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Why Should We Have a Smart Growth Book Club?

1. Some people have never heard of smart growth. What a pity it is to be unaware that we’ve been sold an inefficient way of life, and that there’s a beautiful, simpler, less expensive way to live. This book club is a vehicle to raise awareness and do our part to build a critical mass in society that will effect change that will improve air quality, our health and create stronger communities.
2. It’s a forum for smart growth devotees to network and share information. Meeting together is an enjoyable and easy way to learn. We blog face-to-face, if you will, and get to know who else is out there striving for common sense in our communities. Smart growth is about community, right?
3. Together, we may brainstorm ways to practically make the Lehigh Valley a better place to live, work, play, and worship.
4. We can make ourselves available to help one another recalibrate our own communities. For example, we may share ordinances and codes which have worked, or even attend each others’ township meetings.
5. It is hoped that this will lead to local, bi-partisan community support, and commonsense behavior. Smart growth is a broad-based cause that I believe is supported by everyone who understands it. Conservatives ought to be behind it because it aids families and the economy and saves money. Liberals should back it since it is a framework for better social parity and environmental sustainability. The need for it reaches every person’s life.
6. And of course, the book club is an excuse to better educate ourselves and thus make better choices.

To date we have held two meetings, and the conversation has been enjoyable, enlightening, and encouraging. We’re still working through James Howard Kunstler’s Home from Nowhere, an engaging book that will draw in the novice as well as give talking points to the experienced. Our December meeting “covered” only the book’s first half, so in order to do it justice, let’s discuss the second half in January. As always, if you can’t read the book, you won’t be left out in the cold; your presence is important. We hope to see you at The Allentown Brew Works at 6 pm on Tuesday, Jan. 21! Please spread the word.
If possible, sign up on Facebook, or email Joanne Guth at joguth@live.com to let me know you’re going.

How to attract a Millennial

The Millennial Generation comprises those who were born from 1980 to the early 2000s and now represents America’s young professionals who are graduating from college, getting their first and second jobs and buying homes. We’re now seeing where they want to live: downtown.

For the first time in decades, the population of American cities has grown at a faster rate than the suburbs. There is some speculation that this is a result of the recession, with urban dwellers remaining in place instead of moving to the suburbs with low and unpredictable home prices. Alternatively, there is evidence to suggest that the migration to the cities is more intentional for this generation.

Young professionals are now seeking different communities than the suburbs that their parents and grandparents had coveted for generations. Walkable, mixed-use communities are on the rise. A developer in Cleveland seized this trend and built one of the most desirable blocks in the entire city. Ten years ago, the Maron family bought up an entire block of the city where restaurants had gone out of business, retailers had failed, crime rates were high and there was little hope for residential use.

Here’s what it looks like now:

If You Build It, They Will Come: How Cleveland Lured Young Professionals Downtown

The block is thriving with outdoor seating, apartment buildings at capacity and successful retail. The project wasn’t immediately accepted by other entrepreneurs though; the Maron’s opened their own restaurants when others weren’t willing to take another chance on the neighborhood. By the time they opened a 224 unit apartment building on the block, the area was so popular that the building filled almost immediately.

Perhaps they’ve read The Creative Community Builder’s Handbook (by Tom Borrup).

The term creative community building describes efforts to 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.

Looking at the above picture of the block, it certainly seems like they’ve done that. This vibrant community in downtown Cleveland captures what many Millennials are looking for as they begin to live on their own. The area is walkable, there are residential options, dining and retail. It’s high-density, efficient land use with a markedly decreased rate of crime and it’s actually pretty cool.

How to Make a Great Place– Top 26

Being the tech-savvy Millennials that we are here at RenewLV, I happened upon a tweet from our friends at Sustainable Cities that I felt I had to share with you to get your input.  The folks at Project for Public Spaces authored the initial post, who also happen to have a connection to the Eastern Gateway project in Bethlehem after doing some work here a few years ago.  After taking Rep. Bob Freeman’s class at Lehigh University about growth management and what “place” really means (and passing with high marks, I might add), I found this particular list intriguing.  Put these 26 items into play in your life, and you will have designed a “great place.”

The following list is excerpted from the new e-book How to Design Our World for Happiness, edited by Jay Walljasper and the ace team at On the Commons.

