A couple of weeks ago, Shelley Poticha, the Obama Administration's point person on smart growth, gave a high-profile talk to a big Urban Land Institute crowd in Los Angeles. Her message, plain and simple, was that it's time for what she called "alignment." 

As everybody knows, the federal government spends tons of money on all kinds of things associated with planning and development – highways, public transit, housing of all kinds, air and water quality regulation, economic development projects and on and on and on.  But nobody at the federal level thinks about how the funneling of all that money actually affects communities – which neighborhoods are strengthened, which are not, what the spatial pattern of spending is, whether all these funds are working at cross-purposes. The same is almost always true in states – especially here in California, where the state is now basically requiring locals to pursue smart growth while at the same time taking away funding for both redevelopment and public transit.

"We are actually talking about how we align and leverage and focus our monies into communities so that they are used more powerfully," Poticha told the ULI crowd. "So they are more effective and not just dribbled out into a bunch of stuff that doesn't add up to anything in particular."

Surely, this is planner Nirvana. For decades, planners have been talking alignment in one form or another, especially here in California.  We all know, for example, that it would be tremendously powerful to line up all state spending in pursuit of particular growth goals – spending transportation money only on projects that support an efficient regional growth strategy, for example – but it's been almost impossible to actually implement this. In Maryland, former Gov. Parris Glendening, the father of smart growth, proved that such alignment can be powerful – though fleeting if not accompanied by permanent institutional change. In California, SB 375 takes a baby step toward aligning regional land use strategies by mandating Regional Transportation Plans.

The same is true on the federal level – and the Obama Administration's alignment strategy is the very conscious realization of an alignment policy approach long advocated by Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program and other smart growth advocates in Washington.

But maybe it's worth asking one dangerous question: When you get right down to it, does anybody really want alignment?

It's an amusing old axiom to say that the only thing people fear more than a federal government in disarray is a federal government that knows what it's doing.  Logical as alignment may be, it's also scary – threatening everybody's status quo, even the pro-smart growth local officials who ought to benefit from it. And so it might not last long.

There are several reasons why alignment has never been politically popular in Sacramento or Washington. 

One is the natural inclination of lawmakers to focus on narrow issues one at a time. Even on the overarching issue of climate change and the pathbreaking SB 375, the Legislature has fallen into this trap. AB 32 calls for greenhouse gas emissions reduction across the board. Meanwhile, SB 375 charges the Air Resources Board with overseeing regional land use plans that reduce emissions from cars and light trucks.  And if you're a community that wants to combine your emissions reduction efforts – energy, building, land use – too bad. SB 375 only deals with emissions from cars and light trucks. So if you go 100 percent solar, for instance, but still don't knock a single inch off your VMT, you're saving the world according to AB 32 but you're still in violation of SB 375. 

A second is a tendency by even the most innovative bureaucracies to silo themselves and their work. The longer you work in any bureaucracy, the more narrowly you tend to define your job. 

The third – perhaps the most powerful – impediment to alignment is that the constituencies and stakeholders that surround an issue tend to take a narrow view as well. Highway folks lobby for highways. Transit folks lobby for transit. Housing folks lobby for money for housing. Air quality folks lobby for stronger air quality regulations. Stormwater folks lobby for stronger stormwater regulations.

Sometimes, the environmental advocates understand that money needs to back up regulation. So they might stretch themselves to lobby for housing or transportation money to be spent a certain way in order to help meet environmental goals. But in the end, their desire to care about this is limited. Environmentalists are environmentalists and regulators are regulators.  The bottom line is that they want regulations complied with, and they don't much care who foots the bill.

And lobbyists who focus narrowly on state and federal pots of money have even less motivation to think broadly. If you're a lobbyist for highway contractors – or for public transit contractors, for that matter – you're obviously not very interested in cross-cutting efforts that reduce the need for travel. You want more concrete poured, not less. If you're a lobbyist for housing – even affordable housing – you tend to think about money for housing. It takes a very broad-minded person to think about a poor or middle-income person's entire household budget and how public policy can reduce the need for travel as a way to increase money to pay the rent. Or, for that matter, whether people are willing to live in smaller places, which cost less money, if they are closer to work.

Then there's local government – which is usually where the alignment takes place. State and federal bureaucrats and their pots of money may be very compartmentalized, but typically local officials get creative. They sort through all those pots of money searching for money they can use to do what they want to do anyway. Want a new park but only have money for stormwater management? Build a big, grassy, water-permeable surface (i.e. a park). The local agenda is not always "aligned," but alignment is more likely to occur at the local level, since local officials deal with real communities and real neighborhoods where they – and their constituents – can see how the pieces fit together.

However, as you can imagine, local officials (and remember that I am one myself) kind of like the idea that they are the ones doing the aligning. It's one thing to say that you are cherry-picking state and federal funds to put something together. It's quite another to say that you can't put a project together unless you comply with the state and federal government's idea of how things get aligned, rather than your own.

The lesson here is probably to provide some flexibility within the alignment – and then institutionalize the alignment as much as possible before you leave office. Gov. Glendening's reforms in Maryland didn't stick because they weren't completely institutionalized and his successor didn't buy into them. So alignment may or may not work as a long-term planning and development strategy. But we in California would be well advised to figure out what Obama and Shelley Poticha mean by alignment and pitch our projects toward that notion over the next couple of years.