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Civic innovators find hope and progress in St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 20, 2012 - As a former National Geographic photographer, Dan Burden likes to display photos. Those splashed up on the larger-than-life screen behind him are idyllic images of children at play and people walking, biking and talking. It’s a pleasant montage.

But it’s not real.

“That’s la-la land. That’s Disney World,” he said as the images change to scenes of traffic and gridlock. “The real world that we recognize is very different. People sit in cars far longer than they would like to. The sidewalks have not been cared for. Sometimes they were never built. The suburban areas have no identity, no character, and many who want to age in place have to leave their homes for an eldercare facility.”

“We created this habitat and only we can pull us out of it,” he concluded.

Burden was one of three primary speakers Tuesday morning at the Federal Reserve Bank building on the subject of the future of sustainability and livability, twin topics that often generate equal measures of devotion, confusion and political heat.

Burden, named by Time Magazine in 2001 as one of the six most important civic innovators in the world, is executive director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute based in Washington state. He shared the dais with Robert McNulty, a former director of the Columbia University School of Architecture’s historic preservation program who is now the founder and president of the Washington, D.C.-headquartered Partners for Livable Communities, and Andre Pettigrew, a longtime official in Denver’s local government who now runs the Climate Prosperity Project, Inc., another D.C.-based group.

The event, attended by a few dozen individuals, many hailing from local civic institutions, business or community development groups, was part of the Fed’s annual “Exploring Innovation” event. The main speakers were followed by a discussion among six local individuals in fields that ranged from real estate to education to banking.

Jobs are the keys to sustainability and livability

Despite the name of Pettigrew’s organization, the pragmatic tone of his remarks made it clear that he was focused on economics.

“It’s the economic agenda that leads this, not the environmental or sustainable agenda,” he said. “It’s about an economic strategy that generates environmental benefits, not the reverse”

Pettigrew, addressed many of the economic aspects of sustainability, speaking at length about the importance of job creation.

“In our work, we don’t start with green jobs. We start with the economy,” he said. “There are some fundamentals you have to have in place in order to create something called a green job.”

Pettigrew noted the heavy frustration over an increasingly paralyzed federal government. But he told his audience that while progress seemed increasingly slow at the federal level, he drew hope from local communities including places like St. Louis. He lauded such initiatives as the Regional Commerce and Growth Association’s green jobs profile unveiled in 2010, which revealed that nearly 9,000 such jobs were created over a 13-year period.

“On its face, that’s not a lot,” he said, “but during that same period that growth was about 54 percent versus your overall job growth which was around 4 percent.”

Interviewed after his talk, Pettigrew said states, municipalities and regions were carrying the ball on sustainability.

“They aren’t wedded to the national politics,” he said. “The noise of Washington confuses the matter. It worries people, but what we’ve seen over the past few years is that people are committed to their communities and they are working very hard to carve out a vision, align a set of resources and get to work around this issue.”

McNulty focused his remarks on a definition of sustainability, which he said remains elusive but tends to zero in on quality of life issues which could impact anything from health care to whether residents have a good spot to walk their dogs.

“Everybody wants livability but no one knows quite what it means,” he said quoting an associate in the field. “It’s a flexible standard.”

Still, he said a recent survey revealed that many felt the “glue” holding communities together was found in things like a city’s aesthetic qualities, a welcoming attitude towards outsiders and a multiplicity of options for civic gatherings and social interaction.

“Who would have thought during a recession that these values would be important?” he said. “Livability is about people, place and the economy.”

Interviewed afterwards, McNulty said the vagueness surrounding concepts like livability is an advantage, not a problem.

“It could be in the Himalayas and they are talking about gross national happiness in Bhutan, or you go into a low-income inner city and they are talking about jobs and equal opportunity,” he said. “It’s a brand where you can go anywhere in the world and say, can I help contribute to your livability? People define it by their needs.”

St. Louis is a ‘comeback city’

McNulty said he felt hopeful about St. Louis’s chances of achieving a better standard of life for its residents.

“I think St. Louis is the comeback city,” he said. “It was the city that lost the highest percentage of its population in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s come back so its downtown is increasingly more vibrant. It’s a success story.”

However all the problems haven’t gone away. African-Americans in the city have told him privately that they would like to see more follow through from the business community in promoting upward mobility. Affordable housing, availability of transportation and other resources, as well as racial justice, are all considered parts of sustainability.

“I think equity of opportunity is still an unfulfilled goal so everyone has a chance for a good life in this community,” he said.

During his remarks, Burden spoke of efforts in a number of cities to increase livability by reconfiguring urban and suburban areas away from sprawling parking lots and congested streets into designs friendlier to bicyclists and pedestrians. He said the additions of pocket parks, bike lanes, medians and trees, as well as methods of urban planning that create more interactions between buildings and residents, have all served to boost both happiness and property values.

Reducing velocity on formerly speedy roadways has cut down on traffic fatalities. It has also helped to promote commerce with areas more conducive to walkers and slower drivers who might frequent streetside shops. The goal, he said, is to create self-contained villages with a sense of “place” and personality instead of a cityscape of boxy buildings floating amidst seas of sterile concrete and asphalt.

Interviewed afterward, Burden said getting people to accept the idea of change was no easy task, an odd thought since, as he noted, the concept of a sprawling suburbia was itself a new one for civilization, no more than 70 years old.

“We get used to something being the way we expect it to be,” he said. “We may not even like it, but we don’t know what the unknown is so we continue to accept whatever it is and we fail to make the improvements we need to make.”

He said St. Louis has both “fabulous” neighborhoods and examples of those in “pain.” He felt optimistic it would make the right choices.

“St. Louis is no better off and no worse off than most cities,” he said. “There are some that are far worse off, places like Detroit that are going to be far worse off and are going to be tough to rescue.”

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