Perspective on the Planning Commission’s DRAFT of the Comp Plan Update

Jon Quitslund

The complete text of the ten Elements of the updated Comprehensive Plan is now available on the COBI website. This DRAFT may be modified by the Planning Commission in response to comments in the Public Hearings on September 17 and 22 (with provisions for subsequent comments in writing), before the package is sent forward to the City Council for further deliberation and final action.

I feel good about what we’re sending forward, and I don’t think it needs much more work. What the Update needs most at this point is exposure to public scrutiny and discussion. Without a broad understanding of the policies that are set forth in the Comp Plan, it can’t be implemented effectively.

In recent postings, I have provided perspective on current developments in planning for the future of Bainbridge Island by recalling some things that I wrote several years ago. This time, I’ll quote from a piece I unearthed recently, carrying the date of May 31, 2007.

I was writing in response to contention within the City Council, and I led off with a line spoken by Tommy Lee Jones, who played a hard-bitten sheriff in the movie adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men: “If this ain’t the mess, it’ll do until the mess gets here.”

Maybe you weren’t here in 2007, or you don’t remember the shape we were in. The real estate bubble hadn’t burst and the economic collapse of 2008 was on nobody’s radar, but COBI was in disarray. My point, in what I want to say now, is that we’re in much better shape now, and not just because the local economy has revived.

My occasion for writing what I did in 2007 was a Council meeting in which two ambitious planning efforts were discussed. Both were received unkindly, because both efforts were perceived as initiatives of Mayor Kordonowy and her administration, which some members of the Council were predisposed to regard as misguided.

Need I say that I was on the side of the Mayor and administration? (So were some members of the Council, but not enough to carry the day.) The systemic dysfunction could only be cured by changing to our current Council / City Manager system, which now, after some instability, is working quite well.

At the time of the meeting back in May of 2007, the long and fractious planning process for Winslow Tomorrow had come to a head and the Council had decisions to make. Another planning exercise, involving two years of work by citizens in the 2025 Growth Advisory Committee, had produced a final report: its aim was to find ways, through an Island-wide strategy, to accommodate the population growth expected by the year 2025.

I was only on the sidelines of the Winslow Tomorrow project, but I’m proud to have been a member of the 2025 group, in which I learned a lot that has been applicable to the Comprehensive Plan update. Many of the ideas in the 2025 Report have made their way into the Comp Plan’s goals and policies – “ideas whose time has come.”

The most ambitious features of the Winslow Tomorrow plans were left behind, and other plans were scaled down and postponed, but thanks to that process, Winslow Way has now been greatly improved, both on its surface and in all the infrastructure underground. And the work now being done in and around Waterfront Park accomplishes another part of the Winslow Tomorrow vision.

The 2025 Committee’s recommendations were never taken very seriously by the City Council back in 2007: like many other studies, the Report was shelved, soon forgotten even by the leadership and staff in Planning and Community Development, and only recently brought back into the light.

Let me say a little more about the mess we used to be in, because that history still hangs over us. The City government is in much better shape – better than most people realize. Attitudes of impatience, distrust, and ‘what d’you expect?’ are still prevalent. The people in charge and the employees who have the most immediate contact with citizens still have a lot to prove.

In the first paragraph of what I wrote back in the summer of 2007, here’s how I described what was bothering me: “the mind-boggling meeting of obvious, unavoidable change and incoherent, mostly behind-the-scenes efforts to manage what’s happening, or at least to influence events for the benefit of one set of interests.” That statement is itself a muddle; I suppose I myself was up to my knees in the confusion. I know I was discouraged and angry. A couple of paragraphs in, I wrote, “I find reason to believe [the mess] can be managed.” Well, it wasn’t, and I was a fool to believe it could be.

* * *

I’ve said more than once that COBI is in better shape now; events could prove me wrong. Most citizens are indifferent, skeptical, or downright hostile to what goes on in City Hall. Read letters to the editor in random issues of the Bainbridge Island Review, and it may seem that nothing has changed: no good idea goes unchallenged. I guess I should be apprehensive about what lies ahead during citizens’ responses to the Comprehensive Plan and Council deliberations.

But my experience during two years of Planning Commission work on the update gives me some confidence. Citizens’ comments during the update, in person and via email, were sometimes critical, but constructively so. Council members were interested; the Council as a group was kept informed and they provided feedback. As a whole, the Planning Commission took pains to get things right.

There were times when I wished for more involvement on the part of people whose lives and livelihoods may be directly affected by the success or failure of policies advanced in the Comprehensive Plan. For instance: in the Economic element we did our best to understand problems and envision a stronger, more diverse local economy, but we did so without much help from the business community.

My greatest disappointment – should I call it frustration, or bafflement? – arose from the absence of interest in the Comprehensive Plan on the part of developers, builders, and real estate interests. (Some of the Island’s many architects were involved, and I expect their engagement to continue.) What are the other professionals in the development and real estate industries thinking?

* * *

Goals and policies put forward in the Land Use, Environmental, Economic, and Housing elements initiate some broad and deep changes in the forms that residential and commercial development will take in our community’s future. I think there’s a general agreement that ‘market forces,’ relatively unconstrained and in some respects aided by public policies, have been unkind, unsupportive of the common good here on Bainbridge. Maybe we can also agree that deep changes in the status quo are due, and overdue. Whether we can agree on the agenda for change presented in the Comp Plan update remains to be seen.

I, for one, am eager to find out. Stay tuned.

Posted in Community, Comprehensive Plan, Cooperation, Economy, Environment, Housing, Long range planning | Tagged , | Comments Off on Perspective on the Planning Commission’s DRAFT of the Comp Plan Update

Planning for the ‘Neighborhood Centers’ on Bainbridge Island

Jon Quitslund

It’s become possible for me to imagine the end of the Planning Commission’s work on the Comprehensive Plan update, which has occupied part of my mind and untold hours and days of my life for more than two years. (Others – especially Jennifer Sutton, Joe Tovar, and Maradel Gale – have also been deep in the process.)

