Fairfield County Edition

Connecticut’s Sustainability:

10 Commandments for Resilient Communities

The initial impetus for what became modern-era suburban sprawl was a desire for home ownership and an escape from the urban environment. Floyd Lapp, outgoing executive director of the South Western Regional Planning Agency (SWRPA) in Fairfield County, a Columbia University professor, and urban planner for more than 50 years, entered the field in the 1960s. He describes the migration to the suburbs this way, “We were having a love affair with cars and highways and there was an incredible marriage between cars and suburbia. We put all our chips on the car and we’re paying for that now. If you’re serious about urban planning, you have to turn around the mistakes made during the past 50 years.”

Turning things around in Fairfield County will be the task of the newly created Western Connecticut Council of Governments, with a state-approved merger of the SWRPA (swrpa.org) and the Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials (hvceo.org). The new organization will serve 18 municipalities in Fairfield County, which is no easy task given the towns’ geographic diversity, population density variation and other factors. The mission is to preserve and improve the quality of life and economic vitality of the region by focusing on inter-municipal issues. Funding comes from the federal government and the state, with some contributions from municipal dues. The municipalities included in the new council are Bethel, Bridgewater, Brookfield, Danbury, Darien, Greenwich, New Canaan, New Fairfield, New Milford, Newtown, Norwalk, Redding, Ridgefield, Sherman, Stamford, Weston, Westport and Wilton.

Lapp says 80 percent of the population growth in southwestern Connecticut has occurred in Stamford and Norwalk in the past 15 years, reversing what he calls “a bad trend” of growing “leafy green” suburbs. Since the 1990s, the share of auto miles driven by 20-year-olds has dropped from 21 percent to 14 percent, which he hails as a sign that the younger generation already understands what’s at stake. According to Lapp, this generation uses transit more, has rejected the detached single-family house in the suburbs and prefers urban living.

“We need an emphasis on connectivity and walkability,” Lapp says, citing Stamford and Norwalk as Fairfield county standouts in their efforts to build sustainability elements in their master plans. “Those two cities, more than others, are thinking about this and trying to plan ahead in a way some of the smaller leafy towns aren’t yet taking seriously.”

Creating a Network of Smart Towns

In June of 2013, Lapp participated as a presenter and panelist in a Resilient CT! workshop at Yale University in New Haven. Now renamed the Smart Town Network, the 2013 Resilient CT! Workshop & Toolkit was part of an education program developed and managed by Conscious Decisions, the brainchild of Fairfield’s Daphne Dixon. 

The Smart Town Network workshops are one-day events where community, business and municipal leaders are invited to hear presentations about local projects that are raising the standard for environmental protection while also providing economic payback. “It is essential for our country to move forward and stay a world leader,” Dixon states. “To do that, we must have all three groups involved in sustainability projects that matter.”

“Leadership and towns have to make it easier for people to do the right thing,” she explains. “Systems need to support and make it easier for people by setting the example in a way that doesn’t create hardship. Single-stream recycling is a great example. People are happy to recycle if you don’t make it too complicated.”

Although Dixon’s business is based in Fairfield, she has strong ties to many Connecticut towns from her years organizing community events and working with business and municipal leadership. “Knowing and supporting the businesses, working with the municipalities, and educating the consumers are the key elements to making a real impact,” she says. “You can’t cut out one part of that equation and have a sustainable positive result.”

Ten Commandments of Resilient Communities

When Lapp presented at the Resilient CT! workshop, he included as part of his address what he calls the “10 Commandments of Resilient Communities.”

#1 Promote energy-efficient transit.

This is, Lapp admits, primarily a plea for more government funding for transit. “On the one hand, we have grand plans for transit such as a national plan for high speed rail and the Northeast Corridor (Boston to Washington DC),” he explains. “But guess what? Without funding, we can’t do much to actually create sustainable change.”

#2 Move the lowly bus more rapidly.

Exclusive bus lanes, also known as Bus Rapid Transit, would speed up the ride, Lapp says. However, to grow bus ridership requires smart technology, such as preferential green lights for buses to make bus trips more enjoyable and convenient. 

#3 Bike and hike for healthier life.

There is federal and state support for “multi-modal street” access where motorists, bicyclists and walkers can share road-space wide enough for all of them. There is some innovative funding in this area, Lapp says and many of Connecticut’s towns are actively developing bike and/or walking trails to encourage this use. The movement to encourage multi-modal mobility is called “complete streets.”

#4 Build Transit-Oriented Development (TOD).

The exact opposite of the suburban sprawl movement, the intent of this is to create more compact development within a 5-10-minute walk of transit. There is currently a TOD pilot along the New Canaan branch of Metro-North Railroad, and Stamford and Norwalk are both including TOD in their long-term plans, Lapp says. TOD includes not only housing, but also local convenience retail so residents can do their shopping within an easy commute of their home and transit stations.

#5 Promote greater connectivity between bus and rail.

This has not historically been an issue for this area, Lapp says, because the Norwalk Transit District currently manages the bus service for seven of the eight municipalities in the Southwestern region (Weston does not currently have rail service). 

#6 Congestion pricing or special-use lanes on major highways.

According to Lapp, this is highly controversial though it has precedence for success. The concept is that people pay a fee to drive on an interstate – such as I-95 or I-84 – during busier commuting times. It is akin to paying “peak” or “off-peak” train ticket prices on Metro-North Railroad. The more people who ride in a car together, the less the driver has to pay. The effort is to reduce congestion on the packed roadways and, secondarily, to increase funding for highway maintenance. Lapp says New York officials have tested this on the notoriously busy Long Island Expressway and have found that the high occupancy vehicle lanes typically have 2.5 people per car, while the general lanes have only 1.1 persons per car. However, “congestion pricing” has yet to take effect there. 

#7 Get the parking ratios right; less is more.

While anyone who has ever searched for parking at a crowded mall during holiday season might quibble, Lapp says in general far too much real estate in Connecticut municipalities is wasted by parking lots. TODs are experimenting with less parking and Lapp says younger generations seem tolerant of this because many of them are delaying getting drivers’ licenses or not getting them at all. 

#8 Plant trees and green urban areas.

Achieving more thermostatic control of a town by maintaining a healthy balance of greenery is critical to the town’s ability to remain cool in summer and warmer in winter. Lapp says Stamford has done a good job in recent years of adding significant green space to the downtown area.

#9 Protect the pedestrian.

Streets are a place for people, not just cars. While this concept is commonplace in Europe where some cities have designated lanes for cars, people and bikes, it remains a harder sell in car-obsessed American towns and cities.

#10 Design for climate change/prepare for future catastrophic events.

With some towns still recovering from the battering of Mother Nature in recent years, attention of area planners to true disaster planning is a necessity rather than a luxury. “Climate change is here and it’s real and we need to prepare for future catastrophic weather events,” Lapp says. “Some towns see this more than others. The resiliency along the coast is still an issue of concern.”

Nicole Miale is Managing Editor/Publisher of Natural Awakenings Fairfield County. She loves hearing from readers and can be reached at NicoleM@NaturalAwakeningsmag.com or 203-885-4674.

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