Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Schooled by school children?

Last Wednesday marked the fifth Sustainable DC meeting since Mayor Gray gave his opening remarks at the inaugural gathering back in November. Session 5 was the first meeting to reconvene members of all 9 working groups for a larger sharing session on what we've been up to in our specific work areas. "Oh, boy," I mumbled to myself as lactic acid built up in my legs along the near endless uphill stretch of Tilden Street on my bike ride to UDC amid wind and sleet on Wednesday night, "another whah-whah-whah-whah, talkety-talk, official meeting where everyone blathers on in government speak and pretends to care about sustainability and then nobody actually does anything." And yet... as much as I dread these sorts of government-talking-and-little-action sorts of gatherings, I must say that I was surprised and impressed with what my peers -- a pretty good cross-section of DC citizens and advocates and, yes, a handful of city government officials -- had to say about what our city needs and ways we can get to a more sustainable way of living here in the nation's capital.

I know, I wouldn't have believed it had I not been sitting in the UDC auditorium myself.

There were some darn good goals and specific action items put forth by each of the working groups. After we heard each group's vision statement and their recommendations for the top 10 high impact changes needed in areas like water and waste management, food, nature, energy, green economies, and the built environment, DC residents circulated around a series of stations just outside of the auditorium -- each with a giant poster of possible goals and action items for a given topic -- and voted on overall priorities... using stickers, of which each attendee had exactly 25... just like we used to vote with in the 4th grade. (Only with less of an obvious black market sticker trade, perhaps.) Everyone had equal say -- democracy in action, for better or worse -- and it was fascinating to see how folks voted, which items outside of their own group's work garnered support. I can certainly say that I hadn't anticipated using so many stickers on transportation priorities, but that group had some excellent ideas.

Collectively, we voted for things like increasing double dollars at farmers' markets across the city (yeah, that got more than one of my stickers). Things like offering incentives to retrofit old buildings to be more energy efficient, requiring government agencies to source food locally, insisting that food businesses use biodegradable packaging. (Where am I, Portlandia?? It could happen.) Things like implementing a city-wide, 3-stream waste collection system to collect separated trash, recyclables, and compostables. Frankly, I am baffled as to why we don't already have a 3-stream system and am resisting the urge to look up how long the much larger city of San Francisco has had such a system in place. It's not hard, people, I've been doing with my middle school garden club since October. (Occasionally an apple core will end up in the recycling bin, but we're working on that.)

We've 4 more working group sessions to go over the next 2 months. There's a lot of potential here, some good ideas and momentum. I'm curious to see what the city government actually *does* with our collective ideas and votes. I've yet to see or hear any kind of follow-up from Councilman Wells' similarly ambitious urban agriculture public hearing last December, and I worry that our current mayor may similarly lose the good faith of the citizenry if he does not follow through with meaningful and timely actions.

It's not rocket science. I know some 7th graders that could offer some practical recommendations on how to live more sustainably.

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