I Believe: ‘Place matters, but it also perplexes’

I Believe: ‘Place matters, but it also perplexes’

Caring deeply about where we live means the stakes are high — and highly personal — as we make choices about how to use our land, develop our economies and interact with our environment. A desire to help create places that are good for people and for the environment has brought me to my new position as sustainable communities program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

I arrived in Vermont by way of Maine, Texas, Ireland, Scotland, Washington and New York, but it all started in New England. Growing up in Maine, I had the privilege of woods to play in, a safe place to ride my bike, and neighbors who watched out for me — pretty idyllic. So when more people moved to my hometown, it was understandable.

Even at a young age, though, I noticed changes: more kids in school, new subdivisions, nicer cars. The change was not bad, but I was left feeling that it could be better. My focus was selfish: I hoped my changing hometown would remain a low-key place rather than a far-flung suburb of Boston. I soon learned that southern Maine is hardly the only place struggling with this kind of complexity — and there were tools for thinking about and solving these problems.

And so began my interest in community planning, land-use development and the environment.

I moved to Texas for college, earning a degree in cultural anthropology. After graduation I worked as a study abroad advisor in Washington state, helping students with their own international explorations of place.

A persistent interest in creating good places remained, though, so I went on to earn a master’s degree in regional planning. My studies included an internship at GrowSmart Maine. After graduate school I worked at the Windham Regional Commission in Brattleboro on town planning, energy and brownfields projects.

This was the social science I was looking for — one where I could work at the intersection of economy, environment and place, with some social justice folded into the mix.

Today, as sustainable communities program director at VNRC, I am excited to be working at the place where these topics meet and provoke challenging questions:

  • How do we grow while respecting the landscape, which is so central to our sense of place?
  • How can communities change while respecting the history of the place and its people?
  • How can we provide high-quality jobs and housing that strengthen, rather than diminish, our natural environment?
  • And, of increasing urgency, how can we do all of this in the face of climate change — without exacerbating the problem?

For almost 50 years, the Vermont Natural Resources Council has been taking a comprehensive approach to answering these questions. We recognize that environmental protection and the creation of good places are two sides of the same coin, and that deep connection between the two is the currency of Vermont’s past and future. We also recognize that both must be valued as assets. Even though Vermonters care deeply about our communities and natural resources, without ongoing awareness of their value, we risk taking them for granted.

How can we accomplish this?

VNRC advocates for smart growth, which includes compact development, increased transit use, more housing options and the preservation of working lands. This past summer, the council merged with Smart Growth Vermont (formerly the Vermont Forum on Sprawl) and will continue its mission of promoting smart growth through good policy and technical assistance to towns. We are working to enhance and update Smart Growth Vermont’s excellent resources, such as the Smart Growth Toolbox and the Smart Growth Community Scorecard, so that the local officials (who make most land-use decisions in the state) have the resources they need to enhance their communities while also caring for the environment.

Regardless of whether we call it “smart growth,” “sustainability” or simply the “New England village model,” we really are talking about creating resilient communities with options. For example, compact development can keep land available for flood resilience, farming and forestry, and perhaps even fuel production. Compact development also can reduce the amount we need to drive for basic services — issues that will be no small matter as energy supplies decrease and energy costs rise.

Asking the hard questions about growth and development also is part of being prepared for the inevitable impacts of climate change. We need to look at how we develop our land, where we build and how it serves us (a visitor called Irene recently delivered this message). This is a major project, but the long-term quality of our communities and natural resources (and by extension, our economy) depends on it. It is our job to think today about how we can be prepared for these issues in ways that do not further compromise the natural environment and resources.

Change is difficult, and the long-term implications of development on our environment and quality of life can be hard to grasp. But I also believe this: It is possible to make good decisions, and good forward progress, once we fully conceive of what’s at stake.

So yes, we might often be perplexed as we work on this long-term project. But it also is true that our places matter enough to overcome these challenges and make the good, tough choices we need to make.

This essay was written by VNRC’s sustainable communities program director, Kate McCarthy and was published in the Green Mountain section of the Burlington Free Press on December 4, 2011.