  1. Challenge the prevailing myth that all problems have private, individualized solutions.
  2. Notice how many of life’s pleasures exist outside the marketplace—gardening, fishing, conversing, playing music, playing ball, enjoying nature, and more.
  3. Take time to enjoy what your corner of the world offers (As the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire once declared, “We are bigger than our schedules.”)
  4. Have some fun. The best reason for making great places is that it will enliven all of our lives.
  5. Offer a smile or greeting to people you pass. Community begins with connecting—even in brief, spontaneous ways.
  6. Walk, bike, or take transit whenever you can. It’s good for the environment, but also for you. You make very few friends behind the wheel of your car.
  7. Treat common spaces as if you own them (which, actually, you do). Pick up litter. Keep an eye on the place. Tidy things up. Report problems or repair things yourself. Initiate improvements.
  8. Pull together a potluck. Throw a block party. Form a community choir, slow food club, Friday night poker game, seasonal festival, or any other excuse for socializing.
  9. Get out of the house and spend some time on the stoop, the front yard, the street—anywhere you can be a part of the river of life that flows past.
  10. Create or designate a “town square” for your neighborhood where folks naturally want to gather—a park, playground, vacant lot, community center, coffee shop, or even a street corner.
  11. Lobby for more public benches, water fountains, plazas, parks, sidewalks, bike trails, playgrounds, and other crucial commons infrastructure.
  12. Take matters into your own hands and add a bench to your front yard or transform a vacant lot into a playground.
  13. Conduct an inventory of local commons. Publicize your findings, and offer suggestions for celebrating and improving these community assets.
  14. Organize your neighbors to prevent crime and to defuse the fear of crime, which often dampens a community’s spirits even more than crime itself.
  15. Remember streets belong to everyone, not just automobiles. Drive cautiously and push for traffic calming and other improvements that remind motorists they are not kings of the road.
  16. Buy from local, independent businesses whenever possible.
  17. Form a neighborhood exchange to share everything from lawn mowers to childcare to vehicles.
  18. Barter. Trade your skill in baking pies with someone who will fix your computer.
  19. Join campaigns opposing cutbacks in public assets like transit, schools, libraries, parks, social services, police and fire protection, arts programs, and more.
  20. Write letters to the editor about the importance of community commons, post on local websites, call into talk radio, tell your friends.
  21. Learn from everywhere. What can Copenhagen teach us about bicycles? India about wellness? Africa about community solidarity? Indigenous nations about the commons itself? What bright ideas could be borrowed from a nearby neighborhood or town?
  22. Become a guerrilla gardener, planting flowers and vegetables on neglected land in your neighborhood.
  23. Organize a community garden or local farmer’s market.
  24. Roll up your sleeves to restore a creek, wetland, woods, or grasslands.
  25. Form a study group to explore what can be done to improve your community.
  26. Think yourself as a local patriot and share your enthusiasm.

To be honest, I think some residents of the Lehigh Valley already do many of these, which is why the Lehigh Valley is such a wonderful place!  But we want to know what you think.  Anything you would add to the list or take off?  What would you recommend we focus on first and foremost to make the Lehigh Valley an even better place?

You can also share your thoughts for the future of this great “place” by visiting www.envisionlehighvalley.com

Farming and Community Health

How does the protection of farmland correlate to the health of a community? Kane County, Illinois is working to find out.

Over the past ten years, their farmland protection program has preserved over 5500 acres of farmland in the county and they are currently considering a new amendment to broaden investments in local food production. New investments would include small farms and organic farmers producing fruits, vegetables and meats, intended to increase availability of fresh produce in schools, farmers markets, corner stores, and other sites in the community.

Enter the Health Impact Project. HIP is a project funded by the Pew Charitable Trust and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to fund Health Impact Assessments (HIA) that will be used to inform policies at any level of government. Kane County won funding from this project and is expected to produce their HIA next month with measurements from their community. The HIA will assess the ways in which their new amendment could affect the health of local residents through, for example, changes in availability and price of fresh fruits and vegetables, food safety, and economic changes resulting from increased food production in the region.

HIAs are conducted by a panel of stakeholders in the community to ensure that they are engaged in considering health and health disparities with any given policy. The assessment is completed in six steps:
A Health Impact Assessment has six steps:

  1. Screening: Determines the need and value of a HIA;
  2. Scoping: Determines which health impacts to evaluate, the methods for analysis, and the work plan for completing the assessment;
  3. Assessment: Provides: a) profile of existing health conditions, and b) evaluation of health impacts;
  4. Recommendations: Provides strategies to manage identified adverse health impacts;
  5. Reporting: Includes development of the HIA report and communication of findings and recommendations; and
  6. Monitoring: Tracks impacts of the HIA on decision making processes and the decision, as well as impacts of the decision on health determinants.

