Tuesday, October 21, 2014

No Quick Fixes for Sustainable Communities

Posted: Wednesday, October 15, 2014 3:13 pm | Updated: 4:50 pm, Wed Oct 15, 2014.
By Andrea Hauser, Associate Editor
A New Approach to City Streets
Pedestrian and bicycle traffic creates safer, more vibrant city streets.
Sustainability is a popular catchphrase in cities across the country, but implementing the change needed to become more sustainable communities is challenging work with few quick fixes.
That was a recurring message at the 2014 Growing Sustainable Communities Conference, held Oct. 7-8 in Dubuque, Iowa. The conference drew approximately 400 attendees from 100 different cities in 21 states.
Creating a restoration economy was the focus of author and consultant Storm Cunningham’s presentation, Revitalizing Places in Broken Times.
For much of human history, Cunningham said, we have been in an adaptive conquest mode, or adapting the environment to our needs. That conquest has brought us to the point that scientists call the Anthropocene Period, where human impact on earth dominates everything. With no corners of the Earth left to conquer and adapt, and no new resources to draw from, adaptive conquest is not sustainable for humans’ long-term success – and survival – on the planet.
Adaptive renewal is a better option, Cunningham said, because it means we’re “adapting to our adaptations … and the good news about this is you can’t do too much adaptive renewal.”
While some constituents might react negatively to the word “sustainability,” Cunningham said communities should reframe the issue as an opportunity to build or restore a part of the community together. This can also help them identify and engage the “fixers,” or community members who can help make the projects happen.
“Focus on activities that bring people together naturally,” he said. “People love making things better, they love bringing dead things back to life.”
Communities also should be sure to find projects that work best for them, not necessarily copying a project from another city or town.
Creating local impact by changing the way citizens travel was the focus of Gil Penalosa’s presentation.
If cities want to improve their sustainability, transportation is a great place to start, since streets make up 70-90 percent of many communities’ public space. How those streets are used, though, says a lot about the individual community’s priorities, he added.
Citing Amsterdam and its biking and pedestrian culture, Penalosa gave one example of how the city prioritizes its traffic after a snowstorm – sidewalks are cleared first, bicycle lanes second and streets last.
“Then everybody walks, bikes and it makes a lot of sense,” he said.
And as urban populations continue to increase, efficient and clean transportation will be a top priority, Penalosa said, adding “it’s not about engineering or science, it’s about people, how do we want to live? We need to recreate the cities.”
Safety is a top priority for pedestrians and bicyclists, so reducing the speed limit and creating designated bike paths, and a biking network throughout the community, are key steps in changing how people travel.
Creating public spaces around those transportation networks also is a key component, because it creates a destination within the community and makes the space more safe with shops, lighting and other people, Penalosa said, adding “we need to dignify the pedestrian. We need to dignify the cyclist.”
“Citizens pay us every other week to make things better, not to find 20 different reasons why we can’t,” he added. “We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking when we created them, we’ve got to be bold.”
Cities that focus their building around people and creating a better quality of life will be the most economically competitive and able to retain the best citizens, Penalosa said, adding that “general interest must prevail over the particular. If you want change to be unanimous, you have to water down change so much it’s not change anymore.”