Imagine a Sustainable Montpelier

An Op-Ed reprinted from the Times Argus, December 5, 2015

By Dan Jones

At this very moment, Vermont’s own Bill McKibben of 350.org is in Paris, leading the charge at a big climate change conference. He’s doing this because huge swaths of the earth are becoming inhabitable not just for humans, but for many smaller living creatures on which all life depends. Here at home the ground is bare and the temperature is in the 40s in Mid December.  Our collective carbon footprint is quickly destroying the world we knew and we are not even talking about the one our children will inherit.

The climate conference is Paris is a world away from us here in Vermont, but the need to address looming changes right here in town is no less urgent and present. The picture here isn’t pretty: at the very least, weird weather means that we can probably look forward to more floods and catastrophic events like Hurricane Irene.  The challenge therefore isn’t just lowering our collective carbon footprint, but preparing ourselves for changes already baked in the cake.  Could Montpelier become a model of a small city where we can both lower our carbon use and prepare for the climate challenges.

The good news is that Vermont’s capital is already halfway on the way to becoming one of the first truly sustainable city in the country. Did you know that Montpelier is now considered one of the most environmentally-advanced cities in the country?  That the White House has named Montpelier one of 16 Climate Action Champion cities? Or that we are one of 50 national finalist cities for the prestigious Georgetown Energy Prize?  But that is just a part of the foundation on which we can build.

Now, what else can and should we do to become a true model city? What follows is my attempt to begin drawing a positive, long-term, locally- supported vision of what greater Montpelier might become, with your help.  This vision was born from some of the best research to date on what is environmentally and economically sustainable for central Vermont.

To start, let’s imagine a downtown with lots of new, attractive, energy-efficient, affordable housing rising behind the old Victorian streetscape (the sites of which are currently devoted to the 65% of downtown now under tax free paved parking lots). These comfortable apartments accommodate seniors, young people and families who want to walk to Montpelier’s charming shops and restaurants.

Really? You ask.   Is there really a demand for such high density housing.  In fact, I am pretty sure that a denser, less car dependent city will help address one of the major challenges facing our state– the hemorrhaging of our young people to more efficient urban centers elsewhere.  Creating a city that is desirable to younger people is a way to start reversing the current course of Vermont, which is bleeding out its youth because there are not the jobs or the environment to support them.

A recent PIRG study finds that:   “America has long created transportation policy under the assumption that driving will continue to increase at a rapid and steady rate. The changing transportation preferences of young people – and Americans overall – throw that assumption into doubt. Policy-makers and the public need to be aware that America’s current transportation policy – dominated by road building – is fundamentally out-of-step with the transportation patterns and expressed preferences of growing numbers of Americans.”

It doesn’t take a big jump in imagination to understand that the imaginative  young people noted in this study won’t be settling down in car dependent central Vermont.  For the economy of a rapidly graying Montpelier this creates a special challenge.  Our two major industries, the state government and National Life Group will be needing to recruit workers from this cohort as our current worker base rapidly ages.  Downtown merchants would also be happy to see a massive influx of people dwelling in town.  The present 9 to 5 commercial climate would change rapidly if there were resident customers.

Meanwhile, part of the continuing charm of Montpelier is older housing stock in town.  In a sustainable city, close to 2,000 will all have been weatherized and retrofitted with renewable heating and cooling systems, The people who live there will have more comfort and predictable heating costs.   For the new denser downtown housing, thanks also to a build-out of the district heat system and the development of more renewable electrical sources, these net zero designed units will have super low heating costs..

Changes on the parking desert will have no effect on our public streetscape.  State and Main will still look as charming or more than they do today, but there will be a lot less car traffic. The commercial part of State Street might sport a short, cobbled pedestrian mall like Church Street in Burlington, where people can wander freely without worrying about being hit by passing cars, and they can enjoy the bliss of sitting in outdoor cafes in warmer months.

Displacing the personal cars would come by way of a shared computer called private transportation services that will carry you around town day or night.  Imagine too a ride on a rebuilt  Barre Montpelier light rail that is both fun and convenient. (Thanks to these services, there will be less need for a second car, or even a primary one – thus surrendering parking lots to nice apartments. It’s all of a piece, you see.)

So, what will it take to get from here to there?

Above all, we need to think more long-term. This goes well beyond the usual discussion of the problems, economics and politics of “now.” Sure, it would be nice to see the Farmer’s Market on a walk-able State Street, or better snow removal on the sidewalks, but these are the cosmetic questions of today, not the big design questions of tomorrow.  And tomorrow is going to whack us over the head sooner than we realize. So we need to think beyond “now”.

In thinking longer-term, we also need to think about what our children, their children, and their children’s children want and need. Today, Montpelier’s population is awfully grey-haired, and grey hairs just aren’t sustainable. If we can’t find some way to rapidly increase our density we will continue to drown in ever increasing property taxes.  A huge investment in a dense affordable downtown would provide economic vitality and radically lower the tax burden for all of us.  I am basically proposing  a “build it and they will come” type of challenge: in making Montpelier an attractive place to live and work for younger people,  because I believe such an approach will create an enormous boon going forward.)

By thinking more long-term, designing ways to invite and keep the young, and mitigating the costs that come with repair from weather damage, we can also build a “model sustainable small city” for the rest of the country – a place where shelter, services and safety are wonderfully bound together with our vibrant sense of community and history. We can redesign our current land use patterns to be more resilient in the face of climate change. We can change our collective energy demands so that we’re more insulated from a constantly-vacillating energy market and the drain of the money we all spend on fuel. And when young people flock to the city, everyone benefits.

Montpelier is already halfway on the path to being a net-zero sustainable city. We have already built the backbone of a renewable energy district heat systems, and our city government is about to get most of its electricity from solar power.  We have a well-educated population that wants to rise to the challenge of building a sustainable future.  (And in case you might be worried about our groceries should California dry up, our surrounding farms provide the potential for a predictable healthy food supply.)

It’s time for all of us to envision a sustainable future here in Montpelier, and to plant the seeds for it now. Thank goodness we’re already well ahead of the game. Our city is already a great model for the rest of the country, so let’s build on it. Now.

Montpelier resident Dan Jones is the Manager of Net Zero Vermont Ventures and former chair of the Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee.

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