ST. LOUIS, Mo. − With civil unrest after the Michael Brown shooting, legal challenges over discriminatory policing practices, and the contentious election of President Donald Trump all serving as unavoidable subplots, equity and inclusivity were reoccurring themes at the 16th annual New Partners for Smart Growth Conference.
While Trump's name was not uttered once during the opening plenary session, his perceived threat to the core values of many in the room was palpable.
"It's been a challenging couple weeks already for many of us in the sustainability field, ...with threats to our climate scientists, to our federal agency partners and to the basic human rights that we all hold dear," said Kate Meis, executive director of the Local Government Commission, organizers of the annual conference.
Meis called on the more than 1,000 attendees to stay actively involved in grass-root efforts and look to "sub-national leadership" for support in the continuing struggle to build a more just and equitable America while protecting future generations from the harsh economic and environmental consequences of climate change.
"Despite what some of the tweets we're reading might purport, ...60 percent of Americans favor smart growth," Meis said. "They prefer neighborhoods with a walkable mix of houses and stores, ...and for good reason. Smart growth not only addresses the major health and environmental challenges we face, but it also saves money."
She cited research that indicates smart growth practices save an average of 38 percent on the upfront costs of construction and infrastructure, and generate 10 times more revenue per acre than traditional suburban development. She said smart growth also saves 10 percent on the cost of police, fire and other services.
"Americans are with us on climate science as well," she added, noting a Gallop poll that found 64 percent of U.S. adults are concerned about the problem.
Meis said Canada is a good example of how provincial action can overcome a federal government that is hostile to environmental protections.
For 10 years under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Canadian government "muzzled climate scientists, reducing coverage of climate change more than 80 percent; canceled billions in federal dollars for climate funding; targeted environmental groups and pulled out of climate talks," Meis said. The result: some of the country's most oil-rich provinces passed carbon taxes and put limits on production from oil sands, among other environmental reforms.
"This would be the American equivalent of Texas passing a carbon tax," she said. "Change can happen and change will come."
She called on attendees to join committed groups throughout the country in working toward sustainability despite the new political realities.
"We don't have time to lead with our political, racial, sexual or religious differences. We will succeed by building partnerships, not walls, and by deepening our commitment to each other. That means standing up for our federal partners at U.S. EPA, whose jobs and funding are under threat; that means standing up for our Muslim friends and colleagues who are banned from traveling...."
"Our nation needs leadership from communities now more than ever," Meis said, "to continue to protect each others' rights and our hard-won environmental protections."
"Despite how divided we may sometimes feel, we're all in this together − rich or poor, North or South, red or blue − and we have a shared responsibility to protect our neighbors, our natural resources and the industries that energize our communities," she said.
In brief remarks, Lewis Reed, president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, said history is made by the masses, not by one individual person. He said "tens of thousands" attended the Women's March on St. Louis in concert with millions more around the world on the day after the inauguration.
"When I saw that, I saw history in the making. So I think we can come out of this stronger than when we went into it," he said.
"St. Louis was built by immigrants, for immigrants," Reed said to much applause, "and that's what America is made up of. That's our true strength. When we embrace our diversity from top to bottom... we have the opportunity to come together like never before."
Reed concluded his remarks by invoking the image of Dr. Martin Luther King. Had he stood by himself in Birmingham, Ala., Reed said, "he would have been just a man. But, because people showed up and because people believed in the vision, and because people committed to that vision, they were able to move America. And that's what we have an opportunity to do now."
Numerous workshops at the smart growth conference were dedicated to concepts of equitable development and environmental justice. One session dealt directly with the redevelopment efforts in Dellwood, a St. Louis suburb that experienced much of the damage caused in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting in neighboring Ferguson. Sustainable City Network will report on this and other smart growth conference sessions in the coming weeks.
A special project at this year's event is providing St. Louis-area high school students and their teachers with a role in several community-led smart-growth projects taking place before, during and after the conference. A crowdfunding campaign is under way to help pay for materials and transportation for youth involved in the projects.