Monday, April 30, 2012


This blog is intended to serve as a forum for community awareness and engagement in the planning process for the Harper's Choice Village Center in Columbia, Maryland. The official content will be housed in the pages across the top, which include:
  • A brief history of the Village of Harper's Choice  
  • An overview of the Village Center planning process
  • The planning and community engagement process 
  • The Village Center planning focus area
  • Current demographics (forthcoming)
  • An overview of current land use and zoning in the Village Center 
  • An overview of current connectivity and circulation considerations in the Village Center
  • The Harper's Choice Village Center Community Plan (forthcoming)
  • Core design principles for redevelopment
  • The community input survey 
Blog posts (on the right) will be added to provide updates on the planning process itself as well as additional perspectives and possibilities from the blog author, Chiara D'Amore, who is the chairperson for the Harper's Choice Village Center Community Plan (HCVCCP) Committee, a PhD student in Sustainability Education at Prescott College, and an environmental consultant specializing in energy efficiency and sustainable design.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Village Center in pictures

The following pictures of the Harper's Choice Village Center were taken during the community plan process and seek to convey the Village Center from the perspective of a pedestrian.

 Parking lot between the Athletic Club and Kahler Hall

 Joseph Square

Second floor of main Kimco buildings, adjacent to loft apartments.

Front of Village Center

Parking between Safeway and single story Kimco building with bank, cleaners, and restaurant.

 Outparcel building - now contains a consignment store.

 Entrance to sports park.

Front of passage between two Kimco buildings.

 Passage between two primary Kimco buildings.

 Walkway along front of Village Center.

Patio for Kahler Hall.

Plans are in place to post additional pictures as well as video.  Please see the maps in the formal planning pages for an aerial perspective on the Village Center.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Sustainability of Harper's Choice

Harper's Choice is the second (chronologically) of the ten villages that comprise the town of Columbia, Maryland. Created in the late 1960's, Columbia was one of the nation's first planned communities and began with the idea that a city could enhance its residents' quality of life. Creator and developer James Rouse saw the community in terms of human values, rather than merely economics and engineering, and designed the town to avoid the problems associated with sub-division driven spot development as well as eliminate racial, religious, and class segregation. The new city of Columbia was created to be complete from the start - with jobs, schools, shopping, and medical services, and a range of housing choices. 
The village concept was intended to provide Columbia with a small-town feel. Each village is comprised of several neighborhoods and has a village center that includes a shopping center, recreational facilities, a community center, and often a middle school and high school.  Connecting the village center to the village neighborhoods is a robust pathway system. This design and infrastructure of Columbia is fundamentally more sustainable than that of comparably sized U.S. communities that are not created with such intention and vision.  However, by the early 2000s, the town acquired many of the characteristics of other contemporary U.S. suburbs, such as increasingly large private homes on large parcels and a fringe of 'big box' retail stores accessible primarily by automobile.
Within the previous context of the larger community of which it is a part, the following is a high level assessment of the current sustainability of the Village of Harper's Choice, in particular the village center. This assessment is parsed out into specific facets of a sustainable community, including food, water, energy, biocultural diversity, and green economy/governance.
There is little observable connection between the Harper’s Choice Village Center and the local food system, which is critical for community sustainability. The grocery store is a standard chain in this area and has a rather small natural foods section, none of which is labeled as being from the mid-Atlantic region, let alone truly local sources. The restaurants are primarily chains (McDonalds, Papa Johns, Subway, Dunkin Donuts) as well as several local offerings including a Chinese takeout restaurant, a Mexican restaurant, and an Afgani restaurant. As an infrequent patron of all but the Afgani restaurant and Dunkin Donuts (which I frequent often), I cannot give a detailed assessment of their menus and food sources, but the experience I do have suggests that there is no variation to their menus based on the local seasonality of foods and there is no stated connection to local growers and/or organic food. 
Looking beyond the businesses housed in the Village Center and into the village as a whole, while there are three community gardens in the town of Columbia, there are none within Harper's Choice. Additionally, there is not a farmers market located within the village, although in 2011 a small farmers market began in the parking lot of Howard County hospital, which borders the village and is less than a mile from the village center. Howard County itself is largely agricultural to the West of Columbia, so there are numerous (for 21st century standards) farms in the immediate vicinity that could potentially serve both this farmers market as well as the citizens of Harper's Choice through community supported agriculture (CSA).  There are a number of wonderful CSAs with pick up locations in Columbia, however, upon searching for a pick-up location within Harper’s Choice I came up empty handed and will have to drive across town to pick up my weekly share. Certainly there may be options and communications I am not aware of, but I have a pretty good pulse on this as a farmer’s market frequenter, CSA subscriber, and community garden envier.
All told, my assessment of the sustainability of Harper's Choice from a food perspective is that it is un-uniquely unsustainable in that the vast majority of the food sold and consumed is transported to the area from great distances via the typical industrial-agricultural food system and that there is little connection to the local food system. For more information about the importance of local foods for community sustainability, please see the associated blog post.
As described in the formal planning documents, the Harper’s Choice Village Center falls within the Wilde Lake sub-watershed of the larger Upper Middle Patuxent watershed and the even larger Chesapeake Bay watershed. The 1.9 square mile Wilde Lake watershed is approximately 32 percent impervious cover and based on zoning is fully built, most of the construction occurring in the 1970s without consideration for stormwater management. The Harper’s Choice Village Center is a particularly developed portion of this land, with approximately 72 percent impervious cover according to the 2009 Columbia Association Watershed Management Report. These impervious cover levels have a considerable effect on the conditions in the streams in the watershed, which were determined to be in poor condition in recent studies. Although a number of recommendations have been made for minimizing stormwater runoff from the village center, notable progress has not yet been made in this area.

