How many great ideas have you had that you let float away before committing them to paper or some other memory device? Is this thought too discomforting to entertain?
This past year of challenges has filled so many of us with great ideas — new ways of looking at old problems, innovations to meet the needs of the moment, a revisioning of our futures in a world in which the hours of our lives have become so much more precious than ever before. If we could hold on to and act on all the ideas we’ve had for the future this year, we’d all have a life’s work planned out for us.
The world of ideas has long been one in which scientific researchers, city planners, designers and artists dwell. It’s taking these ideas to the marketplace that’s daunting. Raising funding, scaling up production or winning the support of consumers or constituents is the place where many good ideas come skidding to a halt, especially when someone with a vision has difficulty getting their idea through to other people around them.
This is why now is such a unique moment, one in which we are all seeing the world with fresh eyes. New ideas can have sticking power now, with enough tenacity and communication on the part of the brainstormers.
Nowhere is that more apparent locally than in our twin crises of environmental degradation and runaway gentrification. The good news is that we have some great researchers doing the science on the environmental front, coming up with innovative solutions to protect the bays that surround us, the groundwater beneath our feet, and the coastline that protects us from the rising tide. The biggest thing needed to meet these challenges is funding, which is really the final hurdle. The public here sees the necessity of facing environmental challenges head-on.
Runaway gentrification is a thornier issue. It affects us all in so many different ways, and there is little community consensus on what to do about this issue. It’s easy to take a stand to protect the environment — it’s a blameless victim of human enterprise. It’s more difficult to take a stand on issues that affect human beings, who have some personal control over the course of their lives, but are increasingly finding it impossible to meet their needs in a world of haves and have-nots.
For long-time homeowners, the recent explosion in real estate prices has hastened plans to sell and move, divesting from the future of our region. This has already had a real impact on the cohesiveness of our communities, but it’s really a blameless situation. Baby boomers have long been the backbone of our civic lives here, and the patterns of movement of this huge cohort have been driving social change in this country since the 1950s. They were bound to retire soon, but this past year has sent so many of them on the same path all at once.
For long-time renters, this has proven to be a devastating time, as landlords decide to sell properties or make some fast cash through short-term rentals, or raise rents dramatically, in tune with the market. After all, the market will bear higher prices, and it’s only in hushed tones that many of us ask the question: Should you charge such high rents just because you can? Or do you owe your community something different and more intangible than your own financial gain?
There are a lot of great ideas floating around about land use and zoning that can foster more cohesive communities. This has long been a rural area, and though it’s rapidly suburbanizing, the idea of a suburb has been filled with obvious flaws since Levittown was under construction in the 1950s.
One of the most important of these flaws is the idea of sprawl, which is really very simple. Suburbs grow outward, not up. In recent years young people have been fleeing suburban sprawls for urban living, which, perhaps counterintuitively, is actually more conducive to community than suburbia. The enforced density of urban areas puts everything at your fingertips, including human relationships, especially when well-designed.
The most forward-thinking of our local architects and planners have long championed the idea idea of concentrating more development in hamlet centers, preserving the land around these hamlet centers for farming, or for recreation or just to have some pieces of the wild left surrounding us.
These ideas are sitting on shelves, in the form of comprehensive plans, throughout the East End. They are not half baked. They just haven’t yet been placed before a public ready to embrace them as essential to the survival of the people who have long lived and worked in our region. Perhaps now is the time.