Monday, September 15, 2008

A New Frontier for Low-Income Communities

Conversations about economic development go off in many directions, but I think they all basically boil down to two things - entrepreneurship and living wage jobs. The more of both you have, the more diverse they are in the industry sector to which they are related, the more anticipatory they are in terms of the market, the greater contribution they make to communities, cities and beyond.

Tom Friedman is spot on, when he advances the notion of the 21st century being the age of E.T., Environmental Technology, in his new book "Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why a Green Revolution is Needed - And How it Can Renew America". It can be to this period we live in, the equivalent to what I.T., Information Technology, was in the 90's.
This is particularly important in low-income, depressed areas, where industry has evaporated and for which the digital divide can no longer be relevant by simply trotting behind the rest of the world on the Internet.

I think Friedman's idea is an exciting one. It focuses on the need for energy independence in a way which calls to mind, not only the industrial and IT revolutions, but also the space race. And it calls for a creativity that is well within our grasp.

But I also think that his idea can be tremendously communal in its impact. The potential to create jobs in the inner city, in ways that transform the environment by making it more healthy, and providing skill sets based in the current economy, but with a creativity that propels these workers ahead of the curve by making them entrepreneurial. In effect, it makes them players in the market. And it proves that the market doesn't have to be a predatory construct, but one which with public support as well as private investment can turn lives and neighborhoods around.

Pipe dreaming? I don't think so. In the Bronx, New York, one young lady is already showing the way.

Majora Carter, a MacArthur Fellow and the executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, has created a 'green centered' environmental justice non-profit that is both entrepreneurial and having a profound impact on her community.
Recently, they've worked to help get a 'green roof' tax abatement of $4.50 a square foot. It amounts to an abatement of about 25% of the cost of converting a traditional roof to one sodded with vegetation. What's the benefit?

"The tax abatements make economic sense because horticultural infrastructure saves money.
Green, vegetated roofs keep storm water out of our sewer system - saving energy & operational costs while keeping toxics out of our rivers. Lower Summer Electricity Load: They also cool the city, whereas traditional tar roofs heat the city. Public Health: The plants clean the air too, and because the green part protects the waterproof layer from the elements, green roofs dramatically extend the life span of a roof."

It also has a greater economic impact: "We already know that vegetated roofs can have a measurable economic, ecological, and social benefits for property owners and communities, as Majora Carter and Sustainable South Bronx have demonstrated." -- Bill McDonough
FAIA, Co-Author Cradle to Cradle, Founding Partner, Principal: William McDonough + Partners

The point is whether we're talking about solar panels, windmills, gas, we're talking about jobs, we're talking about economic impact. We're also talking about transformed lives, transformed communities and a much brighter future for our country.

E.T. in the 21st century makes a lot of sense to me.

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