There is work to be done on two more important elements of the Plan, but they are short and simple compared to where we started, with the Introduction, Land Use, and Environmental elements, and then with very substantial improvements to the Economic and Housing elements.

The Planning Commission is on notice that we need to complete a clean draft of the entire Comprehensive Plan by August 18th.  I’m looking forward to September, when there will be two public meetings in the Council chambers at which the Planning Commission’s draft of the Plan will be presented and discussed. The meeting on Saturday, September 17, will run from 9 a. m. to noon, and on Thursday, September 22, the meeting will start at 4:30 p. m. and end at 8. Save the dates, and tell your friends!

At each event, the first hour and a half will be an Open House, where City staff and Planning Commission members will be available to discuss goals and policies in the individual Elements. Each Open House will be followed by a Public Hearing, where the Planning Commission will accept comments on the Plan.

Oral comments, together with any opinions that we receive in writing, may lead to revisions before the Planning Commission’s draft is sent to the City Council for their review, and they will be included in the package that goes to the Council.

Copies of the updated Plan will be available well in advance of the meetings, along with summaries that highlight the most important changes in goals and policies. Citizens interested in contributing to the Public Hearing should be familiar with the part or parts of the Plan that pertain to their concerns.

Of course, we will also welcome expressions of support for the initiatives being taken in this very careful and thorough revision.

* * *

If you’ve followed any of my earlier posts tracking the update process, you will be aware that the Planning Commission, with the help of COBI staff and many engaged citizens, has been working to come to grips with the problems we face today and challenges we will encounter over the next twenty years and beyond. This update has responded to a sense of urgency, and it breaks new ground in many areas.

I want to address here an important feature of the update that is sure to be somewhat controversial – maybe not as it appears in the language of the Plan, but as it is implemented in changes to the Municipal Code and put in practice, with all deliberate speed, over a period of years.

As you may know, the first Comprehensive Plan from 1994 and the 2004 revision both sought to manage residential development and population growth by accommodating 50% of growth in the Winslow area and the Neighborhood Service Centers (Lynwood, Rolling Bay, and Island Center). In recent years, that strategy has been working well: Winslow and Lynwood Center are very different from what they were in 2004, and change has also come to Rolling Bay.

But Winslow, within its current boundaries, can’t absorb 45% or even 40% of the population growth and property development anticipated over the next 20 years. This fact was recognized early in the update process, when we started work on the Land Use element. We also recognized that if current zoning and land use regulations remain unchanged, the broad green areas of the Island, zoned to permit low density residential development, would soon enough be cleared and dominated by large, expensive houses.

The suburbanizing tendency is already apparent, and I guess it is widely regarded as business as usual, like it or not. But must it continue unchecked? The updated Land Use element proposes an alternative.

The foundation of the Land Use element is an Island-wide Conservation and Development Strategy that distinguishes between designated centers (Winslow the established neighborhood centers), where development will be encouraged at urban and suburban densities, and the lower-density conservation areas – approximately 90% of the Island, where further development will be permitted, combined with preservation of forested areas and open space.

This conception of the most appropriate pattern for land use on Bainbridge is not new, and not radical. It’s consistent with the zoning code: most of the Island’s land (and most of the currently undeveloped land) is zoned R-0.4 or R-1, for one residence on 2 ½ or 1 acre. But in recent years we have not had regulations and procedures in place that emphasized the importance – even the necessity – of combining conservation with appropriate forms of residential development.

Public sentiment in favor of conservation and opposed to rampant, poorly planned development is obvious enough. So the City has some catching up to do. Planning for development in the ‘designated centers’ will be a crucial part of that.

A month ago I wrote about ‘Low Impact Development’ (LID) standards and the difference they will make, especially in the lower-density zones. I’ll have more to say on that subject in due time; now I want to focus on the ‘designated centers.’

Here on Bainbridge, there seems to be at least a ten year lag between the emergence of problem-solving ideas and the gear-grinding that precedes a productive response. The first Comprehensive Plan identified Lynwood Center, Island Center, and Rolling Bay as neighborhood service centers (NSC’s) and treated them more as relics than as potential nodes for positive development. In 2004, ten years later, things looked different.

I recently came across a column I wrote for the Bainbridge Islander, published in 2004 for the week of November 20-26. It’s somewhat dated, but I think the perspective it offers on the historic neighborhoods has some value. Here’s what I wrote back then.

* * *

Signs on Highway 3 tell people how far they are from the “City of Bainbridge Island.” As everybody on Bainbridge knows, it’s a city only for administrative and political purposes. There is one town, Winslow, but if you say to a longtime islander, “I’m going to town,” they are likely to think you have something to do in Seattle.

From the beginning, people on Bainbridge have shared some sense of the island as a geographic whole, but there is no corresponding cultural coherence. Most of us live in secluded houses and disparate neighborhoods. Except for residents of Winslow, an everyday sense of the island as a community is formed around one’s own neck of the woods.

In all but the newest and most ambitious developments, one’s neighborhood is identified by a name that dates from the 19th or the early 20th century. When I’m asked where I live, I say ‘Crystal Springs’ or ‘near Lynwood Center.’ It pleases me that some of the earliest buildings that defined those neighborhoods still exist and remain useful.

I would like to see more attention paid – by citizens’ groups and City Hall – to revitalizing social and commercial activities in the old neighborhoods. Wouldn’t people be better off if they were less dependent for their daily needs on our most crowded roads? How about shopping in Winslow less, and enjoying it more?

The pre-eminence of Winslow among the island’s centers of population and commerce can be traced back to the late 1930s, when ferry service was centralized in Eagle Harbor. Changes in the island’s economy, exacerbated by the Great Depression, already had pushed other communities into decline. The growth of Winslow during and after World War II worked like a magnet to draw business away from neighborhood stores.