Kane County hopes to use this assessment to inform the debate surrounding their new amendment, hoping that they will find it could lead to improved health.

The Health Care Council of the Lehigh Valley is doing similar work much closer to home. They created a forum process where they engaged stakeholder organizations from the Valley to discuss their input on community health, and held two series of meetings. In the second set of meetings, they were able to bring back results and analysis from the first round. Participants in the forums were asked what they thought the biggest health concerns in the region were, what would help their community become healthier and what leads to health problems in their area. They were asked follow up questions to these in the second round of meetings.

In these public meetings held last fall, they found that the health care system and services are fragmented, that there is a lack of communication and connection between the community and care providers as well as poverty, lack of jobs and language differences being barriers of access to medical resources. There were also positive findings, the community responded that the local health care providers care about the community and were willing to listen to their needs as well as looking for short and long term solutions to improve community health. Their Community Health Profile breaks down their findings and the particular issues in each city, and can be found here.

Fresh Food Access and Pricing

The Greater Lehigh Valley chapter of Buy Fresh Buy Local (BFBL-GLV) has released a study that counters the popular perception that prices at farmers’ markets are more expensive than at grocery stores. (Click here to read the complete study on the pricing of farmers markets compared to grocery stores) No significant price difference was found between the two venues in the LehighValley. In fact, “Because there was a wide price range for produce at the Lehigh Valley farmers’ markets, it was always possible to find less expensive produce there than at the grocery stores,” says study author and Lehigh University Community Fellow, Laura Schmidt.

The study included pricing data for nine seasonal products (produce, meat and eggs) collected in the fall of 2012. Data was collected from four LehighValley farmers’ markets and two grocery stores and accounted for both organic and conventional growing methods.

“This study challenges the myth that food at farmers’ markets is always more expensive than at grocery stores.” says BFBL-GLV Director, Lynn Prior. “In addition, it shows that seasonal, locally-grown foods can be very affordable and cost less than food imports at grocery stores.”

The study will be incorporated into an Assessment Report for a Fresh Food Access Plan being developed as part of EnvisionLehighValley, and funded by a HUD Sustainable Communities Grant. Fresh food access forums for public comment will be hosted  in March 2013 by Buy Fresh Buy Local and the Nurture Nature Center. (Visit www.envisionlehighvalley.com for event schedules and updates.)

The report will look at the assortment of businesses and relationships involved in moving food from our local farms to our tables.  While there’s been great success with direct sales from our local farms to consumers, we are not doing as well getting local foods to wholesale buyers.  Infrastructure is critical to move local food to wholesale buyers.  The report will examine what we have and need in terms of infrastructure to scale up our local food system.

There are four designated food deserts in the LehighValley.  The USDA defines a food desert according to census tracts.  Communities qualify as food deserts if they meet two criteria:

  • low-income communities (a poverty rate of 20 percent or more); and
  • low-access communities (at least 33% of the population lives greater than 1 mile from a large grocery store).

Consumers in the LehighValley spend $1.5 billion on food each year; less than one percent of this is purchased directly from our local farms.  The result is that most of our food dollars are leaving our region through purchase of food imports.  By increasing the amount of food purchased from our local growers, we can help make farming more profitable and ensure that farmland & healthy, flavorful food will be available for future generations.  At the same time, we will also be investing our food dollars locally and creating jobs right here in the Lehigh Valley.

BFBL-GLV is a program of the NurtureNatureCenter, a 501©(3) organization. BFBL chapters across Pennsylvania are coordinated by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), on behalf of our national partner, Food Routes Network.

Coming Together in the Venn Diagram

The Health Care Council of the Lehigh Valley has taken an excellent approach to Community Health.  Their recently released “The Road to Health” evaluates the health of the Lehigh Valley community.  If you haven’t read through it yet, definitely read through it now.

This new report gives an excellent overview of the state of health in the Lehigh Valley, something Renew Lehigh Valley and the Lehigh Valley Research Consortium touched upon at the State of the Lehigh Valley luncheon in February 2012.  But this report follows up on the call to action issued at the end of our luncheon; it shows where we are and where we have to go in order to be healthy.

A healthy community is a sustainable community.  And it’s one reason why I wanted to highlight the Health Care Council’s work.  When organizations like Renew Lehigh Valley and outreach efforts like Envision Lehigh Valley seek to plan for the future in a smarter and more efficient way, we often get into our silos. Yet, why can’t we see the larger picture?  Envision Lehigh Valley may be one effort to plan for a sustainable future for the Lehigh Valley to ensure a high quality of life, but “The Road to Health” is doing the same thing just in a different arena.  We all are working for the same goal. 

