In thinking about the long-term game before us in an expanding circle, I’ve been wondering about the relationship between our ways of doing things at the municipal and national scales. I have to wonder how smart planning right here could help us work toward more equitable, resilient, and convivial societies. In short: our personal responsibilities and our community means of arranging resources and interactions matter. They ripple out over larger scales.
Now let me the first to say that in some ways, I’m pretty new to this. And I look forward to learning a good deal from you the citizens near and far, from professional planners, from current and future board members and government officials, experts in public service and policy, and more. If this blog is anything when I’m writing about these issues, it’s an honest attempt to immerse my head and heart in whatever metaphorical river I’m crossing, paddling, or fishing at the moment.
I’ve just read a piece on The Energy Collective on governance for environmental democracy. It summarizes the first iteration of the Environmental Democracy Index developed by the Access Initiative and the World Resources Institute. While the EDI focuses on national level decision-making, the Energy Collective turns us to this question: “How does governance work at a local level and how can it improve quality of life and make cities more sustainable?” For us in Ferguson Township, nested in the Centre Region of Pennsylvania within the northeastern United States at this time on the international scene of planet earth, how should we govern to sustainably improve life? That is, how do we improve civil and economic equity and equality and make our communities and institutions of all kinds resilient in ways that improve our relationship with other-than- or more-than-human nature?
In our township and region, what started as a concern over water care and prioritization of our well fields, shallow aquifers, and stream quality in our region has very quickly moved most of us to think about it as a growth problem. Basically, where’s the limit? Already, in conversations with people serving on suggesting authorities for local government, elected officials, co-workers, retirees, friends, and folks on the street, people have said, “When’s this going to end? Why,” they ask, “Did the Ferguson board of supervisors alter the growth boundary and ignore regional planning agreements?” There are lots of proximate reasons. They want tax revenue. Penn State wanted to sell the land to make a lot of money. Local construction and engineering firms want to construct and engineer. They want more. Students want a more posh place than someone else. The townships want to attract better denizens than their neighbors. But when is enough, enough?
The world faces this problem. The same forces of growth, of greed, of humans’ insatiable desire to tinker and toy with everything, of our desire to keep up with the Joneses, of our seeming incapability to avoid tragedies of the commons in the modern world are well-matched to overcome our ability to see the long term, to carefully plan, to think about how the demons of our worse natures undermine our shared life, and or our difficulty in saying “No” to something that we came up with. The same things that drive the development on or near the Harter-Thomas well field and the Musser Gap Greenway drive the deforestation of the Amazon, the monocropping of forests in Malaysia with palm trees for palm oil, of the sprawling cities in China. It just so happens that those developments are much bigger, faster, and far away. But it’s more or less the same. Some people stand to make a buck on the backs of nature and people. Well…it’s not the same.
In Ferguson township, in Pennsylvania, in the United States, we have volition and power as citizens. We can speak up, assemble, vote, and file for recourse through our representative government. Obviously, and sadly, so can large corporations, but that’s another (and related) can of worms. I’ll not open it up much. We can resist those forces through engaging our government. And that’s where the previous article comes in.
In urban (and municipal) government we can and should do the following three things:
First, we need to engage “the greater urban governance community in planning and development. Furthermore, ensuring sustainability requires engaging citizens and holding local officials accountable. This means that citizens have procedural rights, such as access to information, the ability to meaningfully participate in decision making processes, and the ability to demand enforcement of those rights.” In theory, we have been doing this through joint authorities and intergovernmental planning commissions. But our township seems to have violated the terms of the agreement and initiated a tragedy of the commons by poaching the commons for their short-term narrow gain. Luckily, our citizens have started engaging.
Second, sustainable urban and municipal development requires continuity. “ We need “citizens, civil society organizations, and the private sector active in decision making processes and supporting them with the appropriate procedural rights [that] can provide this continuity across elections. Furthermore, doing so allows them to act as a “knowledge management” provider—a resource for local context and knowledge.” So it can’t just be that we engage. Like seeds, we can’t just be applied. We need to take root in the planning and governance soil to work up its health. However, it grows from long-term engagement must serve sustainability capacity.
Third, engagement and continuity require a functional government with the capacity to carry out policies and programs. Our township in conjunction with other local municipalities provide clean water, transportation, media, support for the library, police, and other services. They have to hire staff, plan, interact with citizens, raise money and collect taxes, and negotiate contracts. “Ensuring that cities have adequate institutional capacity is absolutely vital to improving quality of life for urban residents and reducing environmental impact.”
So to tackle the local issues that are the face of the global issues, we have to engage, continue, and build capacity for sustainability. For us in Ferguson township, we need to encourage active citizenship, cultivate important relationships that create community and economic investments in sustainability through policies that limit our growth, build land health, and drive renewable and low-impact technological innovation, and hire and work with the people who can and will do these things.
I opened by addressing rivers. Where does this river take us? The fantastic closing line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby reads, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The sheer energy of concerned community members have put into the Ferguson development issue could mean something different. It could mean a more responsive government invested in policies that mandate or deeply incentivize both sufficiency and efficiency into our land planning and management, our dwellings, our schools, and all the ways we arrange space to create the possibility of good shared life. We then ford on, boats skiffing nimbly on the river, marking our way together into the future.