Editorial : What makes small communities work?
What makes small communities work well is a complicated question. There may be many good answers, but, ever more widespread, inhibiting, and overlapping regulation, conceived with a determination to make a town, or even six, conform to what you, or a small group of you, imagine your replacements will want it to be 50 years hence is not one of them.
Instead, the good answers tend toward encouraging sound change and supporting steady, desirable growth. Though they may be shocking to many Island ears, the words desirable and growth do go together. It is desirable, for instance, to encourage growth that permits businesses to prosper, their employees to be better paid, and the goods and services they offer their customers to be more varied, more dependable, and more reasonably priced. It is desirable to encourage growth that attracts, encourages, and retains younger workers, who will succeed aging members of the workforce and serve the needs of the older population.
The Martha's Vineyard Commission's Island Plan process, as we're reminded of this week and as we've noted in this space before, has spent countless hours noodling over what we - whoever we are - may determine that the Vineyard should be a half century from now. The goal appears to be to guard that imagined some-day Martha's Vineyard from tampering by the meddlesome residents who will live here then. It is a planning exercise that has, understandably, attracted yawning inattention from the Vineyard year-round and seasonal population. Reasonable people make reasonable plans, not fictions. Still, although it seems futile to suggest, there are some building blocks of healthy communities that would reward the serious attention of common sense planners. Once again, and for example, we commend four such core planning issues to the attention of the noodlers:
First, there is the critical matter of infrastructure. That means roads, where they are needed; and an expansive, flexible public transit system that uses, say, natural gas powered vehicles, not diesels that often ply their routes empty or nearly so. And bike paths, read multi-use paths, to encourage non-motor vehicle transit, where practical. And, reliable cell and WIFI everywhere and available to everyone. Also, expanded sewage treatment, so that in-town commercial and residential mixed use may be reasonably encouraged rather than just talked about, thus preventing transit system-frustrating sprawl. And, add transportation links to the mainland that are varied, inexpensive, and dependable.
Next, there is the desperate need for a variety of housing opportunities. It is not reasonable to expect residents of modest means to buy three-acre lots. Large lot zoning has been used as a tool to limit development, to protect landscapes and inflate property values. It has worked splendidly. But, in a demonstration of how master planning can pervert rather than guide wholesome change, it has become a weapon to defeat varied and affordable housing. It is also not reasonable to support only subsidized, permanently affordable housing, whose appreciation potential is constrained, thus limiting the wealth-creating possibility that has always been associated with real estate ownership. It is not reasonable to zone out condominiums, apartment complexes, and rentals as inconsistent with community values, when such variety, along with the expensive 5,000-, 10,000-, and 20,000-square-foot houses, will appeal to the range of community members one hopes may find ways to become, or remain, neighbors.
Third, there's business growth, made possible by rules that encourage small-scale retail and other sorts of commercial activity in neighborhoods mixed with residential development. Make it easy for this sort of growth to occur. That means making these downtown areas capable of supporting such growth, rather than merely endorsing the idea of mixed use, in-town growth in concept, while being, in fact, unwilling to support it with the roads, sewering, bike paths, and communication infrastructure that are necessary.
And finally, every healthy community needs beautiful places. And, by this measure the Vineyard has succeeded beyond all reasonable expectations. If these are a handful of useful principles on which sound communities will develop, the Vineyard measures up on at least this one. We've lots of beautiful places, well preserved, financed, and protected long-term. More will be added. They are a bankable asset, immensely valuable and of meaningful size, importance, and desirability.
Sadly, alone they are far from defining a community. That word refers, in all important respects, to people, neighbors, newcomers, and visitors, and what each and all bring to the party.