It’s like a Venn Diagram.  One outreach Imageeffort in the Valley is focused on land use and economic development, another is focused on community health, and yet another is focused on education and the connection to the neighborhoods.  They all have the same goal, and that center area where all the circles overlap is where we must focus our efforts. If we are to make the Lehigh Valley a sustainable community, we must all work together and support our various efforts.

So, I encourage you to join us at one of the Health Care Council’s two health forums being held in our area.  All those efforts in the Venn Diagram are seeking public input, as they should in order to truly have community support.  So come out Wednesday, November 28th to the Fowler Family Center at Northampton Community College (511 E. 3rd St, Bethlehem) from 7-9pm OR join them Thursday, November 29th at the Salvation Army (144 N. 8th St, Allentown) from 7-9pm.

We’re all seeking to ensure a high quality, sustainable life in the Lehigh Valley. Let’s all work together to see the bigger picture, rather than individual puzzle pieces.

A Placemaker’s Seven Keys to Stronger Community

Everyone has different ideas about what makes a community.  Eric Jacobsen, author and pastor, noted that “even if you get the physical elements right, there’s no guarantee that a place will function as a true community, as more than just a place.”  That really struck me.  Even if we create an aesthetically-pleasing facade for our streets, it doesn’t mean we will have a functioning and cohesive community.

The article I read this morning reviewed a fellow planner’s short list for keys to a stronger community. (You can read the full article here.)  The planner, Scott Doyon, compiled the following list:

  1. Good governance
  2. Walkable, connected, mixed-use character
  3. Parks and gardens
  4. Partnerships
  5. Programming
  6. Neighborhood-responsive schools
  7. Tree culture

I must agree with Kaid Benfield, the blogger also commenting on Doyon’s short list, that I’m generally pleased with the list.  I think it’s great to combine physical features with less tangible elements to create a sense of community.  I also agree with Benfield when he notes that he would alter the list to include a point about controlling sprawl.

Here in the Lehigh Valley we certainly know about the sprawling development.  But have we ever stopped to think about its effect on the sense of community?  As development sprawls outward, we lose many of these elements that create a close and cohesive community. The neighborhoods aren’t walkable.  It’s difficult to develop programming and events for people that don’t feel connected to one another.  And I certainly agree that good governance is key; however, RenewLV would argue that this “good governance” should also be characterized by reduction of redundancy in the government.  “Good governance” should be efficient and effective stewards of its resources, working through partnerships within the community and region.

Overall, I think Doyon and Benfield have the right ideas.  Here in the Lehigh Valley we have such unique communities.  But maybe it’s time we stop to think if we have all the proper components to be a truly cohesive and effective community.  We must work together, and I think that means working beyond the municipal boundaries and extending to others.  The Lehigh Valley has unique communities, but as a region I think we can work together to preserve and enhance these areas in order to become a regional community.

If You Build It, They Will Come

Ah yes, the old adage from the classic baseball film, “Field of Dreams.”  Great movie, but the unforgettable line from that movie can be applied to a lot more than baseball diamonds.  Did you ever think it could be applied to the Lehigh Valley?

According to the latest numbers from the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, the Lehigh Valley is expected to grow by another 145,000 by 2030.  The US Census projects an even larger population growth.  This means another 72,000 households will be added to the Valley, not to mention probably the same number of cars added to our roads and more strain on our utilities and resources.  I’m not saying that growth is a bad thing, but it can be disastrous if not planned for correctly.

The Lehigh Valley uses about 26% of its land for residential purposes, while about 56% of our land remains “green space.” But how long will this last with the guaranteed future population growth? Will we continue to sprawl outward and develop this “green space” for more houses?  Some of that open land may be used for housing, but wouldn’t it be better to plan for this growth now and preserve that open space?  Though some may be frightened by the term, higher density housing is not a bad thing. It is not the reincarnation of the city tenements of long ago; rather, high density housing can encourage economic recovery, ease transportation by providing options for walking and biking, and provide alternative housing choices.  It also allows for the preservation of open space, rather than allowing for further sprawling development.

It is imperative that we plan for this inevitable growth now.  Why not build options and provide for these higher densities now, rather than waiting for the population to increase and not knowing what to do? Why not make our communities more sustainable and preserve the valuable open space we have?  I’ve heard farmers mention at our Envision Lehigh Valley meetings that this farmland is some of the most fertile land in Pennsylvania.  Why not keep it that way, rather than outward sprawl that will create more traffic and more strain on utilities?

