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.

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