In 1996, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) started it’s smart-growth program, "smart growth was really a peripheral issue," says John Frece, director of the EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities. Today, he says, "it’s a mainstream issue."

The agency has seen a "huge increase in demand" from communities across the country that want to better align themselves with smart-growth principles. To better meet that demand, the EPA has launched two new programsSmart Growth Implementation Assistance (SGIA) and Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities.

Under SGIA, the EPA will work with four or five communities for a year to 18 months, to develop new smart-growth solutions to challenges those communities are facing. Once solutions are found, the agency can then offer the case study's findings to other communities facing the same challenges, Frece says. "We’re looking for a cutting-edge issue that will tell us something that we can implement in communities around the country."

Under the Building Blocks program, the EPA will work through contractors and cooperative agreements with nonprofit organizations to help communities implement proven smart-growth solutions to challenges they’re facing, which might include anything from the need for more varied housing options to stormwater management through green streets. "We don’t tell them what to do, but we help them plan and answer their questions," Frece says.

While the projects only have a budget of $1.5 million, the agency estimates it will be able to assist as many as 125 communities, thanks to the fact that for the majority of the cases, the program will rely on helping communities find solutions through techniques that have already been found effective in other cities and towns. Because many communities face common problems, Frece says, they can share common "tools" to find answers.

Within these two programs, some of the EPA's tools will include walking audits, to assess how pedestrian-friendly a community is and improve sidewalks and streets; helping local governments identify and remove elements of their permitting processes that inhibit sustainable design and green building; helping communities determine the best areas for growth in terms of value, opportunity, and environmental impact; and helping communities achieve better economic results from development projects and investments.

Claire Easley is a senior editor at Builder.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Greenville, SC.