Planners' Activism Spurred Congress to Act for Communities

Planners left an imprint on the work of the 116th Congress, winning more federal support for the planning and planning-related programs that underpin communities. This year congressional action was vital to supporting communities during a pandemic. Advocacy was more critical than ever.

Despite an unusually contentious and unpredictable two-year session, Congress acted on several long-time APA legislative priorities, giving planners more tools to lead local and regional action.

Behind these legislative successes are the planning advocates who spoke out, stood up, and claimed their spot at the table with legislators. Their persistence and countless emails, phone calls, tweets, meetings, and events caught the attention of key members of Congress and opened the door to federal action on APA’s planning agenda.

Here is a look back at the impact moments when planners’ activism mattered.


Digital Coast

A decade after the original legislation was first introduced in the House, the Digital Coast Act was signed into law by President Trump earlier this month. The legislation empowers planners and local leaders to better protect residents and property from storms, flooding, and sea level rise by making permanent the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Digital Coast Program.

In this podcast, APA Policy Director Jason Jordan and others discuss the partnership and advocacy that led to the enactment of the Digital Coast Act:

Support for the legislation was hard-fought. As a founding member of the Digital Coast Coalition, APA worked closely with partners to cultivate legislative champions in Congress to secure final passage of the bill. Advocates helped push the Digital Coast Act across the finish line in November when they called on House members to pass the bipartisan bill.

Land and Water Conservation Fund

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) — a long time APA priority — was permanently reauthorized and permanently and fully funded in the 116th Congress in the Great American Outdoors Act, giving planners access to a new and reliable source of funding for park and recreation-related planning and capital projects.

The overwhelmingly bipartisan action on LWCF in 2019 and again in 2020 marks the end of a legislative journey that spanned many congressional sessions. Through APA’s work in the LWCF and Urban Parks Coalitions and targeted advocate outreach, planners helped secure dedicated federal funding for parks, at least 40 percent — or $360 million — of which flows annually to state and local parks initiatives.



Communities — and the planners who support them — scored an early and welcome win in 2020 when Congress passed the mammoth CARES Act bill, providing immediate relief to states and communities facing unexpected coronavirus costs and steep declines in revenue. While the legislation ultimately fell short in several ways, the CARES Act helped to protect renters and homeowners by providing housing assistance; addressed access and mobility concerns with emergency assistance for transit agencies; and helped strengthen the fiscal stability of local governments by creating a relief fund for state and local governments and liquidity support for the municipal bond market, all moves that APA supported.

After months of negotiation and debate, Congress recently enacted another major relief bill. This measure was combined with an omnibus spending bill. The legislation provided additional relief and ensures federal programs are funded through the end of the fiscal year. The absence of new local and state government funding in the bill was a missed opportunity. More critical work remains to be done on stimulus and recovery legislation in the 117th Congress.

At a time when uncertainty engulfed us all, planning advocates showed their resilience and strength, turning to advocacy with impressive numbers to secure the funding required to keep essential services running. They shared their stories, wrote letters, and digitally met with members of Congress to urge them to act.


America's Transportation Infrastructure Act

Planners scored a big win in July 2019 when the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee kicked off congressional reauthorization of the nation's surface transportation law with a unanimous, bipartisan vote to approve the America's Transportation Infrastructure Act. The first piece of a complex legislative puzzle, the bill emphasized planning, including support for MPOs, increased funding and flexibility for distribution of Transportation Alternative Program dollars, and support for pilot programs that examine the local impact and planning of autonomous vehicles. Most importantly, the Senate EPW legislation creates — for the first time — a new section on Climate Change.

Since 2019, planners have been hard at work urging action to reauthorize and reform the FAST Act. Planners carried this message virtually to Capitol Hill earlier this year in 183 meetings with members of Congress during the first-ever Digital Policy and Advocacy Conference.

House Action on Transportation Reform and Reauthorization

While Senate work on the transportation reauthorization continues, the House wrapped work on its bill and embraced top APA priorities in the process. The Moving Forward Act, the House’s version of a massive infrastructure stimulus package, put planning in the driver’s seat on climate action and advanced work on surface transportation in Congress.


Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) Act

APA’s housing priority gained traction early in 2020 before the pandemic changed everything. The APA-backed Yes In My Backyard Act — which encouraged communities to eliminate discriminatory land use practices and remove barriers to needed housing production — passed the House, advancing our housing reform agenda. While the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs has yet to act on this important legislation, planners laid the groundwork for future engagement with this committee by emphasizing what is at stake if the status quo remains.

Looking Ahead to the 117th Congress

2021 will be a critical year for planners and the communities we serve. As communities begin to emerge from pandemic lockdowns, the work of recovering, rebuilding, and reinventing will be the focus driving much of what we planners do, including the priorities we choose to champion in Congress.

Your continued advocacy and outreach to members of Congress will once again be critical for advancing planning’s recovery agenda.

Be Part of the Action

Join the Planners’ Advocacy Network

APA’s network of planning advocates is working to shape federal and state outcomes.

Join Us Today

Top image: U.S. Capitol with Christmas tree. Wikimedia Commons photo by Canonone1777 (CC BY-SA 3.0).

About the Author
Emily Pasi is APA's public affairs manager.

December 29, 2020

By Emily Pasi