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Communities come together to build more sustainable region

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 16, 2012 - Filtered over the shouts from an energetic aerobics class carrying on in the next room, the quiet murmur of conversation in a non-descript meeting space at the modern Richmond Heights community center wouldn’t seem to be much competition.

But as three to four dozen participants – a mix of area workers, residents, political leaders and organizational representatives – huddled over plastic cups and single-serving snack bags trying to plot the priorities of their respective communities decades into an unknown future, it was easy to get the sense that the noisy neighbors weren’t the only ones engaged in an evening of high-impact exercises.

“The first question is always ‘Well, what are you talking about? What is sustainability?’” said David Wilson, senior planner for environment and community planning at the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, as he spoke to the participants. “My response is generally to have people think in terms of our children, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren yet to be born and how we want them to have a quality of life that is at least as good, if not better, than that which we enjoy today.”

Of late, quality of life has been very much on the minds of Wilson and the other organizers in the room. They are from some of the 11 sponsoring groups, ranging from universities to advocacy organizations, hosting Thursday night’s post-hailstorm get together.

It’s a small part of a much larger effort funded by a $4.7-million federal grant that the coalition is using to study sustainability. The eventual result is hoped to be a regional toolkit that encompasses housing, transportation and environmental issues that localities can use as a template for sustainable policies including a web portal to provide access to helpful data.

Partner agencies are each providing matching projects to qualify for the grants, which are part of a $100 million pool being distributed to dozens of regions across the country. Only three recipients picked up more cash than St. Louis.

“In the last couple of months, we’ve made huge amounts of progress,” said Mark Fogal, community policy and engagement director with Focus St. Louis, one of the partner agencies.

The initial stage involves a series of open meetings running through mid-April with the public in 10 local “community planning areas” or CPAs. Spread across five counties, these areas are microcosms of different parts of the larger community. Last night’s event, the second such confab, dealt with the Mid-Metro CPA containing Clayton, Shrewsbury, Brentwood, Maplewood and Richmond Heights.

Early May will see the area’s 11th CPA, St. Louis, hosting three such meetings. The idea, said Wilson, is to set the stage for two rounds of follow-up meetings this summer and fall with a final regional sustainability blueprint to be delivered by early 2013.

“This year is kind of our listening year with the community engagement and trying to find out what people are interested in so we can focus on that,” he said. “Then next year, we try to put the plan together.”

‘An alarming trend’

Wilson figured prominently in the evening’s agenda, which included a slide presentation highlighting development patterns, commuting and housing issues in the St. Louis area, punctuated with interactive questions the audience could respond to using keypads with answers displayed on the screen at the front of the room.

Wilson used census-based maps to highlight a discussion over sprawl. He noted that in 1950 urbanization comprised about 240 square miles and 1.7 million people, roughly half of whom were concentrated within the city’s borders. By 1970, the population had grown by 38 percent, but land use doubled as people moved to suburbia. Over the following two decades, population growth was nearly flat, but land use still grew by another two-thirds. Between 1990 and 2000, a 4 percent population growth resulted in a nearly 20 percent increase in land use, resulting in a more exurban population that left a shrunken city drained of well over half its inhabitants.

Meanwhile, the accelerated land use meant a big increase in the need for expensive infrastructure that was quickly outpacing the negligible population growth available to support it.

He called the figures part of an “alarming trend” leading to longer commutes and a less sustainable community.

“If we look into the future using these trends that we’ve seen from the past, we know a lot of things can change what happens,” he said, “but our land-use model that can project change into the future says we are probably going to see a lot more development in 30 years in the outlying areas.”

According to a phone survey, Wilson said, some 73 percent of area travelers report driving alone much of the time. Only about a fifth carpool -- and people walking, biking and using public transportation remain in the single digits.

The presentation was followed by a breakout session in which five groups of seven or eight participants each came up with things they liked about their CPA and things that could use improvement. Facilitators assisted each table and read off the findings in the end. A blank easel at the front of the room was labeled as a “parking lot” for any unaddressed ideas, suggestions or questions to be examined in future sessions.

“It was a great conversation. I’m really impressed that so many people came out tonight,” said Ann Mack, executive director of Trailnet, a participating organization.

Mack, a resident of nearby Webster Groves, said the discussion at her table was wide-ranging.

“We like that (our communities) are walkable, bikeable and that you get to know your neighbors,” she said. “We talked about open space being pretty accessible and then we shifted into wanting more transit options, not just light rail and bus but the sidewalks would be nice if they were safer.”

Participant John Hicks lives in Oakville but works in Clayton. He said the conversation in his group was quite positive.

“I think the core communities are very good,” he said. “They’ve got things that can be improved, but everybody likes the diversity of housing types, the schools and the transportation types that are available.”

Maplewood resident Barry Greenberg said his city was testing out a number of sustainability innovations from permeable pavement to electric charging stations.

He said the CPA meeting was a rewarding experience.

“It pointed out that we have to take a look at more than our own community,” said Greenberg, who is also Maplewood’s Ward Three councilman. “We have to take a look at our mini-region and how we coordinate our efforts with each other.”

The next gathering is scheduled for 6:30 p.m., Tues., March 20 at Trinity Catholic High School Gym for the areas of Bellefontaine Neighbors, Riverview, Glasgow Village, Spanish Lake. On March 27, the Holiday Inn Alton will host a meeting for Alton, East Alton, Bethalto, Godfrey, Wood River. On March 29, the Lake St. Louis Community Clubhouse will host those from Wentzville, Lake St. Louis and O’Fallon.

As the meeting broke up and the participants filed out, it became clear that, despite the heaviness of the subject matter, the rainy evening was not completely without levity. The so-called “parking lot” at the front of the room remained unused except for a single Post-It note affixed by an anonymous jokester whose sense of humor was at least in a sustainable vein.

“Repurpose the parking lot into the park and ride lot or the commuter lot,” it read.

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