There's an old joke that what the locals fear more than a federal government in disarray is a federal government that has its act together. Well, now the joke's being put to the test. At the plenary session of the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Seattle the other night, President's Obama's so-called Green Cabinet -- Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, and EPA Assistant Administrator Mathy Stanislaus, filling in for his boss Lisa Jackson -- presented the most cohesive vision of federal involvement in planning and development since the Johnson Administration 40 years ago.

"When it comes to housing, transportation, and environmental policy, it's time the federal government spoke with one voice," HUD Secertary Donovan said at the plenary.

The coordinated federal effort would have vast reach and billions of dollars in resources if it is successful. It takes at least three forms -- the creation of special offices on sustainable communities inside each of the three agencies; the addition or continuation of funding programs inside each agency; and an unusual level of coordination among the agencies on the sustainable communities effort.

At the plenary session Thursday night, HUD Secretary Donovan said that the fundamental problem to be attacked is "the fundamental mismatch between where we work and where we live." He also said the federal government would not try to create a top-down solution to the problem."This is not about telling localities how to do it, but about offering them resources and tools to help them realize their own vision, "Donovan said.

Each of the three announced or reaffirmed that their agency will be creating an office focusing on sustainabile and/or livable communities. These are:

• As expected, HUD will create an Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, overseen by Deputy Secretary Ron Sims, formerly King County executive in Seattle, and run by Shelley Poticha, formerly head of the Center for Transit-Oriented Development in the Bay Area and also a veteran of Calthorpe Associates.

• DOT will create an Office of Livable Communities and has proposed a $527 million budget for livable communities programs in the next federal budget.

• EPA's current Office of Smart Growth will be combined with other functions and morph into an Office of Sustainable Communities/

The major brainpower for the coordinated effort would appear to be located in HUD -- an unlikely place for policy innovation in recent administrations. Donovan, the former New York City housing commissioner, is viewed as one of the Obama Administration's brightest starts, whereas La Hood's appointment as DOT secretary was greeted with disappointed from smart growth advocates last year. As an elected local official, Sims implemented many of the most far-reaching smart growth efforts in the nation, and Poticha has been on the cutting edge of transit-oriented development policy efforts in the Bay Area.

In addition, Donovan selected Rafael Bostic from the University of Southern California's School of Planning Policy & Development as his Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research. This office within HUD has always been influential in federal policy, and Bostic is considered one of the nation's brightest young planning and housing researchers. (Full disclosure: I teach part-time in the same school as Bostic.)

Both La Hood and Donovan have repeatedly said they will seek to use their entire departmental budgets to promote sustainable communities. However, direct federal funding for these programs is increasing rapidly. In addition to La Hood's $527 million budget request, Donovan announced Thursday night a new $150 million sustainable communities planning grant program.

EPA's Stanislaus announced that the three agencies had selected five cities as national sustainable communities pilots. The only city in California on the list was National City, south of San Diego.

– Bill Fulton