by Jinsoo Henry Oh
Preservation. In a word, this philosophy and course of action defines the culture, the politics, and the ethos of the East End of Long Island. The idea to collectively protect agriculture and open space while limiting suburban sprawl on the North and South Forks is generally regarded as a success and one of the most identifiable characteristics of the region.
For one local organization, however, simply preserving land and vistas is not enough.
The Ecological Culture Initiative (ECI) is a local non-profit operating out of the hamlet of Hampton Bays that has been working with community groups, cultural institutions, and government to ensure the local environment remains a healthy and viable place to live in the face of many physical and existential threats.
The ECI has been advocating for much more comprehensive environmental and town planning undertakings, which include not only ecological preservation, but also socially healthy community planning.
There is a crisis in the way we are creating the built environment, says ECI Founder and Education Director Dr. Marc Fasanella, who gave a presentation titled “Rethinking Good Ground — Mapping History, Culture & Ecology” at the Hampton Bays Library July 13.
Much of what the ECI has already done concerns the natural environment – teaching sustainable and organic agricultural techniques, advocating for “ecological corridors” that can control tick-borne diseases, and promoting practices that better protect drinking aquifers and waterways.
But the organization is equally interested in promoting a holistic and historically minded approach to the social, cultural, and architectural aspects of the community in which it is based.
Dr. Fasanella argues Hampton Bays cannot be thought of as a traditional suburb, or even an exurb, but rather, must be defined by its resources – a densely populated neighborhood surrounded by the “incredible ecosystems” of the Pine Barrens, a natural drinking aquifer that must be protected from poor developmental choices, and all the bays and beaches that encapsulate said residential and commercial areas.
ECI has just as much to say about town planning, architecture, and historical preservation, as it does about sustainable agriculture, regenerating natural resources, and organic agro-ecology.
The Ecological Culture Initiative’s philosophy in regards to planning issues borrows much from the design movement known as “new urbanism,” which stresses the development of clustered “pocket neighborhoods” over random sprawl, with areas focusing on assisted living, affordable housing, mixed use communities. The philosophy also involves using the history of a community to inform architectural preservation plans and zoning codes.
A major goal of the ECI is to preserve the sense of character that exists in Hampton Bays’ architecture and the history of the hamlet, says Dr. Fasanella. He showcased photo after photo of many iconic local structures that characterized the intangible homey and quirky nature of the hamlet’s downtown, but also images of buildings that were modified in ways that took away from the area’s best traits.
By the year 2035, 75 percent of the structures in the United States will either be new or renovated beyond recognition, said Dr. Fasanella.
Most buildings in Hampton Bays currently have no historical protections on their appearance, with only five buildings and one cemetery bearing landmark status in the hamlet. He also noted that St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, where the Hampton Bays Farmers Market currently operates, has zero protections on it.
Hampton Bays has departed from its history, with only remnants of a time when neighborhoods grew organically, rather than through uniform zoning requirements imposed by local planning codes.
He pointed out a set of homes along Main Street with no standard setback lengths from the street, a feature of the local environment that Dr. Fasanella says is actually worth saving, because when homes exist alongside businesses and are set from the street at different lengths, the streetscape becomes more interesting, more diverse, and consequently more vibrant.
While the assumption is that developers would likely tear down these homes and start over, the idea that the town could foster the continuation of this style of living by preserving the homes and allowing the construction of a “pocket neighborhood” behind them is something ECI supports.
The local sporting goods store, Skidmore’s Sports and Styles, with its jagged, two level, non-uniform, slanted roof, was shown as just one example of something that is difficult to find or replicate elsewhere.
He also showed an image of the building that currently houses the local AT&T store, which once housed the Hampton Bays public library. The building that now houses Gators restaurant and The Real Estate Store has also been transformed over the years.
Buildings with shingled siding had lined the area, while the building in question had featured almost floor to ceiling windows and had more interesting proportions. Today, vinyl replacement windows have taken their place, which use a grid of six smaller, fake muntons instead.
For the ECI, the idea of historical preservation is not simply an economic calculus to stimulate property values, but rather a way to foster community identity and a sense of place.
Dr. Fasanella explained that, historically, the different neighborhoods of “Good Ground”, as Hampton Bays was once known, each had their own architectural style and a unique culture native to the local area.
