The good news about the threat of climate change and the dilemma of energy dependence is that they are giving individuals, towns and cities all over the world a last, urgent opportunity to bend policymaking and technology to the service of mankind and the natural world. Exactly how that is working in the everyday lives of individuals, families and communities will be the subject of my contributions to Spectrumâ''s Energywise blog.
I will be talking about my own familyâ''s attempts to navigate the New York State Energy Research and Development Authorityâ''s Home Performance Program to make our old house more energy efficient. I will be writing about villagers on the south coast of England who used creative financing techniques to fund the reengineering of their coastal defenses after the UK government washed its hands of the project. I will be reporting on new technologies that will be used to lure people out of their cars and onto a bus rapid transit system along one of the most congested commuting corridors in the Northeast. I will be talking about a â''viralâ'' movement that started out in Totnes, England, and which is building post-peak-oil towns around the globe, enabled largely by new media channels of communication. Along the way I hope readers will share their stories too.
In 1997 I began publishing a community newspaper in a small city 35-minutes by train north of New Yorkâ''s Grand Central Station. A ring of malls had sucked the life out of the central downtown long before. Although the daytime population swelled to 200,000 from 40,000 thanks to an influx of daytime office workers, at night you could roll a bowling ball down the center of the main street without hitting a person or a moving vehicle. Old timers recalled the days when the main drag was alive with movie theatres, bookstores and soda fountains, while newcomers bemoaned the absence of community. We were good at looking back at our past for solutions but were unable to redefine ourselves for the 21st century.
My family moved back to our hometown this summer, after a three-year stint in London, to find a jazzed-up downtown now home to a Ritz Carlton Hotel, a National Amusement Megaplex, a Barnes & Noble bookstore, a Starbucks, and a high-tech pocket park with dancing fountains that play to preprogrammed music. But Iâ''m not so sure that the energy and the community are back. We are still a car-dependent city where pedestrian safety takes a back seat to a formidable computer driven traffic system for moving cars expeditiously in and out of our clogged, rush-hour streets. Weâ''ve brought thousands more people to live in luxury towers with every conceivable indoor amenity but failed to create outdoor space to accommodate them or an intra-city mass transit system to move them around.
People sit awkwardly on chairs ill-designed for ample posteriors along the hard-surface perimeter of our park of dancing fountains. With a few notable exceptionsâ''like our beautifully restored Arts Council Buildingâ''we as a city have allowed outside forces to take control of our destiny rather than channeling them to our own purposes. The â''revitalizedâ'' downtown reflects the ambitions of outside developers who sensed our desperation for something new but also our failure to harness policymaking and technology to creatively reinvent our city from the grassroots up. Maybe, thanks to a combination of a credit crunch that has stalled new development, climate change, and spiking energy prices, our second chance is here. Hereâ''s hoping we make the most of it.