Monthly Archives: February 2013

Making a Toolkit for Green Blocks

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Across the nation, small groups of citizens are coming together to promote sustainability in their own neighborhoods. Neighbors in Los Angeles are taking a communal approach to green living at the block scale. People are meeting on weekends for de-paving parties in Portland and home weatherization barn raisings in Cambridge. And in Boulder, homeowners are literally bringing the movement to their own backyards by converting lawns to urban farms. In her thesis, Ingrid Heilke (MCP ’10) took stock of these efforts and considered the opportunities for proliferating community-scale sustainability.

Neighborhood-level sustainability is the middle ground between building- and city-scale initiatives. Community-organized efforts can offer economy-of-scale advantages over what an individual could accomplish alone, but have a degree of access to and control over property that surpasses that of city planners. But despite their advantages, these projects are few and far between and there is no current way for these communities to share stories with each other and provide tips for overcoming common barriers.

Ingrid proposes a Green Blocks toolkit that would bring these groups together and provide specific resources for their programs. She envisions an online resource center that provides a menu of tried-and-true community initiatives, a social network that allows local and national allies to interact, and basic management and analytic tools needed for day-to-day operations. These resources would accomplish the dual goals of helping local efforts succeed and creating a network that can grow the neighborhood model.

Community-based sustainability efforts have the potential to go viral and become a legitimate movement. But first, they need a way of spreading good ideas throughout their neighborhoods, cities, and country. Read more about Ingrid’s ideas of how to achieve this in her thesis.

Can We Share Middlesex Fells?

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Located 8 miles from downtown Boston, Middlesex Fells provides a rare natural escape from the hustle of urban life. It is a popular retreat for hikers, dog walkers, and mountain bikers. The multiple uses of the Fells has become a source of conflict and reports of off-trail wandering, unfriendly dogs, and unruly bikers have led to animosity among the park-goers.

In 2010, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) set out to address these conflicts and establish a clear set of rules for the park. Andrea Christenson (MCP ’11) was there to document the process. The DCR organized a public forum to discuss the uses that would and wouldn’t be allowed in the Fells, and quickly found itself the subject of an impressive lobbying effort on the part of groups representing the park’s different users. The hostility among groups made it hard to reach agreement, as hikers and mountain bikers traded barbs and op-eds about the destruction that the other group was causing to the park’s trails. Despite this, the DCR made an admirable effort to craft an agreement that worked for the various stakeholder groups invested in the Fells.

The resulting draft Trail System Plan issued by the DCR tried to accommodate the multiple uses of the park and minimize opportunities for conflict among groups. The plan received a mixed welcome, and intentionally left no group fully satisfied. Hikers and their preservationist allies criticized the plan for failing to protect the park from destructive biking uses. Ultimately, DCR bowed to the political pressure that these groups were able to muster and chose not to implement the plan until a larger and more comprehensive Resource Management Plan could be completed.

Andrea’s in-depth narrative offers a close-up view of the challenges that planners face when they try to reconcile the concerns of multiple stakeholder groups. The title of her thesis fittingly describes what so many planners and constituent groups have found to be the truth: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Read more about the planning process at the Middlesex Fells in Andrea’s Thesis here.

Protecting the Florida Orange from Urban Expansion

Photo credit: cambodia4kidsorg

Photo credit: cambodia4kidsorg

In the last half century, Florida has gone through some serious growing pains. The state has had an explosive period of growth and its population has risen from 5 million residents in 1960 to 19 million in 2010. Finding enough land to accommodate new residents has been challenging in a state with sensitive wildlife habitats, prized scenic areas, and a strong agricultural history. Agriculture is the state’s largest land use and its second largest industry. Nevertheless, as cities have expanded developers have begun to outbid Florida’s farmers for the use of their land.

Fortunately, Florida saw this problem coming and in 1985 passed a Growth Management Act that required cities and towns to undertake comprehensive land use planning efforts. The resulting plans reserved certain areas for open space and agriculture. But is preparing a plan enough to stop the inexorable expansion of cities? Stephen Lloyd (MCP ’11) aimed to find out.

Stephen’s thesis looked at land in southern Florida that has changed from an agricultural use to non-agricultural use over the last two decades, and found that the land use plans required by the Growth Management Act were indeed useful in preserving farmland. Agricultural areas that were inside areas designated as future farmland were significantly less likely to be converted to non-agricultural uses.
However, Stephen also noticed that this affect was weaker in coastal counties than in inland areas where farmland was not as valuable. To protect coastal farmlands, he concludes, cities will have to do more than adopt land use plans. They will need to implement additional protections for agricultural land.
 
To learn more about Stephen’s conclusions and his methods of identifying at-risk farmland, read his thesis here.

Bringing Fresh Produce to the Corner

In many cities, the ability to eat nutritiously is hardly universal. Communities that are not fortunate enough to have a local supermarket are left without a means of obtaining fresh produce. Corner stores are generally seen as part of the problem as they provide easy access to tobacco and junk food but rarely reserve space on their shelves for produce. Advocates for healthy communities would score a major victory if they could work with these small retail outlets to revamp their product lines and include healthy alternatives.

Photo credit: lachsand

Photo credit: lachsand

Angela Hadwin (MCP ’12) looked at the prospects of bringing fresh produce to corner stores and identified several barriers. First, the produce industry is not oriented towards serving small retailers, whereas the tobacco and junk food industries make it easy for retailers to stock their products. Also, corner store operators are not used to dealing with perishable products, and may not have the needed equipment and capacity to make changes.
 
But if advocates could pair the needs of corner stores and produce suppliers, they could make a real impact in the health of local communities. Angela draws on the experience of past programs to lay out a plan for accomplishing this. Programs can work with local communities to build demand for healthy food and provide training for corner store operators to deal with fresh produce. They can also guide store owners to work collectively with wholesale produce terminal markets or even local farmers to obtain healthy produce at affordable prices. If given the resources they need, corner stores could stop being part of the problem, and start being part of the solution. You can learn more about Angela’s suggestions for improving the quality of food in cities in her thesis here.