Spring 2018 Project
With rapid urbanization highlighting the rise of sustainable cities, discussions pertaining to sustainable practices often skip smaller towns that are at the grassroots of this transformation. Today, these smaller communities strive to make their impacts as historic, cultural or social centers that are economically and environmentally responsible. They provide a rich cultural fabric to build upon by amalgamating sustainable development efforts.
Set in Berkshire County, the Town of Lenox is a vibrant community in Western Massachusetts that is ensconced between the Berkshire Mountains to the west and the Housatonic River to the east. The town’s beautiful natural endowment, and rich historic and cultural values are the foundation of its heritage. As the Town of Lenox looks towards the future, it is clear that the town would need to preserve its legacy while embracing the burgeoning economic and development needs, both for its current and future residents. Towards that end, a team of eight SUMA Net Impact students (Megan Ross, Abbigael Foster, Shruti Deshpande, Rodrigo Castro Ayca, Shiyi Zheng, Fernando Ortiz, Claudene Petricca, Karl Knotoff)— from a diverse array of backgrounds such as climate change, sustainable design, urban planning, project management, CSR reporting, and strategic communications — worked pro bono with the representatives from the Town of Lenox to help them effectively incorporate sustainability perspectives into their Master Plan in 2018. With the guidance of faculty advisor Celine Solsken Ruben-Salama.
Lenox has enduring appeal, but its population is aging, and many residents are seasonal or otherwise impermanent. Strategic planning with sustainability in mind would serve to improve Lenox’s ability to remain competitive with other communities in the region and to attract residents that will contribute to the economy and stability of the town. Adopting sustainable practices that contribute to cleaner air, more access to open spaces, and a more integrated community will improve Lenox’s ability to provide its residents with a stronger quality of life. Thus, the first step was to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the town as well as the risks and opportunities it is likely to face in the context of planning. Then, in consonance with their Master Plan, delineate a methodology that focuses the community on the long-term impacts of environmental quality and health of the region, the equity of its citizens, and the economic development and opportunities of the town.
The SUMA Net Impact team prepared a package of tools and documents, as part of an Environmental Management System (EMS), that would provide the town with a high-level view of their sustainability planning practices. The EMS identifies key areas of long-term planning assessed from a viewpoint of sustainability: 1) providing an overview of targets and metrics to measure the progress made in the key areas, 2) a detailed technical report offering recommendations and best practices, 3) a metrics dashboard for recording and tracking data, 4) and a simplified template for calculating greenhouse gas emissions.
The process of visioning and goal-setting began with the SUMA Net Impact team’s visit to the Town of Lenox where they interacted with the various representatives of the Town Planner’s office, the Planning Board, the Department of Public Works, and the Environmental Committee. This site visit was also useful in orienting the SUMA Net Impact team with Lenox’s stakeholders, the town’s key attractions and public services. This opportunity was further leveraged by engaging the representatives in an interactive workshop with the objective of identifying the town’s specific values pertaining to environmental sustainability and then identifying three key areas that are especially important to the town’s current circumstances. The SUMA Net Impact team then worked to provide two aspects of sustainability opportunities within each of these three key areas: Climate Change focusing on Mitigation and Resilience, Utilities Management prioritizing Wastewater Treatment and Water Supply Management, and Land Management emphasizing Housing Development and Trail Networks.
The EMS document serves as a framework by which the Town of Lenox can envision town planning through the lens of sustainability, considering its growth strategies and town management practices with the long-term in mind. The EMS is intended to be a living document that is both scalable and replicable and can be used as a tool when interpreting a variety of different situations that the town may face in the future, including extending the town’s sustainable practices to any issue or planning category.
The team examined each key area by defining clear objectives of what the town intended to achieve. These objectives were further refined by prescribing boundaries to each, which describe the extents and limitations of the EMS and the methodologies of assessment, which describe which data or practices were used to create the assessment in this EMS. The assessments were extrapolated to identify overarching approaches to achieving the defined objectives and specific targets are aligned with each objective to measure actual results. The targets were typically quantitative and determined by timelines: Short-term targets are recommended to achieve by 2020: initial assessments, developing baseline data, and creating systems. Medium-term targets are recommended to achieve by 2030: program development and implementation. Long-term targets are recommended to achieve by 2040: higher-intensity goals or ideas to consider depending on new growth. Further, metrics were identified and used to track progress toward the target(s). Monitored at regular intervals, metrics will indicate the pace and direction of how the town is trending in relation to its goals and can quantify overall change in comparison with an initial baseline. Each metric recommended was chosen based on its actionability, relevance and meaningfulness to the objective.
Long-term sustainability planning will enable Lenox to act to mitigate its contributions to global warming and to adapt to the regional effects of climate change. By doing so, Lenox can establish its commitment to grow responsibly and conscientiously with respect to the environment and the residents of the town. By prioritizing resilience in its growth initiatives, the town can respond to changing conditions without compromising its services or quality of life, and the economy of the region can retain stability.
One of the key learnings has been the complex nature of addressing sustainability issues: First, identifying synergies between the disparate environmental, economic and social systems is an important part of identifying risks and opportunities. For example, addressing emissions reductions from town-owned vehicles may improve air quality and save money for the town in the long-term due to reduced fuel costs. Next, the team has provided the town with an understanding of considering which impacts are the most serious to address and which initiatives are likely to have the greatest mitigation influence against those impacts. Then, the team has also ensured that the actions that Lenox takes comply with or exceed the regulatory requirements of governing bodies to which the town is subject. Finally, the team also stressed the importance of utilizing human capital as a linchpin for institutionalizing sustainability planning.
CHALLENGES AND THE WAY FORWARD
Sustainability planning should become integrated into every town department and office, but for this to become standard, leadership is critical. The importance and integrative nature of sustainability should be understood and valued by those at the management level and should be accessible to those at all levels. Going forward, including a Sustainability Officer within the town workforce would be a simple way to ensure that sustainability concepts are prioritized during day-to-day operations and are extended through medium- and long-term programming. Some towns or municipalities have found it useful to establish this position in a department that is ratepayer-supported rather than taxpayer-supported because it protects the position from fluctuating impacts of budget cuts. Many local utilities are ratepayer-supported through local government departments, which offers an excellent platform from which to address energy-related sustainability initiatives, which typically have a significant impact on climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.
Establishing sustainable practices in organizational decision-making is not a one-size-fits-all model, and it is not a one-and-done process. Sustainability involves a continuous reshaping and refinement of practices to reflect the best technologies and methodologies we can espouse for each situation. Done right, sustainability can be a competitive economic development strategy — one that promotes social inclusion and community revitalization. Now that the Town of Lenox has the tools and resources to develop sustainable approaches to their town planning, they can implement new and innovative ideas that work best for their community and their needs while supporting the needs of generations to come.
While the world at large grapples with the enormity of dealing with sustainability challenges, what the perspective of towns such as Lenox shows is that even at the very local level we can act to create real and measurable change.