Smart Growth

In many ways Chatham County’s future lies before us like a blank slate. The question is: how will we paint the picture? Will we settle for the trite paint by number conventions of the past or will we seize the chance to build a model of sustainability and self-sufficiency.

Growth is the major issue. The thoughtless strategy of sprawl has been duplicated so that the county finds itself an economically flaccid bedroom community to the greater triangle area. As subdivisions chew up broad swaths of farmland and beautiful natural areas we are losing the natural capital to create a quality of life that is essential to our very sustenance.

The first resource that Chatham County must protect is its farmland. Few Americans are working the land nowadays, so we’ve little connection to the people who grow our food. Farmers are the most important people in the world. Exaggeration? It’s a naked fact that if someone doesn’t have their hands in the dirt on our behalf, we will starve. You can’t eat your Ipod, and Steve Jobs can’t sustain your family on what he knows about coaxing miracles from the soil. Fortunately for Chatham County, we actually have an increasing number of farmers. That is a trend that we must protect like our lives depend on it—because they do.

If you’ve been keeping up on the news lately, you’ve seen accounts of food shortages all over the world. Though shortages have not struck here, per se, prices are up sharply, due in large part to the skyrocketing price of oil. This was the concern of the late Robert Rodale, publisher of Prevention and Organic Gardening magazines. Rodale saw how vulnerable our nation was because of dependence on foreign oil. Our dependence has grown by double digits since then. But it was the relationship between oil/gas and food production/distribution that prompted him to write “Empty Breadbasket?” in 1981. It was a study of the American food system and how vulnerable it is to the capricious conditions that govern the prices and availability of the oil that fuels our tractors, trucks and the manufacture of fertilizers from fossil energy. Presently, this insoluble conundrum literally has us over a barrel. Long story short, Rodale recommended that local communities raise more of their own food. The ideal is total food security. With our energy future so uncertain it is folly to continue to import staple foods from California much less lands across the oceans.

If Chatham County’s leaders have the wisdom, foresight and courage to promote our food security they must turn to the task of planning a sustainable way of life. And this doesn’t mean lying down for every rapacious development that comes down the pike. The basics of sustainability are food, affordable housing, transportation, employment and cultural amenities. Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Municipalities all over the country are imagineering the concept of Smart Growth. Part of the equation is planning for higher population density to create compact communities. Dallas, Texas provides one good example:

Opened in 2001, the ”live-work-and-play” complex, also adjacent to a bus terminal, includes 211 loft-style apartments, a movie theater, restaurants and 1,600 parking spaces, reports Dallas Morning News writer Michael Lindenberger, quoting its developer Ken Hughes, who said ”it represents what we believe works today” as mixed uses.

I don’t mean to herd all of us into an urban environment, but high density planning is just one arrow in the quiver of possibilities. Instead of land gobbling sprawl, farmers and nature will be able to flourish, and in so doing provide us with food security that will shield us from distant troubles that would threaten our peace and stability.

As communities get more compact and efficient, transportation planning gets easier. You can relax in a light rail train or bio-diesel (produced in Pittsboro) bus instead of fighting traffic and sucking up exhaust fumes. Imagine the time and money we’ll save as we build connected, walkable communities.

Well-planned communities also tend to attract top employers whose employees demand attractive locales with cultural and natural amenities. Soon it becomes a cycle of positive reenforcement.

Among the many other benefits of efficiently planned communities are stronger tax bases which will help us guard the quality of our air, land and soil. There are no substitutes for these god-given essentials. For example: Code Orange air quality alerts, so common in our area, make me furious. I love the warning that it’s only hazardous to sensitive groups. Yeah, anyone with a pair of lungs. It’s an intolerable insult; but like the sheep we so often are, we accept it.

If we will we can take a lesson from this ancient story.

Joseph, the youngest of Israel’s sons saw famine coming to Egypt where he ruled with Pharaoh. He built granaries and stock piled food for seven good years. When the seven lean years came, Egypt and the Hebrews ate of that bounty. Will we be so wise, or will we face the prospect of an empty breadbasket.