It looks like commuting and daily errands that add dozens of miles to the odometer will define most of our lives for some time to come. The “Winslow Tomorrow” congress, therefore, needs to worry constructively about transportation and parking.

Cars no longer signify freedom, however. The good people responsible for revision of the island’s Comprehensive Plan are at least dimly aware that dispersing traffic and commercial activity would be a good thing.

The original Comp Plan identified three neighborhood service centers: Island Center, Lynwood Center and Rolling Bay. In those areas outside of Winslow, significant commercial activity is already going on.

In the Comp Plan update now taking final shape, a door is opened to expansion of the boundaries of Rolling Bay. This is startling and most welcome, as some very interesting things are happening there. I would love to see the City get involved in stimulating and shaping future developments around the intersection of Sunrise Drive and Valley Road.

The Rolling Bay that I remember from the 1950s was a quiet place that had survived from busier and more prosperous times. The post office, established in 1892 and threatened with closure in more modern times, now attracts people who would rather stand in line there than in Winslow. Rodal’s general store, an almost-empty shop where I bought candy as a kid, now houses part of Bay Hay & Feed, a reinvention of the general store.

Community assets that will benefit the whole island are tucked away in Rolling Bay: the future home of the Island Music Guild, for example. There’s also land waiting for its highest and best use to be discovered. The hodge-podge look of things arouses mixed emotions: I see potential for healthy growth, and for a mess of missed opportunities.

The upscale Rolling Bay Bungalows are wedged between a wild garden and the venerable Coleman house, perched on the highest ground in the neighborhood. I hope the bungalows, nice as they are, don’t set the tone for further residential development. Rolling Bay could be a great location for some affordable cottage housing.

Posted in Community, Comprehensive Plan, Environment, Long range planning, Place, Stewardship | 1 Comment

What Is ‘Low-Impact Development (LID)’?

Jon Quitslund

I expect that most people reading this post have at least a nodding acquaintance with the phrase ‘low-impact development’ and its acronym, but you may not have a ready definition, or know why the term is being bandied about here on Bainbridge these days. I’m eager to tell you why, and what a difference it will make when low-impact design standards are implemented.

Along with other municipalities in western Washington, Bainbridge Island has an obligation to the state (specifically to the Department of Ecology) to develop LID design standards for new development and infrastructure projects. This obligation is running concurrently with our Comp Plan update, and LID principles are pertinent to several elements in the Comp Plan.

I tend to think that LID standards, which will be introduced some months from now in a major revision of the Municipal Code, will constitute the leading edge in the all-important implementation of new policies that have been brought forward in the Comprehensive Plan. All the parties to the update process appear ready to change, in certain respects, what kind of development happens here in the future. The manifold impacts of development have to be brought under control.

LID, to quote the Wikipedia definition, “is a term used in Canada and the United States to describe a land planning and engineering design approach to manage stormwater runoff. LID emphasizes conservation and use of on-site natural features to protect water quality.”

The concept, and even the acronym, have been around us for more than a decade: toward the end of this post I’ll provide some historical perspective from a B I City Council meeting in 2005. I think the new standards will involve incremental rather than dramatic changes in the methods used to manage runoff. The new standards will, I trust, make it harder for developers to get away with projects and practices that never should have been permitted.

I have been in many meetings recently where the topic of LID design standards has come up. In the Comp Plan update, LID principles and standards are relevant to the implementation of policies in the Land Use, Environment, Water Resources, Transportation, and Housing elements.

A task force from the Public Works and Planning departments has been studying what will be needed in the new regulations and what parts of the Municipal Code need to be changed. The City Manager and Council will soon be seeking a consultant to draft an Ordinance that’s consistent with the Department of Ecology’s guidelines and the City Council’s policy directives.

In the Ad Hoc Committee concerned with preservation of significant trees and forested areas, we (three Council and two Planning Commission members) intend to make changes in several chapters of the Municipal Code, and it’s possible that the consultant’s mandate will be broadened to provide the Ad Hoc Committee’s agenda with expert support.

The connections may not be obvious, but managing stormwater runoff has a great deal to do with preservation of forested areas and the ecological integrity of soils, native vegetation, wetlands and streams, and the natural contours of our landscape.

The more clearing and road-building that’s done in the course of development, and the more water-shedding surfaces are imposed on the land, the more we stand to lose in the natural dynamism of the water cycle, the seasonal and long-term growth and decay of vegetation, the healthy microbial life that supports everything around us, and the filtered light and excellent air quality that our fragmented community forest affords us.

In urban and suburban areas, effective stormwater management has to rely heavily on technological fixes, and they won’t be irrelevant here on Bainbridge, but I don’t want to see technology (curtain drains, retention basins and underground tanks, soil amendments, mitigation strategies and the like) offered as an alternative when the lay of the land already indicates where roads and houses belong, and how much of the natural landscape can and should be left undisturbed.

LID principles emphasize the need to control pollutants – which for us, if we’re not careful, end up in Puget Sound. Effective infiltration – aquifer recharge – is another LID objective, and it’s essential here: the more water we can retain and recover, the better for all of us.

Low-impact development regulations may focus on stormwater management, but why stop there? If in other respects development is high-impact, what have we gained? I was delighted to learn that in England, the phrase ‘low-impact development’ carries a broader and deeper meaning: “development that through its low negative environmental impact either enhances or does not significantly diminish environmental quality” (Wikipedia again, quoting the ecologist Simon Fairlie). Such development is conceived as in all respects antithetical to suburban sprawl.

The following terms describe LID as practiced in England: “locally adapted, diverse and unique; based on renewable resources; of an appropriate scale; visually unobtrusive; enhances biodiversity; increases public access to open space; generates little traffic; linked to sustainable livelihoods; co-ordinated by a management plan.” (These phrases summarize the views in a 2009 paper by Larch Maxey, “The Future in Our Hands: Low Impact Development and Sustainability Transitions.”)