From a water supply perspective, Harper's Choice businesses and residents get their water from Baltimore City. Baltimore uses surface water from rainfall and snowmelt as the source of its water. Reservoirs outside the city limits collect and store water. Three impoundments comprising two water sources and one river provide raw water to the city’s water filtration plants. Except for rare circumstances of extreme drought, there is little proactive, substantive engagement on water conservation approaches for local business or citizens. Although we are currently fortunate to typically have fairly reliable surface water, in the era of climate change this is not guaranteed to last. The community would do well to encourage all members to conserve water all the time.

Again, the current water sustainability situation in Harper's Choice is not unique in its lack of integrated awareness of and action regarding water and watershed conservation. However, there are some promising signs of future improvements in this area, such as the mass encouragement of rain gardens and rain barrels, which will be galvanized into action by a forthcoming property tax based on impervious surface area. We put our rain garden in last November and hope to see this become a standard part of local landscape design.

The buildings in the village center as well as homes in the broader village were constructed between the late 1960s and 1990s, a time during which there was little thought given to energy efficient construction. However, the local electric provider, Baltimore Gas and Electric, has energy efficiency programs for all possible customers, from the renter to the business owner. Hopefully people in Harper's Choice have been availing themselves of these opportunities to receive rebates to improve the energy efficiency of the buildings they live or work in. If not, that is likely to change for the positive as Columbia seeks to hire an Energy Manager in the coming year whose job it will be to improve the efficiency of the existing building stock in the community, starting with the Columbia Association buildings (of which there are several in the village center) and moving out into the broader community. I am hopeful that the individual in this position will also promote citizen education on the importance of energy efficiency from an economic (bottom line bills), health (less energy use equals less energy generation equals less air pollution), and environmental (air pollution, climate change, etc.) perspective.

