Remaking Northampton

The truth is, I don’t know much about Northampton’s sustainability plan. I should, but I just don’t. This plan addresses so many aspects of what I care about: community, conservation, sense of place, development. It is going to have a huge impact on the town that my wife and I plan to call home for quite some time. I should have read it, I should get myself a copy.

However, even without reading it, I have been exposed to some of the controversy surrounding it through the editorial pages of the local newspaper. An editorial in the Hampshire Gazette this week caught my attention. In it, Joel Russell a local land use attorney and planner asserted that the “Sustainable Northampton Plan” lacks one vital component. This one thing was not a particular policy or regulation. Nor was it was a certain goal or a target. Instead, Mr. Russell asserts that that the plan lacks a “compelling vision to help create the future we want and deserve as a community.” He continues, “The plan should be a call to action… it should be exciting and have a sense of urgency. After all, this is about our future and the lives of future generations.”

However, this is the line that really caught my attention, “The Sustainable Northampton Plan needs to be more inspirational.” Russell suggests that all the measures, all the metrics, all the bureaucratic details be put in an appendix. These should all be translated into a compelling vision designed not to tell people where to go, but to inspire them to get there. When was the last time someone suggested that a government document be inspiring? When was the last time an official plan gave us a vision of who we are and who we could be?

Those of you who know me, know that the bulk of my writing research has been on the use of language in conserving land. When I read this editorial I could not help but think that what Russell was calling for was language that could help us more clearly define and articulate our values. Peter Forbes says it this way:

“The conservation movement has not fully accepted that the root problem spawning its crusade is not loss of species, or decreasing air and water quality, or dwindling wilderness, or even relentless sprawl. These are the symptoms. The root problem is how we as humans live each day, and from where we draw our values. Until conservation offers positive alternatives to people about how they might lead their daily lives, a land ethic will elude us.” (from Our Land Ourselves)

Although Russell does not say it explicitly, it is clear from his editorial that he fears the potential for the detailed laws and regulations to alienate people, or simply turn them off. A document that advocates substantial changes to the way we live and relate to each other and the world that makes up our community, should not be off-putting. Forbes writes about this as well.

“No laws address how a change to the land affects our hope of community, our network of relationships (human and nonhuman), the memories we build as children, our commitment to a deeper citizenship with where we live, our connection to local culture and tradition. In short, how will a change in this land affect the wholeness of our community?” (from Giving Way to the Story)

I think that Russell is asking for something more than a land use document. He is calling for a manifesto for a new way of being human, another way of living here in the Connecticut River Valley, in Northampton, Massachusetts. I am again stealing from peter Forbes when I use the phrase “another way of being human.” “Imagine, for a moment, that the purpose of conserving land is to help create a new kind of people,” writes Peter Forbes. “This vision for land conservation suggests that our highest goal might just be to help people think and act differently.” (from A Conservation Eulogy)

I would argue that we need a document that not only articulates this new way of being human, presenting a compelling new vision of the community we want for ourselves and for our children, but also one that imagines a range of ways that conservation can help us reach that vision. I mean both how conservation will create a better, more healthy community, but also how the act of conserving, the act of forbearance, can help us recreate ourselves and our relationships to each other and to the land.

Garry Willis, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America,” argues that after the Gettysburg Address, “The crowd departed with a new thing in its ideological; luggage, that new constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one the brought there with them. They walked off, from those curving graves on the hillside, under a changed sky, into a different America.” (as quoted in Sarah Vowell’s essay “What He Said There“).

In the end, I am struck by the way each of these authors capture the power of words and language to not only inspire new ideas and new thoughts, but new action and new places. What words could inspire such a change today? What could we say or write that would leave people with a new conception of this place, or their lives here? Russell suggests that as Northampton embarks on a dialogue about our future we have a unique opportunity to not only plan, but also envision ourselves as individuals, as neighbors, and as a community. We have an opportunity to not only instruct but also inspire. I hope that others are listening.

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