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Imagine a Better, More Sustainable, More Fun, Future

Downtown Montpelier

Are you worried that climate change will bring unforeseen trouble into your life and your children’s future? Despite this concern, do you also dread the possibility of carbon taxing and limited access to oil-based products? If so, you aren’t the only one and all hope is not lost. There is another way to consider the future of our planet, which requires a shift in our collective lifestyle assumptions.

 

Changing the Climate Argument from Science to Psychology

Up to now, people who were perplexed by the coming challenges of climate change tried to use rational arguments based on science to make the case for a rapid change in how we treat the planet. This strategy, however, doesn’t seem to have made an impact on the wider community. It’s not that people are unaware of the consequences of ignoring our environmental impact. It’s more likely that they fear the discomfort of changing their behavior. It’s easy enough to leave the hard choices up to the future, believing that everything will sort itself out by, say, 2050.

We all tend to find comfort in the status quo because it’s what we know. However, if we want to move toward a sustainable future, we need to embrace changes in what we know and like. Otherwise, we will find that change is thrust upon us by economic, climatic, and political forces.

Unfortunately, changes are happening faster than we thought. In November 2013, the International Energy Agency predicted the potential for a catastrophic increase in the global average temperature by 2035 if we stay on our present course of fossil fuel consumption. So it’s beginning to look like we need to take a different approach to mobilizing ourselves.

 

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Re-visioning Our Vermont Cities

Wandering around my small city of Montpelier (and a lot of other small cities in Vermont), I’ve noticed that most of our post-war housing, work, and consumption choices were completely dependent on the free and easy use of the car. We are living with the consequences of a 70-year-old silent takeover of our city’s public spaces by the automobile because so many have moved to the hillsides of our neighboring towns.

Take a look at the map below. See all the red? That is the amount of downtown Montpelier real estate committed to off-street parking. The most valuable and buildable land in the city is committed to parking lots. Though these lots offer convenience for drivers, they provide little public benefit and a lot of toxic runoff. Most of this land is charged no or minimal tax in a city that is constantly burdened with ever-increasing property taxes. Obviously, there is something wrong with this picture.

Net_Zero_Vermont-1.jpg

This story isn’t just about Montpelier. It is also about Barre, White River Junction, St. Albans, and Rutland. The economic energy that once enlivened Main Street has moved to the big box stores on the periphery of town. Our city planners have become necessarily focused on how to spur economic life with the aid of commuters, rather than local residents alone.

Slowly, our city’s downtowns have been hollowed out to make parking spaces for commuters. Once the land was repurposed to fill the needs of commuters, much of the city’s future planning and economic development became dependent on the automobile and as a result, people expect that more and more of their lives will depend on motorized vehicles.

 

Hope Is on the Horizon

Though the image may seem bleak, as I mentioned earlier, all hope is not lost. We can develop a smarter, more positive, vision of Montpelier and other Vermont towns. We can reclaim the real estate that has been taken over by the automobile and transform our downtown areas into thriving community centers. We could manage a reduction in local property taxes by dramatically increasing the amount of taxable property downtown. We can turn all that wasted real estate into something more valuable and create a more livable city center.

Imagine a new, more local economy, with a lot greater social interaction and a lot lower energy demand from everyone. Creating such a vision could help us all generate the civic energy needed to support a more sustainable way of living in our classic town. Such a vision could help us all generate the energy needed to support a more sustainable way of living in our old city.

On July 13th 2015, Net Zero Vermont publicly announced an independent effort to help Montpelier reach its goal of having the city be Net Zero in carbon pollution by 2030. We offered a $10,000 prize for the best architectural design to help citizens imagine a sustainable Montpelier in 2030. Visit www.netzerovt.org if you would like to know the outcome of this competition.

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