* * *

Which brings me to a transition in this post: I want to introduce some choice paragraphs from a piece that I wrote for the Bainbridge Islander more than ten years ago, to provide some perspective on where we are today.

Sorting through the deep clutter in my library and writing space, I came across a clipping from November, 2005 – back when I was writing a bi-weekly column for the Kitsap Sun and the Islander. I recognized back then that “sustainability” had already achieved buzzword status in many people’s minds.

I wanted to insist, au contraire, “that it’s not just an idea, nor is it a lifestyle you can put on like a down vest. The word denotes a belief system, and an incredibly long list of choices and ‘best practices.’” Acknowledging resistance to those choices and changes, I went on to say, “The goal of sustainability calls into question much that we hold dear, and any threat to our customary comforts is likely to prompt the instinctual responses of fight or flight.”

I ended the column on an ‘up’ note, and imagine my surprise when I saw a reference to ‘low-impact development’!

I quoted Wendell Berry: “We must learn to grow like a tree, not like a fire.” And I went on to say this:

“The City Council on Bainbridge may be getting this message. In a recent meeting, Public Works staff briefed the Council on proposed revisions to the ordinance governing stormwater management. Along the way, the Council was told that ‘low-impact development’ practices would be encouraged, not required. Such practices are not yet ‘widely used.’

“Council members reacted with a crescendo of concern. ‘Why not lead the way?’ ‘Where have you guys been?’ ‘LID should be mandated.’ Uncharacteristically, I found myself siding with the Council rather than City staff.”

* * *

So there you have some perspective on LID principles from ten years ago, with a different Public Works staff and a different City Council. And the need for improved stormwater management is ten years more urgent. It’s about time to get it done right. Fortunately, these days, Public Works and the City Council are generally on the same page. Stay tuned.

Posted in Community, Comprehensive Plan, Environment, Housing, Long range planning, Stewardship | Tagged | Comments Off on What Is ‘Low-Impact Development (LID)’?

Regarding Housing & Land Use Policies on Bainbridge (Part II)

Jon Quitslund

I’m taking up the second part of this post in the evening on the day after the June 16th Planning Commission meeting. The Housing, Land Use, and Economic elements were all on the agenda; now there’s a little more to be done with the Economic element but the other two are ready to be put to bed.

Housing got the most attention, and I want to say more in this space about our problems and our problem-solving strategies in that part of the Comp Plan.

Ron Peltier, who of all the Council members has been the most interested in the Comp Plan update, had given the Housing element a thorough going-over, proposing additions and deletions to the draft of many Goals and Policies. He also offered his personal perspective, as someone who grew up on Bainbridge, on the last fifty years of the Island’s history.

While almost none of Ron’s suggestions ended up in the text that the Planning Commission reviewed and approved, he and I find ourselves mostly in agreement on some basic ideas. We talked after the meeting was over, and I’m going to continue my train of thought here.

Ron proposed some paragraphs titled Historic Trends and Forces, and I agree with him that we need to see our present population, our housing stock, and the cost of living on Bainbridge in the light of history. (“The past is prologue,” after all – and if we allow things to just run their course, the past will pre-determine the future.)

Ron starts with this general statement: “Over the past fifty years Bainbridge Island has transitioned from a mostly working class and farming community to one that is predominantly upscale and affluent.”

My own history on the Island goes back more than fifty years; I arrived here in 1945 as a first-grader in Lincoln School (where the Winslow Green is now). From my father’s stories about growing up in Port Madison and my own research in local history, I’ve gotten some sense of what the Island was like in the first half of the 20th century.

The first thing I’d say is that the transition from working class and farming began soon after World War II. My father, who came out of a subsistence farming background and was the first in his family to go to college (Washington State before it was a U), became part of the commuting white-collar workforce – not making a big salary, mind you, but somewhat distinct from the guys on the same boat with lunch-pails, taking the bus to the Boeing plant, and those going in the other direction on the Point White ferry to Navy yard jobs in Bremerton.

Ron continues: “Through its own brand of gentrification, Bainbridge Island in fifty years has gone from a community where everyone who worked on the Island could easily find a place to rent or buy, to a place where its affluent residents rely more and more upon a range of trades and service workers who cannot afford to live here.”

Ron describes a big change without an adequate account of its causes. The roots of the problem go back more than fifty years, and the big factors affecting the costs of land and housing are regional, not local.  I don’t think any actions taken on Bainbridge could have (or should have) counteracted the rising affluence of Bainbridge residents.  We can’t turn back the clock.  But we must take some steps to intervene in the market for housing.

The term ‘gentrification’ was coined in the 1960s to describe the transformation of urban neighborhoods that had been working-class and shabby, even slums. In a gentrifying neighborhood, after its ‘discovery’ by new people with more money and ambition, property owners sell out for unexpected profits, renters are displaced, and many changes are set in motion. Pretty soon the first urban pioneers see neighbors coming in with more money and more conservative values than their crowd brought to the neighborhood, which is no longer ‘edgy,’ but a trendy destination. And so it goes.

This kind of gentrification has moved in waves through London, most of the boroughs in New York City, and many other cities. It’s happened, and is still happening, in Seattle. My wife and I saw gentrification in Washington, D. C., when we moved there in 1964, and we participated in the process ourselves when we bought and renovated a house on Capitol Hill in 1974.

When we sold our house and left D. C. in 2000, we had earned enough in sweat equity and the rising market to buy a small house on Bainbridge. By that point we had looked at low-end houses and apartments all over the Island and in Indianola: it was shocking how many places were shabby, poorly designed, and overpriced.

I would go so far as to say to Ron Peltier that something like gentrification has happened on Bainbridge, but it doesn’t bear comparison to the transformation of urban neighborhoods and the dislocation of masses of people.

