economic Development, following a very long stint as a member of the Arlington County Board in Virginia. Before his post in Arlington, Zimmerman was Chief Economist and Committee Director for Federal Budget and Taxation at the National Conference of State Legislatures. In his new role, Zimmerman will focus on the relationships between smart growth strategies and the economic and fiscal health of communities.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Zimmerman soon after he landed in his new office.

NewPublicHealth: What did you do before joining Smart Growth America?

Chris Zimmerman: For the last 18 years I’ve been a member of the Arlington County Board, the governing body of Arlington County, Virginia, an urban county of about 220,000 people right next to Washington D.C. The county functions as a comprehensive local government, with functions from school funding to land use and development to standard municipal functions such as parks and recreation, public safety, waste removal and managing public infrastructure. We don’t run the schools, but the funds for the schools are part of the county budget, at a cost of a little more than $1 billion annually.

Arlington County has become a model for transit-oriented development that is studied by folks around the country and even around the world, particularly because of the way the county has chosen to develop around the Metro system. That includes the initial commitment to be involved in Metro Rail, to fund underground Metro stations and then to focus development around them, beginning even before the ideas of the vocabulary of Smart Growth and urbanism had really gotten started, decades ago.

Prior to serving on the county board, I served on the county’s planning commission and a number of other commissions. So I’ve had about 20 to 25 years of involvement in the development of every aspect of the community, including housing, planning development and economic development, and even agencies such as the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which runs Metro Rail and Metro Bus and every other regional transportation planning body there is here in Washington. I was involved in a lot of regional transportation issues that obviously were fundamental to our county because of the way we chose to develop and because of where we’re located. There are seven crossings of the Potomac River and five of them go through Arlington, so although there are a couple hundred thousand people in Arlington, there’s a million and a half or so in northern Virginia and large numbers of them go through Arlington every day.

NPH: What is the scope of your role at Smart Growth America and what changes might you bring to the organization?

Zimmerman: I’m involved in a range of different issues, but in particular focusing on those issues that are the fiscal and economic dimension of the issues around Smart Growth, sustainability and land use planning—issues that are at the heart of the organization’s mission.

NPH: What are the economic issues that come to the fore as we move toward a smarter growth era?

Zimmerman: A lot of people think about Smart Growth issues in terms of transportation, traffic congestion, and air and water pollution. They may even think about it in terms of health issues like obesity and all those are clearly important issues related to Smart Growth. The dimension that I’m particularly focusing on has to do with how these issues affect municipal budgets and overall economic performance.

The kind of spread-out, sprawl development that we’ve been doing in the United States for about 60 years or so now turns out to have quite a negative impact on government in terms of costs for infrastructure, for ongoing services and also on the revenue side.

What we’ve learned is that Smart Growth-patterned development saves a lot of money because for one thing you’re not paving as many roads, and you spend less on water and sewers which are very costly to provide, both to install in the first place and then to operate and maintain. Even things such as fire services—how many fire stations you need and what’s the coverage of each fire station to get reasonable response time—and police and school buses and snow plowing and a whole range of things that add up, turn out to be very costly when you’re using a very dispersed pattern of development.

Similarly, on the revenue side it turns out that in many cases the shiny new shopping center on the edge of town that has a big box retailer may seem like it’s producing a lot of revenue, but when you actually add up the number of acres that it chews up and all that has to be supported, it’s actually not necessarily providing more revenue compared to say, your old Main Street where you may have some tired, old building that turns out to be producing more revenue per acre, often by a large order of magnitude, than the new thing that was developed.

A lot of this hasn’t been well understood, even by people who get a lot of the other points about Smart Growth and the importance of development patterns to sustainability and other issues. It’s still an area that needs a lot more elaboration and that is my focus.

NPH: What are your goals for Smart Growth America?

Zimmerman: I think that increasingly we’re seeing the focus of activity moving to some degree to the state level but especially to the local and regional level. The federal government still plays an important role, but there isn’t anything like the expectations in the past for the federal government’s role in helping fix problems. The federal government has been cutting back on funds, and in many cases state government and been cutting back as well and localities and regions have found themselves kind of on their own and needing to find ways to innovate. They’re looking at new ways to capture value and they’re looking for new kinds of partnerships to find creative ways to meet their challenges.

Now at the same time, a lot of the issues that have been the mission of Smart Growth are now things that the market is demanding. At one time, for instance, the question was whether you get people to ride transit. Well that’s not the question anymore. People really want to ride transit. Now the question is whether you supply enough to meet the demand when it comes to living in urban areas, whether they’re newly urbanized areas that might be in the suburbs or restored downtown locations on Main Streets in big and small cities.

That is something for which there is very high demand in every real estate market pretty much around the country, and the demographic changes that are going on are clearly driving a lot of this. While there still are people who want to live in the post-World War II drivable suburb, there is a lot more of that supply than there is demand to meet it and there’s a lot less supply than can meet the demand for walkable urban environments. This is what the market is driving and local governments need to respond and so they’re asking how to implement it and make it work. That’s where Smart Growth America I think can really come in to help folks accomplish things they’re trying to do that require policy changes at the local level. And that’s an area where I think I bring experience because I worked on these issues at the local level for so many years.

But how do you bring all these together, whether it’s transportation infrastructure, planning for multi-modal solutions, integrating transportation with land use, gearing your economic development efforts toward the kind of community that you want and the kind of demands that you’re seeing in the market? All these things, including affordable housing, are the nuts and bolts that you have to find ways to put together really at the local level and so Smart Growth America is focusing more and more on that kind of grassroots local level. Working with, for instance, local elected officials. We have a local leaders council that was set up about a year and a half ago. I was one of the original members as an elected official. It has grown tremendously in its first year and a half. It started with about 25 of us and it’s up over 125 now.

Local businesses and developers are interested in building the sort of mixed use projects that are needed. That focus I think is important in bringing together people from the policy side to the private sector side to the broader communities in a way that can allow workable solutions that can gain political support, public support and support in the market to be financed and actually brought to completion. You have to bring all those together and I think that that’s some of the most important work that Smart Growth America is doing now and that I’m very excited about being involved with.

>>Bonus Content: Learn more about Smart Growth with this NewPublicHealth infographic.


This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.