by Deana Zosky and Steven Bliss
Broad-based community participation is fundamental to Renew Lehigh Valley’s work. The organization seeks to draw on a range of perspectives in determining our overall direction and in developing our policy agenda.
This collaborative leadership approach can be traced to RenewLV’s launch. The impetus for RenewLV came from the publication in 2003 of a landmark study from the Brookings Institution, which showed the challenges faced by older core communities across Pennsylvania. In short, the Brookings report showed that Pennsylvania was growing in ways that were unsustainable, from an environmental, economic, and cultural standpoint. Regions across the Commonwealth were struggling to contain sprawl and, more generally, to take proactive, long-term approaches to growth. This meant that the Lehigh Valley and other regions were developing in ways that sapped investment from older core communities and destroyed precious open space.
RenewLV was created as an effort to address these challenges here in the Lehigh Valley. RenewLV operates on two core premises. First, that the future vitality of the Lehigh Valley is deeply tied to our traditional urban core—the cities of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton. And second, that regional thinking can lead to more sustainable, more strategic decisions in areas such as land-use and development, infrastructure (transportation, water), and public services and investment.
So how does community participation and decision-making play into this? Regional thinking is a means to an end. That is, it is a framework for fostering an economically and environmentally sustainable Lehigh Valley. But for a vision for regional growth to be meaningful and obtainable, it must be shaped by a diversity of voices.
Such a vision should reflect an ongoing regional dialogue as to where development should occur, what kinds of places we want to protect and preserve, and what kinds of communities we desire. Research shows that when community members are engaged in regional and local planning discussions, they tend to stand up for walkable, mixed-used communities, balanced transportation options, and open-space preservation.
RenewLV has sought to catalyze a regional smart growth movement through a collaborative leadership model. Strategic direction for RenewLV is set by a 50-member Leadership Council with representatives from government, education, community organizations, business, environmental advocacy, philanthropy, and transportation and land-use planning.
As RenewLV and our partners (including the Alliance for Sustainable Communities) move forward, it will be important to facilitate ongoing community involvement on smart growth and sustainability. RenewLV has launched a brown-bag series that aims to promote a discussion on issues related to urban revitalization and smart growth. The response to this series has been very strong. Also, RenewLV has been exploring new ways of using online tools—such as email, Twitter, Facebook, and our group blog—to engage an ever larger group of community members in shaping and advancing our work.
Ultimately, success in sustainability and smart growth advocacy depends on a continued emphasis on community outreach and community decision-making. All residents of the Lehigh Valley have a stake in the future of our cities and in the shape of development in our region.
Deana is Co-Chair and Steven is Executive Director of Renew Lehigh Valley.
(Essays express the ideas of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alliance.)
(Published in the 2010 edition of Sustainable Lehigh Valley)