Overuse Or Overshoot? That is the Question for Harrisburg - Southern Maryland Headline News

Overuse Or Overshoot? That is the Question for Harrisburg

Environmental Commentary by Sara Kaplaniak

Sustainability. We hear about it a lot these days — a buzzword used when referencing the collision between our modern lifestyle and the health of the planet.

It’s a buzzword that packs a punch because, put simply, humanity is consuming more resources than the world’s forests, prairies, oceans, estuaries and wetlands can replenish. We also produce more pollution than the Earth can absorb.

That is why many cities around the nation are incorporating sustainability into their organizational structures, budgets and long-term planning. These municipalities recognize that clean air and water, productive soils, shady streets and green places for recreation and rest directly correlate with the health, well-being and prosperity of their residents.

The new mayor of Harrisburg, Pa., gets this. Back in February, he floated the idea of hiring a director of sustainability for the city. The City Council voted 4–3 against the idea.

I’m not sure about why Harrisburg’s City Council voted the idea down, but suspect that headlines populated with reports of the debt, crime and general mismanagement played a role. Closer examination would reveal that these and other woes warrant giving sustainability another look.

In fact, Harrisburg might take a cue from peers around the nation that are recruiting sustainability directors. The men and women hired for these positions emerge from a variety of backgrounds, including public administration, policy, engineering, urban planning and conservation. In these newly minted roles, they are called upon to support policies and programs promoting the responsible use of natural resources in ways that also boost economic and social vitality.

Take San Francisco — likely the nation’s leader in sustainability. In the past, San Francisco banned the use of plastic shopping bags and recently voted to ban the sale of single-use plastic water bottles on city property. It sounds drastic but makes sense from a sustainability standpoint because meeting our country’s demand for plastic water bottles requires millions of barrels of oil. Although they are recyclable, most end up on beaches or in rivers and landfills.

Closer to home, the City of Lancaster, Pa., was recently recognized for its exemplary management of a busy intersection inundated with 1.7 million gallons of stormwater each year. Instead of concrete and cars, the intersection now boasts rain gardens full of native shrubs, perennials, ornamental grasses and trees. An adjacent brewery participated in the project by building a patio with permeable pavers and a 700-gallon cistern, which doubles as an art installation, to collect runoff from the roof to use for produce grown on site.

In addition to controlling the quantity and quality of water flowing into the Conestoga River and eventually the Chesapeake Bay, Lancaster’s actions have also been commended for integrating public art, community engagement, education and good science in the name of a happier, healthier and more beautiful city.

So, if a large city like San Francisco and a small city like Lancaster are proving the merits of sustainability, what is the cost of not opting in? Well Harrisburg, get out your calendar because shunning sustainability has coined a new holiday-of-sorts.

The Global Footprint Network, a nonprofit organization measuring the Earth’s ability to meet humanity’s demand for natural resources, has established “Earth Overshoot Day” to mark the approximate date when the human consumption of resources for a given year exceeds the planet’s supply. According to their research, that occurs roughly every eight months. During 2013, it fell on Aug. 20. It is expected to arrive earlier in 2014.

I love a good holiday, but this is one we may want to do without. Instead, let’s balance our ecological checkbook and then celebrate THAT. It’s urgent. Let’s make it a priority.

Today, the majority of our planet’s residents reside in cities — and those numbers continue to rise. Should we accommodate more cars and congestion or promote an infrastructure that is friendlier to walking, biking and public transportation? Do we fund expensive water treatment plants or plant more vegetation to naturally filter the water flowing through the rivers and streams from which we drink? Would having more trees help city residents breathe (literally) a little easier while providing shade required to reduce energy bills? These are questions a sustainability director is hired to address.

Last winter, Harrisburg’s City Council made an unfortunate decision for a municipality located in proximity to the nation’s largest estuary. I hope that if the vote comes up again, the Council will consider that decisions made with the river and bay in mind will improve the physical health and quality of life for Harrisburg’s residents. Incorporating sustainability into city operations will also increase property values, generate jobs, attract business and visitors, and maybe — just maybe — reduce some of the crime.

I dare them to give it a try.

Sara Kaplaniak writes about the environment. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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