Looking beyond energy consumption in the built environment, transportation is a key consideration when considering energy use in Columbia and Harper's Choice. As previously noted, the community was designed with a substantial trail system that connects each neighborhood to the village center and neighborhoods to one another. However, as big box stores have been constructed along the perimeter of Columbia, many people are tending to drive to these larger shopping centers rather than patronizing the Village Centers, either by car (a short drive) or by foot or bike. For those that do use the village centers, the trail system seems to be an infrequent transportation choice, perhaps due to concerns about safety or ideas regarding time and convenience. Some good news on this front is that the Columbia Association has just launched a "connecting Columbia" campaign that is focused on revitalizing the pathway system to make it more of a viable transportation choice. This has the potential to be very constructive from the perspective of local travel. However, for many Columbia residents a substantial commute to work is the norm, with Washington DC and Baltimore being common destinations. There is no viable rail option to either of these cities (you would have to drive a good way to get to the Amtrack line). However, there is a fairly good bus system.  My husband uses it to get to and from work in DC three days a week. This helps him to avoid the crushing DC traffic that gives evidence to just how many people prefer their car over mass transport. There is no agriculture in the village of Harper's Choice, so I won't get into energy impacts of this industry, but if the community were to support the agriculture that does exist in the vicinity it would help to cut down on energy impacts of long-distance food transportation. 

All told on the energy front, Columbia has valuable infrastructure to help address energy use from a transportation perspective - we just need to get people using it more. From the perspective of energy consumption via the built environment, I am hopefully that a real progress will be seen quite soon.  

Biocultural Diversity:
Biocultural diversity is defined by UNESCO as a diversity of life in all its manifestations, biological, cultural, and linguistic, which are interrelated within a complex socio-ecological adaptive system ( Columbia was intentionally designed to honor and cultivate cultural diversity. For example, the original plan for the town was to have all the children of a neighborhood attend the same school, melding neighborhoods into a community and ensuring that all of Columbia's children get the same high-quality education. Today, Harper's Choice is a particularly diverse community within Columbia from an economic as well as cultural perspective. Within this village we have the most expensive housing in Columbia as well as the most income assisted housing in Columbia, with the greatest proportion of school children receiving subsidized school meals. Information on the demographics of the Village of Harper's Choice, which will shed light on current cultural and linguistic diversity in community, is being updated to reflect the 2010 census and will be provided soon as a part of the formal community planning information.

From a biological perspective, when Columbia was built the planners made some horticultural blunders. Three of the most prevalent types of trees that were planted along with the new development were sycamore, gum ball, and yellow pine due to their attribute of being fast growing. However, the gumball trees that line the streets drop massive quantities of small, pointed balls that are truly a public safety hazard. The sycamore trees planted in numerous yards have leaves that fall constantly and are generally a maintenance frustration. The yellow pine has a life span of approximately 40 years and many of the trees that are original to the community are nearing or past that point and as a result are sustaining substantial damage during storms. Although Columbia has large quantities of open space, much of which is still natural woodland, a great deal of it is also mowed grass. This is particularly true in the Village of Harper's Choice, which has almost no natural vegetative space. From a residential perspective, properties are governed by Village level residential architectural committees, which have historically frowned on anything but traditional grass and flower garden landscaping.  
I do see signs of improvement in all of these areas however. The residential architectural committees are becoming more progressive and I have seen advertising for classes on native landscaping and landscaping for pollinators and watershed protection. The Columbia Association is taking on a tree planting campaign to help offset some of their responsibility for watershed preservation and hopefully they will be very conscientious of the trees they select and have a diversity of types. I personally am advocating for lots of fruit trees. Additionally, open space management has been talking about converting substantial portions of their mowed lands back to natural grasslands, which would be a cost and energy saving change. Hopefully they too will conscientiousness cultivate appropriate and aesthetically pleasing natural spaces that will be educational and enjoyable for the community. Last but not least, the fauna in Columbia seems to be on a relative come back. Speaking for my neighborhood, there is a resident fox and we frequently see a number of hawks (which are seriously decreasing our song bird presence) as well as the ubiquitous squirrels and chipmunks. If you venture into the woods you will likely see deer and the creeks have a fair number of fish and crayfish and turtles. However, I haven't seen a salamander since I was a child playing in these woods.