I’m not nostalgic for Bainbridge Island as it was in the 1940s and ‘50s. That wasn’t an idyllic time, and the population wasn’t settled and stable. I wasn’t aware of it then, but looking back I think many people struggled to make ends meet, striving either to find a secure place in the middle class or to keep moving up within it. There was trouble in many families, and in accordance with the culture of that time, the veneer of conventional happiness and respectability hid problems that couldn’t be spoken of.

Bainbridge Island has become a more cosmopolitan, culturally diverse place over the past fifty years, as well as becoming more affluent. Now we’re at a fork in the road. Can we make the changes – more diverse and broadly affordable housing choices, an economy that is more robust and self-contained, a population that is working together toward a positive future – that will reverse the trends toward increasing affluence, stratification, and exclusivity?

I think so; I don’t think it’s too late. But we can’t mess around any more.

Lots of people don’t recognize it, but the Growth Management Act was created to deal with gentrification and related problems – all the pressures and barriers that tend to sort and segregate different cultural and economic groups.

The GMA also, and more obviously, requires counties and municipalities to control sprawling suburban development, with its inefficient use of land and wasteful consumption of natural resources. And the problems are linked together: suburban sprawl is another sorting and segregating process.

In my own view, Bainbridge Island has suffered more from suburbanization than from gentrification. But that’s another subject.


Posted in Community, Comprehensive Plan, Cooperation, Demographic Groups, Economy, Housing, income inequality, Island values, Long range planning, People, Place | Tagged , | Comments Off on Regarding Housing & Land Use Policies on Bainbridge (Part II)

Regarding Housing and Land Use Policies on Bainbridge Island

Jon Quitslund

At the Planning Commission’s next meeting (June 9th), we’ll complete work on a draft of the Housing element and take another look at proposed revisions to the Guiding Principles and Policies.

Later in the month – there are meetings on the 16th and the 23rd – we’ll revisit the Land Use element, which (after the introductory parts of the Plan) provides the foundation for what has followed in the drafting process. Now Land Use can be revised to improve consistency with those later elements – Housing among them.

In the Comp Plan from 2004, the Goals and Policies of the Housing element don’t fill six pages. Everything set down in 2004 was sound and well-intentioned, but in the intervening years, despite good work by Housing Resources Bainbridge and other advocates for affordable housing, and with a deep recession that depressed home prices and building activity, the need for housing that will suit the diverse community that Bainbridge wants to be has only become more urgent.

The 2004 Housing element states that “between 1990 and 2003 the average Bainbridge Island home price escalated dramatically from $232,687 to $478,000.” And today? “The average single-family home price is just under $700,000.”

Taking into account that and other facts about the Island’s housing stock, the market, and the demographics of our population, the updated Housing element is much more resourceful and imaginative than the old one. It remains to be seen how many of the good ideas can be implemented.

The first Goal and the associated Policies establish several targets for the next twenty years. For example: Decrease to 20% or less the number of cost burdened families living in rental housing (down from 40%); decrease to 18% or less the number of cost burdened families owning homes (down from 34%). And: Increase the number of rental housing units to at least 11% of total housing units (up from 7%); increase the Island’s percentage of multifamily homes to 18% or more of all homes (up from 16%).

Do you know what it means to be “cost burdened”? Conventionally, at least since 1981, that term applies if housing costs (rent or mortgage + utilities) are above 30% of household income. The burden is greatest for low income individuals and families in market-rate rental housing, and there is too little rental housing of any kind.

(A recent cost burden analysis done for the Portland, Oregon Metro Area considers only renters to be cost burdened. It also includes transportation costs, and raises the bar to 45% of income.)

A very thorough Housing Needs Assessment was completed for the City in December of 2015; this study’s statistics and analysis form the basis for the Housing element. According to the HNA, 34% of owner-occupied households are cost burdened. This percentage includes a fair number of households with incomes well above average, which is not surprising, considering the high prices of Bainbridge real estate. (With a good and reliable income, paying over 30% of it to own a home is apt to be a good investment strategy.)

The problem is that many people in the Island’s workforce – people we rely on every day for all sorts of services – can’t afford to live on Bainbridge. (And that’s just one problem among several that have never been dealt with successfully.) One of the policy statements under Goal One sets a target: “Achieve a jobs-housing balance of .8 (up from 0.59).”

Should the City be doing more than designing policies that support the development of housing for low-income individuals and families, and for moderate-income participants in the Island’s workforce who want to live near where they work?

I’ll put it more bluntly: should the City invest money, as well as staff time and a certain amount of political will, in programs that will make a real difference in the Island’s housing stock and its affordability?

One of my best friends answers “No” to this question, saying that affordable housing, like many other good things we rely upon, doesn’t fall within the core functions of local government, for which only the government bears responsibility.

I disagree, and I think it’s time to look again at the question. Are there not some opportunities for public / private partnerships, for ‘priming the pump’ or matching funds that are raised through charitable contributions to a capital campaign?

Nothing in the Comprehensive Plan will stand or fall on responses to this question, but I hope that the City Manager and the Council will give it serious consideration.

I’ll put the question in a broad context, with reference to an article recently brought to my attention, published by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). In 2009, ICMA’s Economic Development Survey found that of the local governments responding to the survey, 14.1% found that “high housing costs represented a barrier to economic development.” A follow-up survey in 2014 found that 30.6% of responding governments “saw high housing costs as either a ‘medium’ or ‘high’ barrier to economic development.”

Further, ICMA reports that “among communities with a housing affordability program, 41.2% of these programs were supported by local government funding.”

* * *

Having said this much, I have to end this post abruptly. I’m traveling tomorrow, and I’ll return in a few days, to complete a second part of this essay as soon as I can. Stay tuned.

