When towns and cities talk about community building, everyone has a different idea of what that means. But a recent book offers a unique case study and tools that towns across the nation can use to create a vibrant, sustainable community.
The model is Burlington.
“Sustainable Communities: Creating A Durable Local Economy” by Rhonda Phillips, Bruce Seifer and Ed Antczak holds Vermont’s largest city up as an example for the rest of the nation. Yet, the lessons are not just for cities, and they can be applied in any community.
“The book is a tool for other communities, said Seifer, a consultant on economic development. He led the city of Burlington Vermont’s Economic Development efforts for three decades, providing technical assistance to 4,000 businesses and numerous nonprofits. Seifer frequently speaks at national forums on policy and strategy, city revitalization, and program design and evaluation.
“Our book is designed for any community looking to grow sensibly,” he said in an email. “The points we make are to do long-term planning based on research and interviews/survey, follow the plan, and from this, comes an economy that builds on the assets and opportunities within a community.”
The idea has caught on across Vermont. Seifer has had several speaking engagements in recent months, since the book was published by Routledge, and the events have been widely attended (and discussed afterward), not just by experts but also residents concerned about ongoing growth, and long-term economic development in rapidly changing times, he said.
“The end results are enterprise and job development, tax base improvement and a revitalizing region,” he said.
As he and his fellow authors point out on their lecture circuit, each chapter delves into different aspects of the economy.
“When people ask themselves, ‘Where will the jobs come from?’ The answer is based on the end result of following a long-term strategic economic development plan,” he said. “Our book explains how we did things; the lessons learned in how, and what we did, is instructive to any community. We also had values clearly expressed that we went back to regularly as we developed new policies and programs, which we found to be very important as we faced new challenges over time.”
But, as Seifer points out, the approach is even broader than that. “We also developed many statewide policies and initiatives that benefits all of Vermont. ... Planning goes on in many communities, and statewide. Following the plan over the long-run is very important.”
“Sustainable Communities” has generated a buzz in the planning world because of its approach.
Phillips, Seifer and Antczak write, “What is a durable economy? It is one that not only survives but thrives. How is it created, and what does it take to sustain over time?”
Citing Burlington’s rise to award-winning status, and harkening back to the days when Bernard Sanders was mayor, the book explores a confluence of opportunities — community planning, social enterprise development, energy and environment, food systems and cultural well-being — and the players who aptly were aware enough to take advantage of those key moments in time.
“All of (the Burlington) projects provided fuel for each other to grow and created more opportunities. Our work began with the belief that nurturing locally grown small businesses and nonprofits would help to sustain the city’s economy over the long term,” Seifer wrote. “Today, the residents of Burlington enjoy one of the most livable cities in the country — a feat that took many years of work by hundreds of people committed to the ideals espoused by the progressive administration.”
At the time, the players were bringing in economic drivers, but also focusing simultaneously on the parts that mattered to citizens.
“We understood that if we were to get anywhere, we had to not only bring about radical change, we also had to pay strict attention to the basics: streets, sidewalks and the ever increasing property tax rates,” Seifer said.
It is true that the book is aimed at policymakers, development practitioners and students, but citizens can use it, too.
In fact, several of the online reviewers have been residents concerned about the direction (or misdirection) they feel their town is headed. Some are from as far away as Kansas; others are right around the corner here in Vermont.
For Phillips, the focus is about quality of life. He career and works (15 books) zero in on “community well-being,” which seems to appeal to many Vermonters who appreciate state-of-the-day services and the working agrarian landscape.
The authors are encouraged by the discussion.
Phillips is formerly a senior sustainability scientist with the Global Institute of Sustainability and professor in the School of Community Resources & Development at Arizona State University. Today, she serves as Purdue University’s dean of the honors college.
After 20 years in business, Antczak joined CEDO’s Economic Development Division in 2003, focusing on assisting businesses at all stages of growth, managing a revolving loan fund, and being a member of various development project teams. He currently serves on the steering committees of several national Sustainable Economic Development organizations.
Together, with a handful of other speakers, the authors last month were joined by 120 people at the first Sustainable Communities Forum at Phoenix Books Burlington.
In describing the event and the speakers, Seifer said it spoke to what communities and citizens want today. “The speakers all have three things in common: First, they have ideas that speak to the greater good of the community. Second, they all have focused their energy and concentration in a specific area for a long period of time. And third, they combine their ideas and focus, and translate that into action, in their everyday lives.”
The speakers included: Doug Hoffer, state auditor; State Sen. David Zuckerman; John Canning, president of Physician’s Computer Company; Beth Sachs, co-founder of Vermont Energy Investment Corporation; and many others.
Additional forums are in the works.
“The Sustainable Communities Forum is intended to provide a forum for activists, community members, elected officials, nonprofit and government leaders to come together in an informal way to network and discuss the who, what, when, where and how of developing, promoting and implementing public policy initiatives that improve local communities, the environment, and the lives of working people,” Seifer said.
The forum is being promoted by the co-authors.
In the end, the authors maintain, the book is a primer “to recharge the economy and improve the lives of working people.”
“Sustainable Communities: Creating A Durable Local Economy” (Routledge, $39.95) is available at area bookstores and at online retailers.
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