Sunday, March 23, 2008

Sustainable Brookline: Next Steps

The February 10th Sustainable Brookline Conference was a great beginning. Gathering together with a common purpose facilitated focused thinking on specific measures, as each group communicated their unique perspectives on potential sustainability measures. It was clear that much thought, discussion and hard work had gone into creating the many important and valuable suggestions.

But more importantly, there was a deeper understanding that grew as the ideas were voiced around that table and a vision of a more sustainable Brookline took shape. All of our measures are necessarily interconnected and the ability to foresee (at least to some extent!) the impacts and reactions of each requires both a depth of understanding and a willingness to think beyond our usual ways of doing things. Tremendous efficiencies will be gained through combining some of the initiatives and allocating resources and responsibilities strategically. There is a depth of commitment that is a natural outgrowth of lifelong passions for many of us and the context of the enormous challenge of climate change was bringing us together in a new ways. Working together holds the promise of synergistically increasing our effectiveness and creativity. Continued communication and information sharing will be key to realizing this potential.

While many in attendance were loathe to create yet another committee, or to make an existing committee responsible for advancing the "sustainability agenda" it is nonetheless apparent that some sustained effort at continued coordination must be maintained. It was suggested that this take the form of a virtual community, which may well be an ideal solution. It was also noted that certain interests were not represented at the forum, such as local food activists, and other town boards. This only highlights the fact that the rubric of sustainability touches every aspect of policy, planning, our economy and culture.

Innovation and leadership in response to climate change has blossomed around the country at the state and local government levels. The reasons for this are two-fold. Obviously, we have had an appalling lack of leadership at the federal level. But, for many types of initiatives the nimble, location-sensitive, bottom up strategies, tailored to local culture and preferences have the best chance at being appropriate and will more likely be adopted and integrated into life-styles for the long-term.

Success in moving forward towards a more sustainable future is dependent upon unleashing individuals' and organizations abilities to perceive the long-term consequences and interconnections of their actions and to stimulate creative problem-solving. We need a way to stimulate "sustainable thinking" when we are going about our usual town decision-making processes. How might this be achieved? How about having a "sustainability coordinator" who would draw up a list of questions with considerations and general goals for each department, which would have to be answered before any purchase, policy, plan or budget decision could be made. Of course this list of questions would need to be tailored for the department in question. In addition to the list of questions, suggestions, input and feedback from those doing the job should be sought. This will likely yield the greatest benefit. A one on one conversation with the co-ordinator would ensue. None of this is regulatory, it is just a way to get the wheels turning in a different direction, instead of just doing everything in the same way because we always have, we can stand back and re-evaluate. Rather than beginning by imposing strict mandates that more often than not miss the mark and have unforetold negative consequences, why not instead propose general goals and objectives and see what kinds of ideas people come up with.

Just as federal grants programs stimulate research and innovation, we could use local grants to bring learning, excitement and fun to the challenge of sustainability. In the realm of product and business development how about having a Brookline Community Foundation grant that would be awarded to a promising business idea based on using locally sourced or recycled materials to create something that fits into a sustainable lifestyle framework. Part of the grant award could be expertise in business development or marketing donated by local professionals. I can imagine a great many young Brookliner's having a field day with this challenge. It would be a wonderful way to generate local economic activity, local sustainability awareness, and encourage some of our home grown talent.

On a grander scale, we are faced with the challenge of our antiquated and cobbled together zoning code whose provisions run counter to many features we might seek in a sustainable community. I have written previously of one of the most obvious of these, our excessive parking requirements. There are many other features of a livable community that a well crafted code could help us achieve. Some of them are focused on creating the kind of public realm we wish to live in, others are more systemic, looking at larger issues of infrastructure investments, open space protections, etc. Instead, as evidenced by the recent spate of Town Meeting warrants and serious conflicts that continue to arise, we are left to deal with each new proposal as best we can, while lacking an appropriately detailed vision or overall direction. A sustainable community is first and foremost a livable one.

How do we solve this conundrum? I see the problem as a fundamental lack of dialogue, communication and understanding. While many see the failure of our recent planning efforts as evidence of either our inability to work together or be productive or a failure of the entire endeavor of planning, I see it rather as a need for professional help. And I don't mean another consultant who comes in and tells us what we should do. No, the kind of process I have in mind is a very participatory and iterative process of developing plans know as charettes. While I don't want to get into all the specifics here, as I am simply outlining an idea, the point is there are professionals and methods that facilitate community led planning initiatives, and were we to go through this process of learning and making the hard choices and debating the trade-offs for ourselves, what comes out at the end is something that we all can own and that will help us craft both a sustainable Brookline and a community that honors our past while accommodating the future.

As a long term resident of Brookline and a professional planner, I am convinced that we must do something different along these lines. We have too much to lose and the pressures for new development will only increase as the desirability of our location continues to become enhanced, as oil prices rise, large single family homes on large lots in the suburbs become more untenable etc. This trend can work to our advantage if we are well prepared and manage this new growth to enhance our community.

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