Green Economy and Governance:
A green economy, is one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks (or preferably improving the conditions of the environment) and is based on sustainable development approaches and ecological economics strategies. Said differently, a green economy is one in which the economy is understood to be a component of the ecosystem in which it resides. Many experts in the sustainability field eloquently argue that for an economy to be green and a community to be sustainable, it must be as localized as possible. In general, it is my observation that Columbia and Harper's Choice are in keeping with the national trend away from locally owned businesses and towards larger, regionally, nationally, or internationally owned businesses. I am also not aware of any organized efforts to actively create a local green economy - at the county, city, or village level.  

However, there is a lot of conversation these days in both Howard County and Columbia governance about sustainability.  Knowing both the County Executive and the Columbia President reasonably well for an average citizen, I have faith that these interests and efforts are coming from a place of genuine interest and care. That said, there are always budget constraints to deal with and sustainability, arguably short-sightedly, often takes a backseat.  Howard County has an Office of Sustainability ( and Columbia has recently hired a watershed manager and, as mentioned previously, is hiring an energy manager (no coordinated sustainability manager, yet). Without delving into great analysis about what these different entities are doing with regards to sustainability, I think the issue is at the forefront of discussion and is sincerely being looked at with regards to planning, which is more than can be said for many communities. That said, as hinted at in the above sections, there is substantially more to be done to create a sustainable county, Columbia or Harper's Choice, much of which needs to be catalyzed or at least supported by governance, but almost all of which needs to be embraced and committed to by the general public.
I believe that although Columbia and the Village of Harper's Choice face many of the same challenges as most suburban communities in the United States with regards to sustainability, there is an underlying design and infrastructure that is supportive of making this one of the most sustainable communities in the country. A clear and comprehensive vision of what a sustainable community would mean in this specific place and time is needed, with the support of an energized and committed citizenry, business community and government. We are not there yet, but there are fragmented steps being taken in a positive direction.

Considering the Transition Town Movement

There are currently a number of innovative models for the creation of sustainable communities, which prioritize community and environment over profit and growth and seek to relocalize all essential elements that a community needs to sustain itself and thrive. In 2006, the Transition Town movement was initiated by a Permaculture design teacher, Rob Hopkins, for the purpose of complementing global and national efforts to address social, economic, political and environmental challenges by making sure that the changes they demand in the way people live their day-to-day lives can actually be put into practice at ground level. While Permaculture primarily looks at how to design the physical environment to support human populations in harmony with the natural environment, the Transition Town movement builds on these principles and expands them to look at how to encourage a community to actually want to create this sort of compatibility with its environment. This model has quickly developed traction, as there are now over 250 transition communities in more than 35 countries around the world and those numbers are on the rise.
Underpinning the Transition model is a fundamental recognition that according to the laws of physics, infinite growth within a finite system (Earth) is not possible. Climate change and peak oil are understood to require urgent, collective action. Given that industrial society has lost the resilience to be able to cope with energy shocks, a plan to prepare for the inevitability of life with fewer traditional energy sources is considered necessary. However, Transition advocates take a positive approach to these substantial undertakings, referring back to the phenomenal levels of ingenuity and intelligence that were demonstrated as we raced up the energy curve over the last 150 years and the ability to leverage those qualities to “negotiate our way down from the peak of the energy mountain” (Brangwyn & Hopkins, 2008). Rob Hopkins (2008) asserts that if we plan and act early enough, and use “our creativity and cooperation to unleash the genius within our local communities, then we can build a future that could be far more fulfilling and enriching, more connected and more gentle on the Earth than the lifestyles we have today.”
Transition Towns recognize that given the likely disruptions ahead resulting from peak oil and climate change, a resilient community - a community that is self-reliant for the greatest possible number of its needs - will be infinitely better prepared than existing communities with their total dependence on heavily globalised systems for food, energy, transportation, health services and housing. The Transition Town model consists of a loose set of practical principles and practices that have been aggregated over time though experimentation and observation of communities as they selectively move towards local resilience and reduced carbon emissions. In addition to numerous place-specific indicators, the universal primary indicators of community resilience identified by the Transition movement are:
  • percentage of food grown locally
  • percentage of energy produced locally
  • average commuting distances
  • proportion of essential goods being manufactured within the community or within a given distance
  • amount of local currency in circulation as a percentage of total money in circulation
  • number of locally owned businesses
Working with local businesses and all other community stakeholders, Transition Towns create formal energy plans that focus on reorienting their local economies by starting up local energy companies, social enterprises, and cooperative food businesses and implementing practical projects such as community supported agriculture (CSA), shared transport, local currencies, seed swaps, tool libraries, energy savings clubs, urban orchards, and reskilling classes.  
In Totnes, England, the first Transition Town, a great deal is being done to engage businesses including advocating for oil vulnerability auditing and business exchanges. Totnes is experimenting in complementary currency, with fifty local businesses having signed up to accept this currency in payment for goods and services. They have transformed car parks into vegetable gardens, and are now experimenting with other forms of food production including CSA, community gardens, and forest gardens.  Since 2007, a true social movement has emerged from this little Southern English town, which has connected thousands of local initiatives around the world in a common engagement towards local resilience and sustainability.
When considering the appropriate scale on which to develop a Transition movement the Transition Network website says that "Ultimately, the best scale to work on is the scale over which you feel you can have an influence. Single street? Perhaps not ambitious enough. Entire city? Possibly asking a bit much of yourselves. Choose somewhere in the middle that feels do-able and that feels like home." The scale of a Columbia village, with the Village Center at its core, might be just right. As a part of the community planning process, beyond what is dictated as a framework for redevelopment guidance, coming together as a community to plan for a sustainable and vibrant future is what I envision for Harper's Choice. The Transition movement seems like a positive, well considered, and practical approach.