It is inevitable that they will come; so why not build a community that world-class people will want to join? Why not provide options for a diverse workforce necessary to become the livable, equitable, and economically competitive region we know we can be?

Municipal Incentives Encourage Green Building & Sustainability

The American Institute of Architects and the National Association of Counties recently released a report analyzing “green incentives” best practices.  Many incentives have been used by municipalities over the years, but this report compiles case studies from across the country to highlight some of the best uses of green incentives to encourage sustainable development.

Green Building Incentive Trends: Strengthening Communities, Building Green Economies is meant to be a guidebook for municipal leaders to learn from national case studies in order to decide what green incentive program would work best in their communities.  Obviously, every community is unique with different characteristics and challenges that may not work with certain practices.  The AIA and NACo seek to provide a menu of options to municipalities through the handbook.

The report found the “most attractive incentives to the private sector were tax incentives, density bonuses, and expedited permitting.”  The incentives were not successful alone, however.  According to the report, green incentives are most successful and effective “when combined with robust advocacy efforts and strong support from the public.”  It takes an entire community embracing the effort through a multi-sector approach to be successful.  But it is important to note that such public support requires public engagement, two-way conversations, and community input that is taken into account during the planning process.

Replicable and transferable best practices are so important to collaboration and cooperation among regional partners, especially when things like green incentives are implemented on the local government level.  Doesn’t it make sense for us to learn from other successful municipalities nationwide and then work with our regional partners to implement successful practices?  Isn’t it logical for us to collaborate as a region to implement plans for a better community when we live and work beyond the confines of our municipal boundaries, yet within the larger Lehigh Valley?  It seems like a no-brainer to replicate something that has been proven to better the community elsewhere and implement similar policies here in the Lehigh Valley for a greener, healthier, and happier region.

The report can be found at: http://admin.naco.org/programs/csd/Documents/Green%20Government/GB%20Issue%20Brief-Green%20Building%20Incentive%20Trends.pdf

Smart Growth is Good Sense, Not Partisan Politics

Smart growth has gotten a bad rap as a “liberal” plan that inhibits development and economic growth, while it forces people to live in overly densely populated areas through restrictive policies.  Some opponents have cited the intrusive policies proposed in the United Nations Agenda 21, which was presented at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) and subsequently adopted by all attending nations.  Agenda 21 is a lengthy document that presents many goals and strategies but was meant as a “comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally, and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, and Major Groups in every area in which human impacts the environment.”  (A comprehensive look at Agenda 21 can be found at: http://www.un.org/esa/dsd/agenda21/.) Those who oppose these strategies believe the adoption of such policies would overly expand the role of government and interfere with personal choice, local flexibility, and community and economic development.

Well, Renew Lehigh Valley is here to say that this simply is not true.  Smart growth is not and should not become a partisan issue.  Policies utilizing smart growth planning are meant to reinvigorate a community and provide for wise and effective economic development.  Rather than letting a piece of land be developed in any way, why wouldn’t a community want certain boundaries to ensure that the development enhances the economy, benefits the community, and brings jobs to the area for the long term?  “Planning” shouldn’t be considered a bad word; it’s smart.  And it has the community’s best interest at heart.

Smart growth does not force people to live on top of each other either.  We all like a little personal space, but that doesn’t mean that we need to spread out and misuse open land for housing or development.  This type of development only increases sprawl, which puts a strain on natural resources, infrastructure, local governments, and the community.  Density, in itself, is not a bad thing.  It’s overcrowding that should be avoided.  Smart development of apartments and other dense living spaces can be functional and quite comfortable.  Open space is then preserved in order to keep our natural resources pristine and to maintain the aesthetic beauty we all appreciate.  Smart growth communities offer comfortable, walkable neighborhoods with plenty of green space.  Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

If policy aligns with smart growth planning and development, it will only enhance the community.  The government will not overstep its boundaries infringing upon personal liberties.  Zoning laws aligned with smart growth policy and smart growth development are intended to preserve a community’s character while encouraging its strengths and improving its weaknesses.  Communities that align their policies in such a way have proven to be revitalized and reinvigorated.  Who wouldn’t want to live in a community with a thriving economy and a downtown that attracts visitors (which in turn attracts business and money!)?

Smart growth is not a nasty phrase or a terrible policy choice.  It is a smart decision for our communities.  This isn’t about politics; it’s about making the Lehigh Valley a successful, desirable community together.

Interested in learning more?  Register for the second annual State of the Lehigh Valley event through our website: www.renewlv.org.  Join in the discussion!

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