"Changes in Communities Don't Just Happen"
By Guest Columnist, Rip Rapson
Did you ignore that small ad about the local planning commission meeting only later to watch in horror as bulldozers moved full-throttle into the woods down the road? You're not alone.
But changes in our communities don't just "happen." Elected officials deliberate. Concerned citizens voice their opinions--or they don't. Nearly every development project involves a public decisionmaking process, and as the old saying goes: "You don't ask, you don't get." As much as we Twin Citians value open spaces, public choices are being made here every day to drain wetlands, subdivide forests, fragment wildlife corridors and destroy farmland. Each decision can seem insignificant--after all, it's only 20 acres in this city or 100 acres in that township.
But they add up to an enormous loss for all of us. An area the size of the Mall of America is developed every day. Over the past decades, while our population growth has been about 25 percent, we've urbanized 60 percent more land. What does that ratio imply for the major new growth spurt we're facing--nearly a million new residents by 2030? What will happen to the land that's left?
Our relationship to the outdoors is legendary--it's a big part of what makes this region inviting and keeps our quality of life ratings so high. Typically, visitors here are awed by the glory of our metropolitan lakes, parks, woods, streams, fields and picturesque farmlands. Unlike many urban areas, we can still enjoy open spaces close to home. But if we want to keep this Minnesota way of life, we have to develop a public conservation ethic that counterbalances our rate of development.
It's tempting--when development forces are so powerful and public decisionmaking processes aren't clearly understood--for average citizens simply to throw up their hands in confusion and walk away from the chance to participate. But these choices are more than a dry exercise in participatory democracy--they will determine the future quality of our lives. What our region looks like, what respite and recreation it offers, who wants to live and work here, and what the quality of our air and water is.
Time is not on our side. We can't continue to believe that others will protect open spaces for us. We have to step up to the microphone at public hearings and use our pens, checkbooks and telephones to start asking "why?" and "why not?" Many of the choices are ours to make. Each of us needs to pay close attention to public decisions in our own areas and speak out on behalf of what we value. Here are three ways you might consider weighing in on this issue.
First, work with elected officials. Land-use decisions are frequently local decisions--made by city councils, planning commissions, watershed districts, school districts and other entities. These groups need information: What natural areas do their constituents care about? Why? What options are there for protecting and enhancing those areas? Who are the possible partners who could make that happen? So, don't ignore those little ads for public meetings--attend and express your views on the importance of open space protection to your community. (For other ways you can help, visit www.EmbraceOpenSpace.org.)
Second, encourage and support the contributions to open space protection being made by private landowners. Across the metro region, many individual landowners are voluntarily protecting open space on their own property, even though they have the option of selling it for greater profit. In an era when government can't tackle the job of land conservation alone, private landowners--individuals and corporations--have a key role to play. Tools like conservation and agricultural easements, and other voluntary legal agreements that permit owners to restrict the use of their land forever can be very influential in this region's land protection efforts.
Third, raise the importance of open space with friends and neighbors. All too frequently, we assume that a special area is protected, when in fact it's not. There are about 73,000 acres of unprotected natural areas left in the Twin Cities. Talking to people you know about the open spaces that mean a lot to you personally is an effective way to spread the word. Let them know the stakes are high and what they might do to be helpful. Remind them that when constituencies are silent, organized interests gain their greatest influence.
There are proven ways to grow and yet protect the open space we all cherish--and we have to push for those better solutions. Raise your own voice. Whether it's joining a local open space protection advocacy group, writing a letter to your elected officials, or protecting your own back 40 acres--your actions count. Just as many small open spaces destroyed equal a much greater loss to the region, many small acts can give birth to a powerful movement. Pick one thing and do it--today. It will make a difference.
Rip Rapson, of Minneapolis, is president of the McKnight Foundation.