Posted in Community, Comprehensive Plan, Economy, Housing, Island values, Long range planning | Comments Off on Regarding Housing and Land Use Policies on Bainbridge Island

Conservation and the Economic Landscapes of Bainbridge Island

Jon Quitslund

I began this post months ago and left it half finished.  I’ve come back to it now with new enthusiasm; what I’m writing about pertains directly to work on the Housing element of the Comprehensive Plan (on the Planning Commission agendas for April 28 and May 12).  In that connection, I’ve been provided with ideas that may solve some of the problems I was unable to deal with two months ago.

If there were some way to protect Bainbridge Island from ups and downs in the regional and national economy, you’d think it would have been discovered by now.  We all indulge in wishful thinking:  Can’t we prevent off-Island developers from snapping up properties, taking their profits and running?  Can’t we protect the precious parts of this place that haven’t been spoiled by development?

Is there, after all is said and done, a vital local economy that will add to what’s most treasured in our natural and cultural resources, rather than exploiting opportunities for short-term profits and depleting those resources?

* * *

At the end of October I published some ruminations arising from work on the Economic element.  (Scroll back to Oct. 31, 2015 in the archive if you’re interested: what’s said there about the building, construction, and real estate sector of our local economy is pertinent here.)

For help articulating what our local economy needs if it is to maintain integrity and vitality within the regional economy of Seattle and the West Sound, I appealed to ideas developed by Wendell Berry, and in this post I’m turning to Mr. Berry once again.

For many years, in his fiction and in essays, Wendell Berry has been celebrating the virtues of rural and small town life, and examining the broad historical trends and specific policies that, in many parts of the United States, have pushed small towns into decline and caused losses of the sense of place that had held them together.

We have moved on from the Economic element to other parts of the update, but I have continued to think about our local economy, not in itself but in relation to other elements – Land Use, Environment, and Housing in particular.

The essays in Wendell Berry’s recent book, Our Only World (Counterpoint: Berkeley, 2015) have again stimulated my thinking.  In his title and throughout the book, Berry calls attention to the vulnerability of the world we inhabit and the need for careful stewardship of limited resources.

Berry puts environmental issues in an economic context, and he also relates them to social values and relationships, between people and with the land they occupy.  He is somewhat critical of environmentalists and organizations dedicated to the protection of wilderness and undeveloped land.  Here’s an example.

“The issue of land use is not on the agenda of most conservation organizations, which have been primarily concerned throughout their history with the preservation of wilderness and wildlife habitat, even though most land is being used, and used badly, and though no wilderness or wildlife can survive the prolonged abuse of the economic landscapes.”

This passage, from an essay titled “A Forest Conversation,” led me to think about the Bainbridge Island Land Trust and that organization’s efforts, with the support of generous donors and hard-working stewards of privately owned land that will remain undeveloped, subject to conservancy agreements.

The Land Trust’s big conservation successes, such as the Grand Forest and Hilltop, are well known and properly celebrated.  You may be less aware of the Land Trust’s interest in smaller-scale easements and conservancy agreements that protect forested areas, wildlife habitat, streams and wetlands, on property that is already developed for residential use, or is slated for subdivision and development.

Residential development and environmental conservation don’t have be either/or propositions; actually, I believe we no longer have the luxury of seeing either choice in isolation from the other.  How can the two be reconciled?

In the years ahead, as we implement the policies now being laid down in the updated Comprehensive Plan, I will look to the Land Trust, along with forward-thinking property owners, developers and architects, to collaborate with the City in that work of reconciliation.

The Comp Plan’s Land Use element, now in draft form, requires that we develop an Island-wide conservation plan.  This plan, as I imagine it, won’t prevent development or render it more difficult, but it will manage the pattern and process with reference to long-range goals and the future of our community.  Very likely, the kinds and sizes of houses that are built will be different.

The Planning Commission’s discussion of the Housing element will begin in earnest on April 28th and continue on May 12th.  A thorough revision of that crucial piece of the Comp Plan has already been drafted by staff, and Joe Tovar has also prepared a ‘tool kit’ of materials that will help all who are interested to reach well beyond the regulations and attitudes that are now in place.

* * *

Here’s another quotation from Wendell Berry, from an essay titled “Local Economies to Save the Land and the People”: “All of us who are living owe our lives directly to our connection to the land. I am not talking about the connection that is implied by such a term as ‘environmentalism.’ I am talking about the connection that we make economically, by work, by living, by making a living. This connection, as we see every day, is going to be either familiar, affectionate, and saving, or distant, uncaring, and destructive.”

This is either/or thinking that I can embrace.  Never mind the passing reference to ‘environmentalism’: like other abstractions, the term is a necessary evil.  What matters to Mr. Berry, and to me, is environmental stewardship, not in wilderness areas and legislative agendas, but close to home, in our own neighborhoods and daily lives.

At the beginning of this post I mentioned the building, construction, and real estate sector of our local economy.  I believe that, generally speaking, the people in those businesses are no less committed to environmental stewardship than the rest of us.  Still, there are too many instances of reckless, destructive development, indifferent to the lay of the land and the possibility of enduring connection to what are called, in the Municipal Code, “valued open space features.”

Gaps and flaws in our land use regulations can be blamed for some of the stuff that happens.  We can blame developers and others when they don’t do what’s required of them, but someone else is responsible when what’s expected is never made clear.

I have looked closely at several chapters of the Municipal Code that regulate land clearing and development, and it’s no wonder we have problems.  For instance, in BIMC 17.12, Subdivision Design Standards, I find “conservation and enhancement of natural or scenic resources” mentioned in one place as a worthy objective, but elsewhere the regulations don’t ensure that such conservation will be accomplished.

I’m happy to report that the subdivision design standards are being studied and will be revised.  And this will happen in tandem with the implementation, in response to a state-level mandate, of Low Impact Design standards.  (LID standards will govern how stormwater is handled, in a way that minimizes runoff; this is being described as “a paradigm shift” in planning for development, and it’s going to make the preservation of open space and forested areas a priority.)