Cedar shingled homes and a history of an intellectual, Russian-Jewish, avant-garde art circle that convened in the hamlet are just two random artifacts of the community that the ECI would like to preserve and continue to make relevant in the present.
But while ECI honors the history of Hampton Bays, the group’s current plans have as much to do with the future. As ownership changes in the community, ECI argues that it is even more important to use tools such as “form based zoning” that allow policymakers to respond with more agility to what exists in the area already.
Rather than have uniform codes for every last aspect of planning, this type of zoning allows the community to use history more effectively to inform future decision-making and respond with greater effectiveness to localized issues.
Dr. Fasanella believes this type of zoning would work quite well for Hampton Bays’ Main Street area, which is largely unprotected today.
He envisions fostering a community of neighborhoods, mixed-use environments, and affordable housing. The tools to do so are clustering development and transferring development rights to disincentivize building too close to sensitive natural resources and habitats. While this new urbanist design philosophy is about making communities more vibrant and less sterile, he explains there are many important environmental effects as well.
With the clustering of residential and commercial properties, natural and open spaces can also become continuous entities rather than a checkerboard of missed opportunities. Dr. Fasanella calls the resultant saved blocs of land “ecological corridors” and stresses their importance in maintaining healthy habitats for both wildlife and humans.
The growing problem of tick-borne diseases is one that he believes can be mitigated by the restoration and unification of the natural environment. When ecosystems are healthy and robust, they remain in check, the ECI advocates. Likewise, clustering away from sensitive waterways and aquifers ensures our most precious resource is not tainted.
With its high population density, a train station centered right in the middle of town, and the proximity of all the surrounding natural environments, the ECI looks at the tourism industry through the same lens as it does when analyzing public policy and educational programs. It sees the ever-expanding supply and demand economy of “jet skis and sport fishing” tourism as unsustainable.
Dr. Fasanella also brought up ECI’s vision for building a field ecology and nature education center in Squiretown Park and Good Ground Park. He argued that a nature-centric ecotourism industry would be a way to keep another tragedy of the commons from happening. That is to say, the ECI is aiming to change the public’s relationship with and mentality about the natural environment from a utilitarian perspective to one that is more informed, appreciative and sustainable.
Dr. Fasanella is currently working with the Southampton Town Board on determining whether the caretaker’s cottage at Squiretown Park can be used for educational programming.
Tying together all the various strands of culture, architecture, history, industry, and planning that create healthy communities are the many inroads the ECI has already made in its principles of promoting and educating the public about sound environmental and agricultural practices. The presentation intertwined holistic prescriptions for creating healthier and more sustainable communities.
Growing our own food, using biodegradable soaps, composting, planting native species instead of growing lawns, rain harvesting, and changing our conspicuous consumption behaviors were all ideas proposed to help achieve the multi-pronged aims of the Ecological Culture Initiative.
For a local community organization that is primarily advocating for the issues and concerns of just one hamlet on the East End of Long Island, the ECI has already compiled quite a comprehensive resume of achievements and a number of ambitious goals for the future. Perhaps neighboring hamlets, villages, towns, cities, and other advocacy organizations can take a cue from their work and affect similar change in their own communities.
The Ecological Culture Initiative will also host an “Ask ECI Community Forum” this Thursday, Aug. 3 at 7 p.m. at the Hampton Bays Public Library, 52 Ponquogue Ave, Hampton Bays, NY 11946. There is a suggested donation of $5. Learn more at eciny.org/forum.
Community members are invited to exchange ideas and information regarding agro-ecology, passive solar architecture, pollinator gardens, rainwater collection systems and much more. Registration through firstname.lastname@example.org with a discussion topic is strongly advised, but walk in attendees are also welcome.
Henry Oh is a North Fork native with a degree in Economics and Asian & Asian-American studies from Stony Brook University. He spent half his undergraduate years in Montreal, Quebec and has a penchant for smart city design and foreign cultures. When he’s not writing, you can find him playing a variety of music ranging from funky house to funky disco to funky hip hop at his local DJ gigs. Sometimes he ventures out and plays indie dance music and top 40. When he’s not out facilitating dancing, he pours wine at Laurel Lake Vineyard’s tasting room and rides his bike around town.