by Dennis R. Lieb
“Without systemic change, sustainable communities are not possible.” This is the opening statement from a whitepaper by Ben Price, Projects Director for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF). He is speaking here of our political system and goes on to elaborate that the key to this change is re-establishment of local self-government. Within this statement lies the key to understanding all that follows.
“The solution is systemic change and that must start at the local level by taking back the small decisions of neighborhood design, leading inevitably to the taking back of decision-making in all areas of local life.”
America today has no shortage of government agencies, legislative bodies and regulatory procedures but very little of substance is filtering down to the local level in the way of positive outcomes. We also have untold numbers of non-government organizations and non-profits, putatively in the business of “revitalization”, Easton’s West Ward Neighborhood Partnership being just one example. What most of these governments and organizations have in common is a paternalistic nature that they are the experts and know better how to solve our problems than those living with them every day.
It is the root of our problem, and perhaps something those in official positions are unwilling to address, that we need less structure and more ad hoc activity at the neighborhood level to effectively fix the livability and hence sustainability issues in our cities. I facilitated a talk (formally a “Curbside Chat”) at Lafayette College in January by Chuck Marohn, Strong Towns blogger, engineer and urban planner from Minnesota. Chuck explained in clear language how people need to stop looking for grand projects and start investing in neighborhoods one block at a time.
Success comes incrementally with small investment. Conducting many small projects at once can lead to some failures, but often times, enough successes will emerge that we will be able to learn and copy solely the favorable outcomes into further projects. He backed this up with solid “return-on-investment” analysis of our suburban sprawl megaprojects that seem to enhance short-term tax revenue but ignore the cost of long-term infrastructure maintenance that is dumped onto the public. This occurring while we sit on acres of supposedly derelict downtown real estate that, when carefully analyzed, is already producing more revenue per square foot than new development, with little or no new infrastructure costs and simply in need of some minor intervention to greatly increase its productivity and tax base. As Chuck Marohn stated, we need fewer experts and more generalists working at the neighborhood scale.
The solution is systemic change and that must start at the local level by taking back the small decisions of neighborhood design, leading inevitably to the taking back of decision-making in all areas of local life. So what do we need to do?
In municipalities, we need to codify our comprehensive plans as local ordinances and give them enforcement power. We need to institute local citizen participation ordinances that bring new projects to the public before they end up at the planning/zoning desks.
We need to make needed changes even if it is against state regulations. PennDOT has ridiculous control over local streets. Returning our one-way drag strips to what were once quiet, tree-lined, two-way neighborhood streets requires an act of God due to over-regulation. The state is broke and can’t fix the roads it already has, let alone prosecute Easton for ignoring obsolete regulation – so let’s just change the streets back and see what works…ask forgiveness rather than permission.
We can use Home Rule Charter government, through local community Bills of Rights as crafted by CELDF, to define the role of corporations within our municipalities to protect ourselves from harms that otherwise may occur when corporations are allowed to enter a city and run roughshod over local economies, ecosystems and community design standards. This is a constitutional and not a regulatory issue; we have the inalienable right to protect our health, safety and welfare in the places we live. Creating walkable neighborhoods, allowing parks to be designed by the people using them, preventing wholesale economic catastrophe – all of these things require that local governments, through their citizens, take stands.
We need to defend each community’s inalienable right to protect the health, safety and welfare of its people by giving enabling powers to the expressions of such rights in the Pennsylvania Constitution. A program of CELDF, the Pennsylvania Community Rights Network, which has a chapter in Northampton County, is the beginning of a movement to bring about such change.
Take back local design decisions; fix your streets to the standards you know work and worry about Penn DOT later; strive for informal incremental change rather than large-scale, government-funded projects; fight for home rule and local bills of rights; and join a chapter of the Community Rights Network. These are the true routes to livable places and a sustainable future. Ask not what your city can do for you.
Dennis Lieb lives in Easton’s West Ward and has a professional education in architecture and real estate and is currently a Realtor for Prudential Paul Ford. He is the former chair of Easton’s Shade Tree Commission and a current member of its Planning Commission. Dennis is a NCI Certified Charrette Facilitator, a graduate of the CELDF Democracy School, and a former Project Coordinator for the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership.
(Published in the 2013 edition of Sustainable Lehigh Valley)
(Essays express the ideas of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alliance.)