For more information on the Transition Town movement visit:

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Community Outreach

Today (April 21st) was the Harper's Choice Village Board elections as well as the election of the Village Representative to the Columbia Board of Directors. To help encourage voter turn out, a craft fair and numerous family activities were planned at the community center during voting hours. The Harper's Village Center Community Planning (HCVCCP) committee continues to seek ways to engage the community in the planning process and was in attendance at the community center today with a poster display that illustrated where we are in the planning process, shared key findings and concepts, and sought community input.  Hard copies of the community planning survey were available as were sticky notes that people could write comments on and attach to the posters. The community planning survey was also included on the back of the ballot that was mailed out to all Harper's Choice residents at the beginning of April. As ballots were reviewed today, it appears that approximately 100 included complete surveys!

The following are pictures of today's event


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Community Resilience and the HCVCCP

         The general meaning of resilience, derived from its Latin roots 'to jump or leap back', is the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change. Resilience often refers to an ecosystem's stability and capability of tolerating disturbance while restoring itself (Walker, 2004).  Because our communities are inherently social-ecological in that they are linked systems of people and nature, the creation of sustainable communities requires understanding and consideration of the resilience and limits of the ecosystem in which the community is embedded.  The concept of resilience applies directly to communities as well and can be defined in this context as the capacity of the community to adapt and respond to adversity and external impacts such that they are strengthened and more resourceful.
In practical terms, resilience can be looked at as design strategy that aims to reduce system vulnerabilities, often by increasing diversity, flexibility and collaboration, improving redundancy in critical areas, supporting decentralization, and bolstering local capacity.  The term “design” is described by Wendell Berry as "solving for pattern," which leads to resilience by developing solutions that leverage reparability, redundancy, locality, and simplicity to simultaneously solve numerous problems. David Orr (2009) describes significant changes that have been building momentum in the design of resilient systems, all of which pertain to the creation of sustainable communities, including:
  • architecture powered by efficiency and renewable energy;
  • waste management in which all wastes are purified by natural processes;
  • agriculture that mimics natural systems;
  • renewable energy technologies;
  • advances in energy efficiency;
  • cradle-to-cradle and biomimetic production systems that create no waste;
  • urban planning and smart growth strategies that build ecologically coherent cities; and
  • tools for systems analysis that improve foresight, organizational learning, and policy integration.
The concept of community resilience has broad appeal in that it emphasizes greater community control of meeting their own needs through the development of local resources and capacity. This is simultaneously a socialist sentiment and one advocated by conservative thinkers that builds on the substantial skills, enthusiasm, assets and creativity within all communities. 
In considering the resilience of my community, it is clear that Columbia and Harper's Choice are facing many of the common problems of suburbia (i.e. lack of vitality, disconnection from community, lack of affordable housing, waning local merchant base, disappearing farm land, etc.). One of the particular challenges facing Columbia's Village Center based design is that they are struggling to remain viable in the face of the relatively recent development of a ring of large “big box stores” around the eastern edge of town.   The EarthCAT Guide to Community Development (2005) lists community centers as powerful leverage points in the creation of sustainable communities.  Since the construction of the chain store based shopping centers, we have seen the existing market-base drawn away from the community centers that were designed to be the accessible loci of activity for each village.  Several village centers in the community have seen more than half of their shops close in recent years because people are now driving greater distances to get to the big box retailers on the edge of town and forgoing the merchants that they could access by foot or bike.  Exacerbating this problem, the money spent at these large chains flows directly out of the local economy, as opposed to the local multiplier effect that occurs when money is spent with local businesses.  
In an effort to strengthen the resilience of Columbia's Village Centers in the face of this unplanned level of economic competition, in 2009 the County established the village redevelopment process, described elsewhere on this blog, which encourages the creation of Village Center Community Plans. The Harper's Choice Village Center Community Planning Committee seeks to make the Harper’s Choice Village Center an inviting community focal point that maintains a balanced, sustainable environment for current and future generations, hosts a strong core of merchants who are part of the community, and satisfies and adapts to day-to-day resident needs. Some specific aspects of the long term vision are to: reconfigure the center to make it more unified and pedestrian friendly, add more residential units, include features that make it more of a destination, model sustainable design best practices in new construction and in landscape integration with a focus on storm water management, and create a sense of character and place that sets it apart from other community centers and the larger shopping complexes. We are working to create community reliance by maximizing connections and supporting local fulfillment of needs.  