I find other reasons to believe that we can, in the Comp Plan update and its implementation, find ways to combine residential development with conservation.  The materials provided to the Planning Commission in connection with the Housing element included a brochure titled Growing Greener; Putting Conservation into Local Codes.  It was written by Randall G. Arendt for the Natural Lands Trust in Pennsylvania.

Growing Greener was first published in 1997, and “conservation subdivisions” have become, I gather, common practice in several parts of the country.  Another iteration of Arendt’s ideas, from 2009, is more fleshed-out and illustrated: look online for Growing Greener; Conservation by Design.  We could have used these ideas some years ago when the subdivision regulations were revised!

I should say that here on Bainbridge some adjustments will have to be made as we apply the conservation design concept.  Bainbridge doesn’t have much room left for long plat subdivisions (5 lots or more), and the examples in Growing Greener are all bigger developments.  But we do have acres of valuable undeveloped land, especially in the R-0.4 and R-1 zones.

How can the long-term value of that land be fully realized, for the benefit of property owners and the community?  The process of “community assessment” described in Growing Greener looks like something well worth undertaking, and it will combine well with the site assessment that LID standards will require, and the protections for aquifer recharge that are also required by state law.

Perhaps I’ll have more to say on this subject after the Planning Commission meetings on Housing.  Come to those meetings if you can.  And stay tuned!

Posted in Community, Comprehensive Plan, Economy, Environment, Housing, Island values, Long range planning, Place, Stewardship | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Conservation and the Economic Landscapes of Bainbridge Island

April on Bainbridge: Planning, Politics, and Poetry

Jon Quitslund

Forget April in Paris!  There’s lots to do close to home.  Spring in the air . . . but as Groucho Marx said to Margaret Dumont, If I sprung in the air I’d fall in the lake!

April is Earth Month, and the month in which the sun’s rising and lengthening of days seem to accelerate.  It becomes easier to pack more variety, of work and play, into the days and weeks.

My calendar is full.  Three meetings in the month has become the new normal for the Planning Commission, and of course hours of preparation precede each meeting.  But the time spent has been satisfying and productive.  While I do my best thinking alone, it’s teamwork that really accomplishes things, and COBI today is a place that rewards individuality in a cooperative spirit.

I’m starting this post late in the evening after a Planning Commission meeting, and I’ll try to finish it tomorrow.  On April 7th our agenda included work on pieces of the Shoreline Management Program and the next-to-the-last study session on the Water Resources element of the Comp Plan.

Christy Carr, the Planner now responsible for interpreting and administering the SMP, has gone through the whole monstrous maze looking for ways to clarify its language and make it more coherent, without introducing any changes in policies.  We’ll be dealing with this ‘General Limited Amendment’ piecemeal, for several months.

The next meeting  (April 14th), will include a public hearing on another piece of the SMP, dealing with commercial aquaculture, and this amendment will introduce significant and precedent-setting changes, setting aside policies that the Department of Ecology obliged the City to accept when our SMP was submitted for review.

As you may know, aquaculture is a big business in Puget Sound, both in net-pens for fish and in tideland tracts dedicated to intensive cultivation of shellfish.  The Washington legislature has declared “that aquatic farming provides a consistent source of quality food, offers opportunities of new jobs, increased farm income stability, and improves balance of trade” (RCW 15.85.010).  Accordingly, aquaculture is a “preferred water dependent use,” but (like single-family residences and boating) commercial aquaculture is subject to regulation that recognizes its environmental impacts.

An acute awareness of those environmental impacts led a group of Bainbridge citizens to bring a suit against the Department of Ecology, claiming that the regulations called for in our SMP went too far in support of industry interests.  The several parties are now involved in settlement talks before the Growth Management Hearings Board, with the City participating on the plaintiffs’ side.

Commercial aquaculture is not going to be prohibited in the waters and on the beaches of Bainbridge Island, but opportunities will be limited.  What’s at issue (in this as in other parts of the SMP) is what sorts of regulation are necessary in support of the “no net loss” standard and the general public’s interest in the integrity and beauty of our beaches and Puget Sound.

On April 14th, the Planning Commission and the public will consider a draft of the Aquaculture limited amendment that has been reviewed by the Department of Ecology and the Growth Management Hearings Board.  This will be the Commission’s second look at the text: it will then go to the Council.  This will be an occasion to recognize the principles and persistence of a local group (the Bainbridge Alliance for Puget Sound, and their lawyer David Bricklin), and the excellent work of Lisa Marshall and Christy Carr, representing the City in the settlement talks and the drafting of appropriate regulations.

There will be other items on the April 14th agenda: another piece of the General Limited Amendment, the last portion of the Water Resources element, and first steps in the updating of the Comp Plan’s Housing element.

I want to say a few things about Water Resources.  Concern about our water supply has a long history on Bainbridge.  The Island’s hydrology has changed as our population has grown, as settlement patterns have changed, and as public and private water systems have developed.

In response to those changes and a widespread concern about our future, the City has worked very hard to establish and communicate reliable information.  We have a lot of data on both quantity and quality in our groundwater, and we have models that make it possible to predict (though not without a doubt) how well our aquifer system will perform under pressure from a growing population and a changing climate.

In recent months there have been many occasions for citizens to learn about the Island’s water resources, and a wealth of new information is being worked into the Comp Plan, along with goals and policies that will support sound land use policies and good stewardship on the part of citizens.

Cami Apfelbeck, COBI’s Water Resources Specialist, deserves a great deal of credit for managing all of the monitoring and information-gathering work, and for doing the lion’s share of the work on a Water Resources element that is truly comprehensive in its goals and policies, and a deep pool of information that all concerned citizens should find useful.

