A few years ago, I indulged in getting a PhD to study the attributes that make some communities good at innovation and adaptation while others flounder or stagnate, the forms of social capital that support productive change. There is abundant evidence that social relations matter. Comparing divisions in a major pharmaceutical company, researchers found that the most innovations came from the ones with the richest networks. Comparing census tracts in Iowa with similar economic development efforts underway, researchers found that the most business startups came from the places with the best public meeting spaces and most diverse communications media. The result of my thesis research can be summed up very simply as follows: we need each other to make change and prosper, and the time devoted to understanding and supporting each other is one of the highest-value investments we can make.
We’re living in wild times, times of uncertainty, and also a time of enormous creativity. Many of us are engaged in very intense work - figuring out how to deal with floods, storm surges and droughts; how to keep our core city/town/village centers not just livable but attractive; how to create real energy security by slashing demand and keeping supply clean, renewable and as local as possible; how to have an economy that isn’t at odds with community interests and natural systems.
Today we are here together to look at where that larger vision stands, how it can be advanced in the context of the Mid-Hudson Regional Sustainability Plan just created, and how the Plan fits into the context of much other good work underway by New York, its counties and communities, and the rich network of nongovernmental organizations that keep the Hudson Valley vibrant. Funded by NYSERDA and supported by over 300 skilled volunteers, the regional sustainability plan examines specifically how we are contributing to climate change and what we can do to measurably reduce those impacts while creating a more economically viable, resilient and thriving region that is prepared to deal with unavoidable impacts.
The largest component of our carbon footprint is transportation, so we certainly have to do more to help people work closer to home and get out of their cars whenever possible, and to make dense people-friendly communities viable. Electric power, building heating and cooling, energy to manage waste and water, and local food systems to minimize fossil-intensive importing - all these are parts of the puzzle.
The storms and floods and fires and droughts of the last decade - disruptive and horrifying though they are - serve as an invitation. They invite us to look at our ability to respond, our organization within and among our institutions, neighborhoods, and communities. They invite us to ask what it will take to withstand the next mega-blackout, the next heat wave, the next flood, with minimized damage and maximized ability to bounce back better. So our themes of today are resilience - the ability to withstand stress and especially disruptive events, regenerate what’s lost and adapt well to new conditions; and renewal, accepting the challenge of “the new normal” of crises and stresses, yet imagine and create communities that are more durable, stress-resistant, life-affirming, health-promoting, connected and adaptive, using one resource that is not in short supply, human talent.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy there was virtually a cottage industry of commentary on the big new idea of resilience. There were pundits suggesting that “resilience is the new sustainability,” and it is certainly a dimension to take seriously. My father was an engineer and a pool shark, and he went to his grave regretting that he could never get me to master the art of hitting the ball into the pocket and leaving the cue ball positioned for the next shot, so Dad has become an angel on my shoulder as I engage with the subject of bouncing back better by positioning ourselves wisely. Resilience is not just ability to withstand short-term, but organization to bounce back longer-term renewal - spirit and strategy for strengthening our communities with a creative momentum that is stronger than whatever may have hit us recently. That is a function of physical design and infrastructure, and policy, but above all a product of our relationships and shared vision.
Resilience is a quality of the whole system, and I hope that today we will generate quality exploration of ways to align the whole system of the Hudson Valley to create a more prosperous, secure, sustainable and resilient region. A recent report by the Woodrow Wilson Institute suggests some attributes of resilient systems:
• diversity and redundancy of components, so that everything is unlikely to fail all at once; think energy and communications among other things;
• modularity, so that elements still work when disconnected from the whole; like local food
systems and solar panels with backup that you can wheel around;
• reserves - Japan rebuilt from its tsunami faster than Haiti because they had the cash, but
strategic water reserves, biodiversity reserves and human capacity are just as key;
• social capital - strength of relationships, trust, ease of communication, norms of give-and-take;
• sense of agency - the power to make a difference and the responsibility to do one’s part
• Inclusiveness of approaches, so that, in a crisis, everyone is reached with help and the
opportunity to help;
• tight feedbacks - allowing the consequences of choices to be seen and interpreted quickly so that we can nimbly adjust
• Innovation - when an old system breaks or loses viability, bouncing back better may mean bouncing in an unanticipated direction.
What does this look like? Distributed and renewable energy, diverse transportation and housing choices, strengthened regional food systems, smart growth to focus development where there is existing infrastructure, economic focus on natural resource based industries and green technologies -- a lot like the Mid-Hudson Regional Sustainability Plan.
Bouncing back better, preparedness, feedbacks, design principles - resilience is not just about infrastructure, but about people, engagement and leadership - even inspiration. I believe we are at a crossroads in the response to climate change, not because we don’t care or don’t act - we do, but we don’t inspire, at least not often enough. We market our energy efficiency initiatives and our public meetings and the next cool program with caution, trying to make it convenient and show it won’t disrupt the patterns of our lives, rather than admitting that the changes we need may be disruptive from time to time. To be clear, disruptive doesn’t have to mean unpleasant, just that we will need to shake ourselves and each other up in order to achieve the rapid and decisive turnaround on climate change that is needed.
That brings us to the theme of renewal - of our communities for local self-reliance and livability, but underlying that we need to renew ourselves as spirited, empowered leaders. There are rich examples around the world of sustainability initiatives arising as renewal efforts
- Remember Chattanooga where sustainability was the antidote to stagnation and blight
- Indianapolis where Cultural Trail uses green infrastructure and walkable bike able streets + public art as anchoring strategy to get people out of their cars and engaged at many levels, with $17 million in private gifts leveraging hundreds of millions in private investment and high public enthusiasm.
- Fort ZED, the Fort Collins Zero Net Energy District, a partnership between the Department of Energy, the university and many businesses.....
- Ten Thousand Rain Gardens in Kansas City, focusing on cooling and water management, was the same multi-year, multi-stakeholder, carefully planned and flexibly implemented initiative...
- and around the world, from the revitalization of the Ruhr Valley through a ten year architectural design contest, to the revitalization of London’s Olympic Park with wildflowers and green infrastructure built to last for generations.
Each of these projects and models has many dimensions, but an integrative vision that captures the imagination and allows for diverse, adaptive participation.That is the quality of vision we need.