A Best Case of Systems Thinking for Sustainable Communities

In any system, the whole is different than the sum of the individual parts. As such, systems thinking recognizes that each element of a system can only be fully understood in the context of the system as a whole. This holistic approach can be used in any area of inquiry to examine the networks of relationships and connections between the elements that comprise both individual and nested systems. According to Barlow and Stone (2011), systems thinking requires many critical shifts in perception: changing the focus from parts to the whole, from objects to relationships, from objective to contextual knowledge, from quantity to quality, from structure to process, and from contents to patterns.  
As Albert Einstein so wisely said, “we can’t solve our problems with the same way of thinking we used when we created them.”   The mechanistic, positivist and reductionist approach that has dominated western society, and increasingly the world, for the past several hundred years is understood to have resulted in a way of thinking that separates people from the world.  Widespread environmental degradation is a direct result of this disconnect.  Systems thinking places people and their many systems back within the fundamental natural support system on which we depend, creating a needed perspective change.  As a result, systems thinking offers a productive framework for making holistic decisions about the interacting requirements for a sustainable human society that recognizes how each decision may impact the broader human and ecological systems (Morris, 2010).  
According to living systems theory, as described by Fritjof Capra (2002), “nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities” for the purpose of meeting collective needs. Human communities of all scales are complex systems of systems that are nested in regional, national and global systems, all of which are interdependent. Therefore, global sustainability cannot be achieved without local sustainability.  It becomes of utmost importance to develop sustainable human communities at the local level because these efforts both resolve local challenges and contribute to solving the same issues globally.  Jamie Cloud  (2011) calls this type of full spectrum systems thinking “prescinding”, which means to look with a “zoom lens at our local systems while, at the same time, using a wide lens to keep our eyes on the big picture.” 
There are a variety of ways to categorize the multitude of sub-systems within a local community. One approach used successfully by the EarthCAT Guide to Community Development, is to organize them into five broad classes of interacting sub-systems (Hallsmith, Layke, Everett, 2005):
  1. Social system (addresses needs for culture, values, care, and education)
  2. Governance system (addresses needs for order, justice, security, and collective decision-making)
  3. Economic system (addresses needs for monetary income and productive employment)
  4. Services and infrastructure system (addresses needs for material goods and services)
  5. Environmental system (addresses needs for healthy ecosystems and natural spaces)
Each of these systems as well as the whole communities that they comprise change dynamically over time, are driven by feedback loops, and exhibit the property of emergence.   The creation of sustainable communities requires exploring how each of these complex systems interacts with each other in daily life.    
In 2005, the city of Calgary in Canada began an eighteen month process of creating a long range urban sustainability plan.  This “city led and community owned” ImagineCALGARY initiative began a vast dialogue in which the city was viewed as a whole system for the purpose of achieving balance between  economic, social, governance and environmental needs, an equitable distribution of both resources and opportunities and a balance between the needs of current generations and those of the future (ImagineCALGARY, 2006).    
