Op-Ed: Strong Communities Promote Sustainability

Posted on: March 6th, 2013 at 11:27 am by
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[Photo: Fourth Arts Block]Boogie contributor David Bergman provides an excerpt from his write-up about a local event on Urban Sustainability…

A recent local event, “Understanding Urban Sustainability: One Block at a Time,” hosted by the Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design (CUISD) and the Fourth Arts Block (FABnyc), provided an enlightening – for me, anyway – moment.

The Fourth Street Arts Block is the only official “cultural district” in NYC, but what interested me is that FABnyc has also embarked on a mission to green the block. To that end, they have a project with Cooper Union “to generate new and innovative solutions to the complexities of urban sustainability.” In addition, their “Model Block” program has undertaken energy efficiency steps such as enabling buildings on the block to install white roofs and obtain energy audits.

At the event, the questions revolved around what else FABnyc could be doing and how it might be looked at as a model for other blocks.

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[Photo: David Bergman]Unlike some of our neighborhood’s redeveloped areas (or the proposed SPURA development), Fourth Street’s architecture is pretty intact in that the buildings are walk-ups and most have storefronts on their ground level. So there is a constant level of activity and interaction involving residents, shop owners, dog walkers, theater attendees and others.

What’s the connection to sustainability? One of the biggest issues in sustainability is disengagement. Many, if not most, people feel that any efforts they could conceivably undertake are too difficult or, more commonly, too insignificant to matter. Living (or working) on a block or in a neighborhood where anonymity is the rule discourages any sense of ownership, of belonging to something larger than just you. Simultaneously, this means you have less incentive to participate and less sense of responsibility to a community. This can contribute to any number of “quality of life” problems like noise and littering. If you don’t know your neighbors, you’re less likely to care.

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[Photo: Lori Greenberg]The digital world has exacerbated this problem. Several conference attendees commented on how their block communities became closer during the post-Sandy blackout because people were forced to leave their computers, X-boxes and televisions. People who lived across the street from each other or even next door met for the first time. This phenomenon resulted in some mostly tongue-in-cheek suggestions that we have regular planned blackouts. (It’s worth noting, though, that the Internet and email can also support block associations and bulletin boards and the like.)

It’s fairly apparent that a key to sustainability is popular support and participation – buy-in, some call it. Active street life can foster this in ways that high-rise apartment buildings, even when built to the street line, and towers-in-the-park cannot. For instance, one of my suggestions for future projects was a block collection system for compost. NYC currently does not have compost collection (though they’re looking into it). In the meanwhile,  we have to store our compost at home (often in our freezers since most of us do not have outdoor space) and then take it ourselves to a collection center on appointed days. That’s too much work and too much icky-ness for most. But if communities were to set up local, perhaps self-run systems, my bet is many more would participate – even without the “stick” of government requirements – and we might even see friendly competition to see whose building composts and recycles the most.

Strengthening communities can get people out of their individual shells and lead to more involvement in and buy-in of local eco practices, which in turn can get people thinking on the larger global level since the world is, after all, just a much larger community.

Read the full piece at David Bergman’s blog, “EcoOptimism.”

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