No Quick Fixes for Sustainable Communities

Speakers Say Restoring Cities Requires Transformative Change

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Storm Cunningham is CEO of ReCitizen, L3C.

Gil Penalosa is executive director of the Canadian nonprofit 8-80 Cities.

Posted: Wednesday, October 15, 2014 3:13 pm

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.

Twenty-three breakout sessions gave attendees an opportunity to learn about how specific communities and companies created sustainable change, and everyone was encouraged to continue the effort during the conference’s two lunchtime keynote sessions.

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.”

Watershed or building restoration projects are examples of adaptive renewal, Cunningham said, and “I have yet to hear anyone say we’re doing too much of that water restoration project, the water is too clean. Or, there’s too much community revitalization, the quality of life and economy are going through the roof!”

A restoration economy harnessing adaptive renewal includes projects such as restoring ecosystems, watersheds, coasts, brownfields and fisheries. It also includes infrastructure renewal and catastrophe reconstruction, and it’s easy to measure the results of these projects, Cunningham said, citing his work with the state of Montana, restoring old mining sites and rivers. The state found that for every $1 million it put into restoration/revitalization projects, the return was more than 31 high paying jobs and more than $2.5 million back into the economy.

“And making Montana a lot healthier and wealthier to boot,” Cunningham added. “We need to be rebuilding in such a way that shows we’re planning to stick around.”

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.

“People just want to write a check, it’s a consumer approach to revitalization,” he said. “Let me just buy something and forget the process.”

But by focusing on the process and bringing fixers and city efforts together, communities are showing their confidence in the future, Cunningham said.

“Take revitalization seriously, it’s the largest, most important global profession,” he said. “Everything is connected, there’s no such thing as something that only has local impact.”

Creating local impact by changing the way citizens travel was the focus of Gil Penalosa’s presentation.

The former commissioner of Parks, Sport and Recreation for the city of Bogota, Colombia, Penalosa now works with cities around the world as the executive director of 8-80 Cities, a Canadian non-profit.

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.”

The first question to ask is whether your city is building streets for cars, or helping build community, Penalosa said, by creating spaces that are safe for its most vulnerable members.

“What if everything that we did in all of our cities had to be safe for an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old? Then we would be creating sustainable communities for all,” Penalosa said. “Right now we’re building cities as if everyone is 30 years old and athletic.”

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.”

While some might complain about spending money on this different transportation infrastructure, Penalosa pointed out that “if we didn’t have roads, you wouldn’t see cars either.

“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.”

As the people responsible for implementing change, Becca Cottrell, a recycling educator in Peoria Co., Ill., said she enjoyed attending her third GSCC to learn from other communities and be reminded that everyone is facing similar challenges.

“No matter how many times you hear that, it just validates what you’re doing,” she said.

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