Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cutting Through the Bull****

As fermenting grapes become wine over time, oft-repeated myths become “truth”. These myths are especially pervasive and powerful when it comes to environmental and social issues. A good example of the power of an unchallenged myth is the perception that environmental protection has a negative impact on community economic growth. That’s why many folks think environmental protection has a negative impact on economic growth.
This is a myth. Sustainable economic growth helps to build community environmental capacity. Economic growth that poses unacknowledged environmental risks to the community is a dagger pointed at the heart of the community’s future. Ask the people of Hungary living below the recently burst toxic dams if their economic benefits were worth the environmental costs.
What is the linkage between a community’s economic and environmental interests? Responsible economic development openly acknowledges and mitigates potential environmental damage. It looks for economic activity like new farming operations recycling community wastewater that resolve present environmental issues.
Community environmental assets are economic assets. Tourism and hospitality ventures focusing on community environmental assets make everyone winners.
Responsible environmental planning recognizes the need for a strong economic base to maintain community services and infrastructure. The residential tax base alone is often incapable of supporting community aspirations, including environmental protection.
We’re all too familiar with the folks who play the black / white game. Quick-buck boys who try to ram economic development proposals through the planning process without independent environmental assessments have left their mark on Alberta’s landscape. The unrealistic demands of environmental Luddites wanting to turn back the landscape clock to pre-settlement days have too often poisoned the well of public opinion against environmental protection.
The nature of the planning processes used by communities can have a negative impact. Dysfunctional planning processes driven by the old myth and planning structures often turn equally compelling community interests against each other.
The time has come when active, engaged and committed communities see the old script about environmental protection for the bullwhiz that it is. Why should economic development planning operate in splendid isolation from environmental and social planning? Wouldn’t outcomes determined by collaborative processes that value and balance equally compelling yet competing interests better serve the community?
It takes a community with the courage to trust the various community groups to work together to create an integrated community plan. Integrated planning also requires a community with the vision and courage to know and balance their own community aspirations, and one that has the patience for such a process to happen.
Do such communities exist in Alberta? Will we see this kind of planning? The conventional wisdom, driven by our old image as a bunch of redneck boomers, would say that would happen when cowboys wear earrings. Yet who would have thought that Canada’s first Muslim mayor would have been elected in ------ Calgary???? Folks, keep your eye on the jewelry counter.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Social Growth- What's It All About?

A funny thing happens when you ask the average Alberta municipal politician about the social growth of his or her community. First, they look as lost as a cowboy at a Tupperware party. Finally, they start hemming and hawing and babbling on about the “darn friendly little town we have here”.
He really doesn’t have a clue about what you’re talking about. That’s because he doesn’t see social growth as a key indicator of community development. To him, community growth is all about jobs, new housing starts, and the other economic benchmarks.
The quality of our community’s social life is important. Ask folks in Alberta boomtowns like Fort McMurray or Brooks whether the quality of community life in their communities has improved or declined.
Probe beneath the surface of many communities and you might find the evidence of social decline. Gather information on the incidence of spousal abuse, illicit drug trafficking, and usage. Look at the data on student achievement scores and voter turnout at elections. We might also survey elements of social growth like community friendliness, volunteer participation, and other benchmarks that the community values.
So why don’t more communities compile and publish this kind of data? It’s because they choose – and I use the word deliberately- to ignore data quantifying the state of social harmony, vitality, and citizenship.
Why do we choose to ignore the whole picture? It’s because to see- really see- the evidence of social decline would force us from of the warm, comfy chair of illusion into the cold grip of reality. Even worse, it might compel us to look in the mirror for solutions.
After all, community social growth begins when citizens and businesses take individual responsibility for the quality of social life. For citizens, it means understanding that a living in a free society comes with simple but powerful responsibilities like voting, volunteering, and practicing neighborliness. For business, it means mitigating the negative impacts its operations may have on the social fabric of the community.
How do we begin? It begins with the courage to take a comprehensive look at our community. A community brave enough to identify and quantify its own social growth indicators has taken an important step. From there, they can develop and implement the action plan required to face and resolve social issues. With that underway, they are en route to becoming a truly active, committed, and engaged community.
Where does a community find that courage? It starts with the courageous citizen who sees social growth to be essential to community well-being. How does that citizen drive social renewal? It’s a simple three-step process. That citizen speaks clearly and honestly about community issues, leads by example, and works collaboratively with others to achieve their social goals.
Are you prepared to begin the three-step program towards improving the quality of social life in your community? Are you that kind of citizen? I hope you are, for your community needs you.