Ask the Expert: Local Government Sustainability Champion

Doing things the environmentally-friendly way is not the norm in traditionally conservative, southern U.S. states, but this expert is defying stereotypes and making changes that benefit the local environment, economy, and community. David works in city planning and community development for a Texas town of about 40,000. In the following interview, David uncovers the challenges he faces in revitalizing his historic downtown and implementing other sustainability-related programs. Taking on issues at the local level is a key part of sustainability and David’s insight helps us learn how we can help.

What do you see as the ultimate goal of community development, and what will it look like if/when it’s reached?

I think the ultimate goal for community development is to provide a community environment that is livable, healthy, economically resilient and environmentally sustainable.

When reached from a livable standpoint, it will be a place that ensures all elements including land use, transportation, housing, energy, and infrastructure, work together to provide for a sustainable living, working, recreation, with a high quality of life.

When reached from a healthy standpoint, it will be a place where public health needs are recognized and addressed through provisions for healthy foods, physical activity, access to recreation, health care, and safe neighborhoods.

When reached from an economically resilient standpoint, it will be a place that is prepared to deal with both the positive and negative changes in its economic health and to initiate sustainable urban development and redevelopment strategies that foster business growth and build reliance on local assets.

When reached from an environmentally sustainable standpoint, it will be a place that ensures that the contributions of natural resources to human well-being are explicitly recognized and valued and maintaining their health is a primary objective. -Modified from APA Sustaining Places Recommended Best Practices for Comprehensive Plans.

What are the three biggest challenges to getting there?

Financial resources, education, and community engagement/participation.

What are a few of your most fulfilling projects/moments so far?

1.Grant to expand access to farmers’ markets

We received a highly competitive USDA grant to increase low-income participation in area farmers’ markets by increasing options for the redemption of federal benefits; launch a mobile farmers’ market with four locations; and expand farmer training and entrepreneurial development.

With this grant, we have been able to expand our young and growing farmers’ market through producer to consumer marketing and promotion activities targeting low-income communities. We also plan to introduce a new mobile farmers market this summer that will add four additional market locations in partnership with the local housing authority to extend locally grown produce access into identified neighborhood food deserts, establishing community gardens for resident use and urban farmer access.

2. A mural restoration

A partnership of local 501(c)(3) nonprofits joined together to restore a historical mural in the downtown area. The mural restoration is part of a larger project to enhance the inside and outside of a historic theater downtown, improvements to landscaping, parking, and the farmers’ market.

3. Grant to improve walkability

In partnership with a local university and the arts and humanities council, we received a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Our Town Grant to design an arts-focused pedestrian friendly promenade downtown that unites individual historical components including the theater, a regional arts center and the recently restored mural. A local sculptor will also be commissioned to design a public art piece as a focal point for the project. This project draws upon local input, the expertise of an internationally recognized design team, and proven programming. It utilizes the place-based community driven approach recommended by the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating and sustaining public places that build communities.

What are some things that local citizens can do to support sustainable local development?

Individual engagement and participation is many times the strongest action that local citizens can do to support sustainable development. Some examples may include participating in your local recycling program, attending community planning meetings, educating yourself and others regarding national trends such as Smart Growth America, Strong Towns and new initiatives from the American Planning Association.

Cities and their governments are faced with any number of pressing issues at any given time, such as education, business development, crime, healthcare, etc. How do you make the argument, given the competition from other pressing issues, that sustainability matters, that it should be a top priority for all citizens?

First, I think sustainability issues must be viewed through a long-range lens that goes beyond short-term issues. It truly is about considering our current impact on future generations. Sustainability considerations should be multifaceted and include providing for a community that is livable, healthy, economically resilient and environmentally sustainable. To me, it is about changing the conversation around any number of pressing issues with long-term sustainability in mind.

Interview by L. DeMates.




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