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New Trail Showcases Competing Sustainability Considerations--and Sparks An Idea of Mine That Simply Won't Go Away

Posted Mar 06 2013 6:05am
So I wasn't going to write about this because there are a lot of heated emotions locally about it and, frankly, the new-city-let's-all-work-together good vibe from just a few years ago has left the room (the metro-Atlanta city where I live became the newest city in the United States a little more than four years ago, and I have been bearing witness and participating hands-on in various ways since then). An ad in this week's local paper by a recently-formed citizen group includes a poll that suggests a definite fight-a-brewin' as three city council seats will become available this fall. One of the hot issues is this trail.  

This trail is being built in this weird park in our city, which used to be a psychiatric campus complete with a hospital, dorms, therapeutic greenhouse center, and more. The hospital and the rest of the operations closed years ago, the county bought the place, and then my new city bought it from the county when it purchased all the parks (which amount to a paltry 3.26 acres of park per 1,000 citizens, way below the recommended 10 acres per 1,000). It has figured prominently in both the Comprehensive Land Use Plan (the "30,000-foot bird's eye view" of the city, on which I served on the steering committee and tried to ensure some principals of sustainability were built into the DNA) and other drilled-down plans, some of which flew with the public and some of which didn't. 

The park is kind of a mess of a place (although it now includes a really nice children's playground, a skateboard park that is really the only place for teenage boys in this city, a citizen-run dog park, and the citizen-run community garden and greenhouse) with no approved master plan as to next steps, although a deed that came attached to its purchase requires 70% of it to remain greenspace. All the approved plans for the city (in which citizens had gobs of opportunities to participate) include citywide connectivity between existing and new walking/biking paths and trails. No, the plans did not call for the trail in this park to be 12-feet-wide (which apparently is the standard for rails-to-trails walking/biking paths but not necessarily woodland ones) and non-permeable concrete, and, yes, communications between city hall and citizens were less than stellar* during the decision-making process for the actual details (as opposed to the concept), but here we are, it's happening, and I have swung by a couple of times, including yesterday, to check it out. 

*I do believe eroding trust is a major issue in my city, and that steps are needed to rebuild it.

And here's the thing about sustainability. It's a triple-pronged perspective that includes people, planet, and profits all working together to use resources wisely, with future generations in mind. So this trail is not just about saving or losing trees to me. It's about some competing considerations that each have pros and cons, and hard decisions that elected officials made to achieve bigger-picture objectives. Here's my little one-minute video about it:

A New Trail Presents Competing Sustainability Principles from Pattie Baker on Vimeo .

And here's a thing that's nagging at me, about conservation and our "Nature Deficit Disorder" next-generation. If we don't get kids out in nature, they will not fall in love with nature and thus, they will not care to save it. I wrote about this in detail in a post titled The Question that Made Me Stop in My Tracks (it's also in my book on pages 95-96). I've been in the park a ton over the past few years, and trust me, the kids are not in nature. We've all probably seen a TV movie or two over the years about some group of 12-year-olds trying to save a tree in their town, and what concerns me is that I don't see one member of the next generation involved with this issue. They don't care, and if we want to talk true sustainability for our resources, natural and otherwise, we need them to care. We need them to be out there in nature. We need paths and trails and boardwalks that make it safe, easy, and attractive for them to choose a bike ride in the park with their friends over the mall or the flat screen TV in the finished basement. (Please recall that when I ran a pilot vegetable garden program with our local middle school students last year, they did not know that picture 1 leads to pictures 2 and 3 below when I picked the acorn off the ground and plucked the sapling from the earth.)

Middle school students in my city do not know that picture 1 leads to pictures 2 and 3

As for the 200+ trees that are getting chopped down, here's what's not being discussed. This new city of mine already has a No Net Loss of Trees policy, so this number of trees will be replanted somewhere. But where? And what kind? If citizens want to be helpful at this point, let's start thinking of that. And, personally, I continue to see an opportunity for my city to do something really special and forward-thinking, as a true gift to our children. Something that citizens from Boston to Philadelphia to Detroit to Madison, Wisconsin are already all over. 

Plant public fruit trees, and not just an orchard as part of a local non-profit in a park (however terrific that is). Truly public, with no rules or permissions needed to nibble. Lining the streets or in some other part of the park or even under power lines on the public right-of-way part (not the private property part). With access for all. (Think Seattle Food Fo rest .)  

And lest you think, "well, that would be a mess," may I remind you of the pear tree right there on a main street in my city that we harvested for the food pantry the last two years?  Took less than an hour from start to finish, we yielded about 600 pounds each time , there was zero mess left behind, and boy, those pear pies made from pears that were cracked or bruised were truly delicious! I'd like more of that.  

An excellent book named Public Produce addresses every possible objection you can name, with real-world examples of outside-the-box thinking that makes public produce work. (Here's my little video about public produce with a mention of the book at the end--and you can see the pear tree, heavy with fruit. Thanks, Beth, for including it on Southeast Green.) That book costs $25.  I encourage my city leaders to include it in its million-dollar budget for the trail and give it a quick read.

Traveling across the U.S. and want to grab a free, healthy snack? Check out this site for the locations and public picking status of more than 10,000 fruit and nut trees in 25 cities.  Maybe one day my city (and yours) will be on that site as well. Because, frankly, I continue to believe that The Cities with Local Food Supplies Win , and that, regarding economic sustainability, If You Want Heads in Beds, Put Local Food in Mouths .

eclectic food-for-thought for a changing world
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