An understanding of systems and the ability to think systematically were recognized as key components of the ImagineCALGARY project.   All the primary participants in this process including the Mayor’s Panel on Urban Sustainability, the ImagineCALGARY round table, working groups, advisors, and the project team were trained on systems thinking and design.   Using this systems approach, a framework was developed that integrated the ten Melbourne Principles (which comprise the only internationally ratified set of sustainability principles for cities) with the EarthCAT process of identifying human needs (within the five key community sub-systems described and illustrated above).   Because community assets provide the means by which human needs are met, ImagineCALGARY used an asset/needs approach (instead of a problem solving approach) to engage the community in developing a vision, goals, targets and strategies.   Ultimately over 18,000 people participated in the development of a 100 year vision that includes specific goals, targets and strategies for creating a sustainable Calgary, making it one of the largest citizen involvements in a visioning process in the world.  
The Calgary example is an excellent application of systems thinking to the process of creating a sustainable community.  The focus on key strengths of the community allowed the community to tap into a powerful leverage point for change and develop strategies that not only resolved current challenges but will strengthen the resiliency of the community over time (Hallsmith et al., 2005).

Monday, April 9, 2012

Local Food

As discussed in the "Sustainability of Harper's Choice" post, there is currently little to no connection in the Village of Harper's choice to the local food system. What does this mean and why does this matter?

In recognition of the destructive social, environmental and economic impacts of the global industrial food system, a movement is growing to return to traditional, local food systems in which food is produced for local and regional consumption. The local food movement is a "collaborative effort to build more locally based, self-reliant food economies, in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution, and consumption is integrated to enhance the economic, environmental and social health of a particular place (Feenstra, 2002)."  It is part of the concept of local economies; a preference to buy locally produced goods and services rather than those produced by corporatized institutions. 

There are numerous benefits to supporting local food producers, which tend to be smaller and increasingly environmentally aware farmers. By buying local: “food miles” are relatively small, which substantially reduces fossil fuel use and pollution; farmers are able to diversify, which creates many niches on the farm for biodiversity to flourish; soil erosion is diminished along with the lesser reliance on heavy machinery; and organic methods are more likely to be adopted given the greater resilience of polycultures.  From an economic perspective, local foods systems driven by small diversified farms can help reinvigorate entire economies because most of the money spent on food goes to the farmer and small farms employ more people per acre than large monocultures. Local food is almost by definition fresher and less processed than global food, making it more nutritious.  Food security would also be dramatically improved if people depended more on local foods. Instead of being concentrated in a handful of corporations, control over food would be dispersed and decentralized. As this is a brief overview of local foods and the associated benefits, a length list of resources has been provided at the end of this post. 

Broad and lasting transition to local food systems will require changes at the level of trade treaties, national policies, and governmental subsidies to prioritize domestic and local capabilities instead of transnational corporations.  However, the good news is that there are a number of things that can be done to help Harper's Choice become a community of locavores - people who are interested in eating food that is locally produced rather than moved long distances to market. 

