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Building Communities, Creatively

As Envision Lehigh Valley has pushed residents to think about what they want their community to look like over the next twenty years, there is no better time to consider the fabric of the community that binds us. The Lehigh Valley is projected to change drastically over the next 20 years, adding 145,000 new residents, an additional 72,000 households and a 15 percent increase in jobs. With these changes, the region will have to adapt and it is the role of the community to play an active part in cultivating their home.

According to Thomas Borrup, in his book on creative community building, “Community is an elusive term…the word will refer to the people and the natural and built environments within a geographically defined area. [It is] more inclusive of the social, civic and economic bonds in addition to physical bonds.”

Through the public forum meetings held to discuss the future of the Lehigh Valley, residents from all walks of life have shared their opinions and outlooks for the region. This diversity in ideas, has lent itself to creating particularly creative solutions in which Borrup says that we “weave multiple endeavors and professions into the never-ending work of building and rebuilding the social, civic, physical, economic and spiritual fabrics of communities. Creative community building engages the cultural and creative energies inherent in every person and every place.”

These creative solutions will manifest themselves in the master plans that Envision partners are going to undertake over the next few years. The arenas of these reports include environment and energy conservation, affordable housing, access to fresh food, enhancement of public transportation, economic development and catalytic projects undertaken by the three major cities that comprise the Lehigh Valley– Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton.

Studies in multiple US cities consistently have found that cultural organizations, particularly small, community-based cultural groups, exert far greater impact than their size would suggest. Organizations of this nature have partnered with municipalities to maximize the effects of the grant that this project received. Envision Lehigh Valley partners include RenewLV, Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, Lehigh Valley Economic Development Council, CACLV, LANta, Buy Fresh Buy Local, Wildlands Conservancy and The Nurture Nature Center.  While independently these groups have a limited reach within the Lehigh Valley, their voices together will be able to provide comprehensive plans and solutions to problems facing the entire region.

“We shape our cities and then our cities shape us.” – Surburban Nation

Regional Governance Bill Gaining Attention

The Patriot News reported yesterday on a bill introduced by State Rep. Thomas Caltagirone that proposes to merge many of Pennsylvania’s municipalities together — essentially moving the system of governance from the municipal level to the county level. While many are saying that the bill will not stand a chance in passing through the legislature (it barely had any co-sponsors when the story broke yesterday), some are calling it a much-overdue piece of legislation.

The bill is certainly in favor of regional collaboration. The counties would absorb all municipal governance — meaning there would only be a countywide-structure of governance. While the bill may not seem popular within Harrisburg, many commentators at the Patriot News lauded it as a good idea, stating that the current system is “making the residents of the Commonwealth go broke.” One commentator stated: “The model is right next door in Maryland. They have county centered government, and they seem to do very well in managing their affairs.”

The Express Times editorial staff came out in support of the bill in today’s paper, stating:

The first step is to admit local government has a problem in structure. Then begin tying like-minded communities together, to see how government can work without giving up local voices. It’s not as if we’re rebuilding a society, as in Iraq or Afghanistan, where sectarian violence is the norm. Our system already works, just in a grossly inefficient way.

Personally, I become overwhelmed just looking at a map of Pennsylvania’s municipalities. The map below is featured in the Brookings report Back to Prosperity, A Competitive Agenda for Renewing Pennsylvania (which, as some of you know, was the impetus for RenewLV).

Is this really efficient?

Of course, convincing municipalities to give up local control will be difficult. But this bill takes a step in the right direction by creating a dialogue about this important matter. And the legislation does not call for municipalities to give up their local culture and charm. It merely examines an antiquated system of governance and asks “Can’t we do better?”

If you’re interested in the topic of municipal governance and would like to stay up to date on this matter, please take a second to sign up for RenewLV’s E-mail list by visiting our Join Us page. And please post your thoughts on this matter below. I would love to hear what the community has to say about this legislation.

