The worst of the "Rust Belt," Detroit and Flint, Michigan; Toledo and Cleveland, Ohio; Gary, Indiana; Patterson and Newark, New Jersey, are often mentioned among the most unpleasant and dangerous cities in America. Beyond high poverty and crime rates, many such communities are cursed by polluted air, poor water quality, a lack of green space, and high numbers of abandoned buildings of all sorts. Young people can't wait to get out of places like this and are instead drawn to safer, more livable communities that are also usually environmentally sustainable. Older folks are more likely to remain in these pleasant places even after retirement. Businesses find these good places to invest and talented people like to live and work there.
Sustainability goes far beyond the stereotype of attractive streetscapes, extensive parklands, tree lined streets and pristine creek sides. It's a lifestyle and a set of policies and programs that encourages ecological improvement, smart transportation, economic growth with small environmental footprints and encouragement of local, home-grown businesses. It is also not just a general preservation of natural resources but historic ones as well.
"Sustainability balances the relationship between ecological integrity, economic prosperity and social equity," explained Warwick Township Manager Dan Zimmerman at the Sustainable Pennsylvania conference in State College.
People are looking for good places to raise their kids, attractive neighborhoods, parks and other green spaces. They desire pleasant places to walk, run, ride their bike or float their kayak. They want good drinking water and affordable sewer and waste services. Vibrant cities and regions with these assets attract people, businesses and the economic opportunities that come with them.
Though manufacturing remains an important source of employment, the urban economy looks different than it did fifty years ago. This change has turned economic development upside down. It's not just about the availability of jobs. Great communities and regions attract both people and economic activity. The most "livable" towns and cities are characterized by a healthy and attractive local environment, the preservation of natural places and historic treasures and the presence of cultural and social activities.
Penn State's Public Radio station, WPSU, hosted a community forum here in Altoona as part of a state-wide Public Radio "Keystone Crossroads" in Fall 2014. The forum was intended to bring a better understanding of how "Pennsylvania's cities, large and small, can address their problems and fulfill their promise." Beyond fostering a dialog about our region, WPSU also hopes to discover what they can do as an important media outlet in the community. How can they raise awareness and bring a better understanding of the challenges confronting cities like Altoona?
More than sixty people attended and engaged in a spirited discussion about the problems and opportunities and how we might address them. Though many discussions centered on the importance of a safe community and educational opportunities for our children, environmental and related quality of life issues were also a big part of the dialog. Participants observed that good things were happening, yet they feared that forces were undermining many of those positive things in the community.
They valued the natural beauty of the region but voiced concern over the scenic blight that too often exists in the community. Several noted that they felt fortunate to have high quality drinking water supplies, but were concerned about the future of water systems. There was enthusiasm about our recycling program but frustration that it was not available in all the suburban communities. Participants appreciated the slower pace and lack of highway congestion but were disappointed that pedestrian, handicap and bicycle access was not better.
There was also a sense that we did not always look at ourselves as one unified community and that many of our challenges could be aggravated by that. Environmentally smart land development, coordinated bike and pedestrian planning, and cooperative efforts on environmental infrastructure (water, sewer, storm water and recycling) are much more likely to come together if we address them together.
Visit WPSU's Keystone Crossroads website for more. Check out Lancaster's Efforts or visit Sustainable Pennsylvania.