Sustainability will take a long time

by Jordan Green

I found a seat at a table in the auditorium of the Forsyth County Central Library for a civic forum hosted the Piedmont Triad Sustainable Communities Planning Project, and quickly received a lesson in the quirks of regionalism.

Yes, Piedmont Triad Sustainable Communities Planning Project — it’s an unwieldy name, and it’s so difficult for me to commit it to memory that I typically have to do a Google search or two to recall it. Unwieldy or not, the project is your federal tax dollars at work. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the Piedmont Triad $1.6 million to develop something called a “Sustainable Communities Regional Plan,” after a successful application was filed by a consortium led by the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation, or PART.

I embrace sustainability as something like a secular religion. I started helping a neighbor who lives with multiple sclerosis with her yard work in December. It’s not charity; she pays me $10 an hour. She is interested in getting to know her neighbors better, as am I. For me, there are the additional benefits of getting a break from knowledge work and the therapy of putting my hands in the dirt.

The landscaping gig has replaced house-sitting as a source of supplemental income. My church friends’ dog, Miles, died recently. Their two cats don’t require medication or encouragement to eat, so my friends found a neighbor to take care of them when they go out of town. I miss staying at their house, and especially miss Miles, but I’m glad they’re saving money by not paying me for the service and I’m glad I’m not driving 15 miles out to Julian everyday. I like walking two blocks to a job.

And I rode the PART bus to work from Greensboro to Winston-Salem last week. Considering the tradeoffs — it’s not as convenient as commuting by car, but it saves me money — the principle of using a shared resource to minimize my impact on the natural environment and public infrastructure tipped me towards the bus.

Sustainability as a personal practice is one thing. Changing habits and patterns on a regional level is complicated on a whole different level. And as a matter of public policy, we’re not even talking about a single jurisdiction. The Piedmont Triad is comprised of two metropolitan statistical areas, a dozen counties, at least eight cities and numerous towns.

The challenge, as outlined on the sustainability project website ( sings my song: “Triad residents spend an average of 58 percent of their family income on housing and transportation… primarily due to the disconnect between location of housing and jobs.” Additionally, one in three Triad “commuters leave their county to go to another county to their job. Ninetyfive percent of all commuters do so by a single mode of travel — their car.”

I didn’t miss the irony of the fact that I traveled to the civic forum in Winston-Salem by car; the last bus back to Greensboro leaves Winston-Salem at 6 p.m., and this event started at 5:30 p.m. and ran to 7.

Dozens of people had gathered in the auditorium, and I gauged a healthy mix of participants by age, race and gender. Our primary function was to give facilitators input on the strengths and challenges of the region.

Truthfully, the process was rushed, and didn’t give participants much chance to get to know each other. If there was a time set aside for formal introductions, I missed it.

But I learned something during the exercise, in which each person selected three cards out of a pack representing different strengths and challenges and threw them into the center of the table. Based on the number of cards in each category, we arrived at a consensus on the region’s strengths and challenges.

Higher education won hands-down as the greatest strength. I was the only onewho submitted a card for cultural heritage. Iwas thinking of the International Civil RightsCenter and Museum and the proud history ofnonviolent civil disobedience, so my status asa Greensboro resident naturally skewed thechoice.

Most of the people at my table wantedto emphasize healthcare.I hadn’t thought of that. Although I knowhealthcare is the largest employer in bothForsyth and Guilford counties, I am also awarethat the system operates at a huge cost and accessis grossly uneven.

One elderly gentlemansaid he volunteers at Baptist Hospital. Anothersaid that the region’s excellent healthcaresystem was actually the reason he moved toForsyth County.A woman I befriended on the PART bus,who volunteers as a translator for Hispanic patientsin area hospitals, might have disagreed.She treated me to a litany of complaints, generallyrelated to the care of uninsured patients, includingtales of a hernia operation gone wrong,patients released prematurely and one heldunnecessarily long because she was inexplicablyplaced on suicide watch and had to waitfi ve days to be seen by a psychiatrist.

From a kaleidoscope of experiences livingand working in the Triad, it’s diffi cult for meto come up with a big picture. Work groupsare meeting to develop plans for infrastructure,community health, development patterns,housing and workforce development, amongother arenas.

They’ve looked at everythingfrom neighborhood revitalization initiativesand local food production.It’s a lot to digest, but maybe, like slow food,the meal will be worth the wait.