Water Infrastructure Concerns in the Lehigh Valley

Last Friday, the Morning Call ran a story on the repairs and upgrades to wastewater infrastructure awaiting the Lehigh Valley’s communities. The story touched upon some of the concerns covered on Tempo’s PublicSquare Water Consolidation program, during which Mike Drabenstott, RenewLV Board member, discussed RenewLV’s Regional Water Initiative.

The Morning Call reports that sewer service prices are expected to rise in 2010, partly due to the extensive repairs that the system will have to undergo to meet standards set by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The staggering dollar estimates for improvements to the sewer system in western Lehigh County, which includes about 262 miles of piping and 18,000 customer connections, tell the story of what’s to come.

The Lehigh County Authority, which along with municipalities oversees the network of piping, is embarking on a pair of projects that will cost at least $16 million.

The EPA has ordered the authority, Allentown and a dozen municipalities to eliminate sewage overflows by 2014.

As the documentary Liquid Assets shows, such upgrades are needed in order to ensure the safety of our drinking water, which is at risk for contamination when outdated infrastructure remains in place.

Learn more by visiting RenewLV’s Regional Water Initiative page, and keep up to date on more infrastructure news by becoming a supporter on our Join Us page.

Filling the Governance Gap

Saucon Creek near Hellertown Northampton

Saucon Creek

A major focus of RenewLV’s work is on regional collaboration (particularly with regard to governance). Indeed, all of RenewLV’s current initiatives aim at creating a region characterized by strong communities, which, undoubtedly, requires some type of collaborative approach between the local municipalities. As many of our readers are aware, the issues related to development and smart growth are not issues that often abide by jurisdictional boundaries. As is often the case with land and water (and, as we have seen, public health) policy, concerns related to these topics do not stop at municipal or county borders.

On Planetizen last week, Matthew McKinney discusses how regional governance is needed in addressing many of these concerns. He reports that the Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy at the University of Montana has been working with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, and, from this coalition, it has become apparent that there is a clear “need to fill a governance gap…short of erasing existing political and jurisdictional boundaries, citizens and officials need to develop the capacity to work across boundaries according to the ‘problem-sheds’ of the land and water issues we face in the 21st century.”

Check out Toward an Ethic of Place: Experiments in Regional Governance to read more about some models for regional collaboration (networks, models, and institutions) and the attempts that are being made to address the gap. After reading this piece, what are your thoughts on regional collaboration efforts? What type of model of cooperation could be used in the Lehigh Valley?

For updates on regional collaboration and urban revitalization efforts in the Valley, visit RenewLV’s Join Us page to sign-up as a supporter.

National Smart Growth Policy

Members of the US Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee introduced a new bill this week that will coordinate policies within the housing, transportation, and environmental sectors. As described in the press release, the Livable Communities Act will “help towns and regions across the country plan and implement development projects that integrate their community’s needs for transportation, housing, land use, and economic development.” The committee hopes that the bill will encourage sustainable planning practices at all governmental levels, and ensure that the various aspects affecting the livability of a neighborhood are integrated together. Some of the key goals in the bill include increased accessibility to reliable public transportation and the creation of more affordable housing.

The legislation will, among other actions, create planning grants for regions, as well as challenge grants that can be used to implement those plans. To oversee the grant distribution, the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities will be established. It was reported a few weeks ago that Shelley Poticha, the current the Co-Chair of Transportation for America, is expected to step into the leadership position of the new office. On a side note, RenewLV, being a supporter of sustainable transportation choices, is a coalition member of the Transportation of America campaign. You can visit the T4A website to learn more about their national initiatives and how local organizations fit into the agenda to push for smarter transportation policy.

With the new grant program established, the Lehigh Valley has an opportunity to come together to address growth issues in our communities. To help in this effort, visit RenewLV’s Join Us page and sign up as a supporter to stay up to date on information related to livable communities and revitalization projects.

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