From a Village Center Perspective:

  • Reach out to local farmers offering CSAs and encourage them to have the community center, Kahler Hall, be a drop off point. Advertise any resulting CSA opportunities to the community through the newsletter and at Kahler Hall. 
  • Cultivate a weekly farmers market to be held in Joseph Square
  • Work with the Columbia Association to establish a community garden on some of their open land, either around Joseph Square or near the Sports Park.
  • Cultivate citizen interest to petition Kimco, the retail property owner, to encourage/select new merchants that are locally owned and source food from local producers. Similarly, petition and work with Safeway and the existing locally owned restaurants to encourage them to source local, seasonal food and fair trade food where local isn't possible.
  • Create educational opportunities for Village Center residents about the value of local foods.
At the individual level, people can be encouraged to:

-Shop at Farmers Markets
-Participate in community supported agriculture (CSAs)
-Start a small garden, even if it is herbs in window boxes or planters 
-Eat whole foods and avoid food-like products

-Read food labels; buy things with few (and pronouncable) ingredients
-Look for fair trade certified labels
-Learn how to can, dry, and freeze local foods purchased at their peak for use in "off" seasons
-Compost food waste and use the resulting soil in your garden

Local food resources:

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Local Currency - Columbia Cash

Local currencies can play a vital role in the development of stable, diversified regional economies, giving definition and identity to regions, encouraging face-to-face transactions between neighbors, and helping to revitalize local cultures (New Economics Institute). Local currencies strengthen local economies by avoiding the leaky bucket syndrome where wealth that is generated within a community "leaks" out to the wider economy at large. A local currency is not simply an economic tool; it is also a cultural tool.  As such, Columbia, Maryland, which was visionary when it was created, seems ripe for the creation of "Columbia Cash" which would help to strengthen the local economy, and be particularly supportive of vibrant Village Center commerce as they face competition from big box stores on the periphery of town.

Since 2002 there has been an upsurge in local currency usage particularly payment voucher-based systems that are exchangeable with the national currency. Such currencies aim to increase the resilience of local economies by encouraging re-localisation of buying and food production. The drive for this change comes from a variety of community-based initiatives and social movements. The Transition Towns movement originating in the UK has utilized local currencies for re-localisation in the face of energy descent from peak oil and climate change. Other drivers include movements against "Clone Town" and the impacts of big-box stores.
Time Dollars, Ithaca Hours, and BerkShares are among the most successful local currency systems in the USA.  In considering a local currency model for Columbia, BerkShares seems to be a viable example. BerkShares are a local currency for the Berkshire region of Massachusetts intended to be a tool for community empowerment, enabling merchants and consumers to plant the seeds for an alternative economic future for their communities. Launched in the fall of 2006, over one million BerkShares were circulated in the first nine months and over 3.3 million as of March 2012 (New Economics Institute).
In considering a local currency for Columbia, The Schumacher Society recommends the following policies to maintain long-term confidence:
  • The issuing organization should be incorporated as a nonprofit so the public understands that providing access to credit is a service not linked to private gain. The organization should be democratic, with membership open to all area residents and with a board elected by the members.
  • Its policy should be to create new short-term credit for productive purposes. Such credit is normally provided for up to three months for goods or services that have already been produced and are on their way to market-credit for things which pay for themselves in a very short time.
  • The regional bank or currency organization should be free of governmental control-other than inspection-so that investment decisions are independent and are made by the community.
  • Social and ecological criteria should be introduced into loan-making. (Community investment funds also use a positive set of social criteria particular to their own region. These funds could join with hard-pressed local banks to initiate regional currencies.)
  • Loan programs and local currencies should support local production for local needs.
Community groups across the country, from Kansas City, to Eugene, to Boulder, to Philmont, New York, are issuing their own currencies, and each is uniquely tailored to the people, culture, and products of the region. As Columbia looks to ensure a vibrant next 40 years, local currency warrants a place in the discussion.