After completing work on Water Resources, the Planning Commission will pivot to focus on Housing.  Some time ago (was it two months, or longer?) we had an excellent workshop session devoted to the issues and objectives that need to be addressed in the Housing element.  I gather that in the interval since the workshop, further work has been done that will contribute to our updating of goals and policies.  The Planning Commission meetings on April 28 and May 12 will be devoted, in large part, to the Housing element.

Something else is in the works that’s of great interest to me.  I’ve known about the Island Power project for some time, without knowing enough to call myself well-informed.  Thanks to a recent Saturday morning meeting, I’m better informed and cautiously optimistic about the possibility of saying NO to an electrical system that provides us with ‘dirty’ power.  In the future, electricity will only become more important in our daily lives, and it had better be less dependent on fossil fuels.

By some time in May, the Council and the public should have a report on the feasibility of negotiating with Puget Sound Energy to purchase the local electrical infrastructure, in order to assume local control and obtain our power from a relatively clean source, the Bonneville Power Administration.  I’ll have more to say about this when I know more.

There’s Poetry in the title to this post, but none so far in my prose.  Now for some word-play: earth, art; EARTH; earth, heart; eartHeart.  The Earth Art Bainbridge project, which extends through the month of April, has been very well publicized, so you must know something about it already, and perhaps you’ve already encountered some of what’s going on in several locations around the Island.

Beth Robson, the originating imagination behind this month-long festival, has done something amazing.  Not by herself, of course; she has tapped many local talents, and I trust she will also find an appreciative audience.

For more information, don’t rely on my monotonous blog, but go to the Earth Art Bainbridge website and the blog that’s part of it: you’ll find an abundance of images and information, designed to delight and also to sharpen your awareness of climate change, the life-defining of our time and our future.

The Earth Art Bainbridge website includes a calendar of activities and events spread across the month.  Two are of special interest to me.  Keenings, on April 23 (Earth Day, by the way), will be a staged reading of a suite of poems by Bobbie Morgan that arose out of an awareness of extinctions, around the globe and across the web of life.  This will be at the Dayaalu Center, between 7:30 and 9 p. m. on the 23rd.  No tickets are available in advance, and space will be limited, so arrive early.

The other event is on the last day of the month, and I expect it will provide a fitting climax to the festival.  ArtiFact Pattern will be a multi-media performance piece, being presented at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art between 7:30 and 9 p. m. on the 30th.

For this, advance tickets were available, and I believe it’s been sold out, but has tickets for an “Encore performance” on June 18, at SpaceCraft, at Rolling Bay Hall.

ArtiFact Pattern will, I expect, be impossible to describe even after it’s happened, and the information I have about it raises high expectations.  The principal creator/coordinator of the “fact pattern” is Janet Norman Knox, whom many Islanders know: a poet and a scientist, a citizen activist—need I say more?

I’ll end with an excerpt from the ‘Distilled Synopsis’ provided by the Art Museum: “What if naturalist David Attenborough collaborated with artist Meredith Monk, satirist Tom Lehrer, and storyteller Spaulding Gray to describe Climate Change and the human species in it?”

Posted in Climate Change, Community, Comprehensive Plan, Cooperation, Creativity, Cultural Change, Environment, Finite Natural Resources, Housing, Individuality, Place, Shoreline Management Program, Shorelines | Comments Off on April on Bainbridge: Planning, Politics, and Poetry

A Poet & a Scholar: Interviews & Letters from a 30-Year Friendship

Jon Quitslund

Gary Snyder and Julia Martin, Nobody Home: Writing, Buddhism, and Living in Places (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2014).

April being Poetry Month, I thought I should salute it with something that honors the profession of poet and the work that poetry does in the world.  Among living poets, Gary Snyder is the one with whom I’ve felt the longest and deepest connection.  He’s also one who has had a good deal to say about the work of poetry (and the poetry of work).

As those already familiar with him will recognize, Snyder refers often, in poems and recorded conversations, to the real work.  (That’s the title of a collection of interviews and talks from the formative phase of his career, 1964-1979.)  In an interview with Bill Moyers he explained his aim in life:

The real work is becoming native in your heart, coming to understand we really live here, that this is really the continent we’re on and that our loyalties are here, to these mountains and rivers, to these plant zones, to these creatures. The real work involves developing a loyalty that goes back before the formation of any nation state, back billions of years and thousands of years into the future.

The vision expressed there sounds grandiose, but Snyder’s loyalty to that vision is expressed, Zen-fashion, in small-scale, down to earth activities: writing that seems spontaneous and conversational although it took years to produce, building a house and caring for the land around it, taking part in a community, caring for his family, maintaining connections with a broad network of friends.

The book I’m reviewing here reveals in fine detail the integrity and authenticity of Gary Snyder’s exemplary life and work.

Nobody Home is composed of a series of interviews (pp. 13-95) and correspondence (pp. 99-267) between Julia Martin and Gary Snyder.  At the outset, in 1983, Martin was a young graduate student in Cape Town, South Africa.  Snyder, thirty years older, was settled in his hand-built house on San Juan Ridge in Nevada County, California; he was well into the long middle portion of his career, and had recently published Axe Handles, his first book since the landmark Turtle Island (1974).

Both Martin and Snyder (from here on I’ll refer to them as Julia and Gary) are engaging letter-writers, and it’s satisfying to follow the phases of their friendship.  Julia begins as a well-informed but uncertain acolyte, and Gary is a patient and generous mentor.  Over the years many things change in their personal lives, and both changes and continuities are taken in stride.

They meet several times, and Julia records three interviews.  The first, in 1988, is the longest, made during a visit to Kitkitdizze, Gary’s home.  Letters fill the gap between that and a brief interview from 2005, recorded in an Oregon motel room when they were both participating in a conference.  For the third, in 2010, they are both at Kitkitdizze, and it’s the most poignant, since (as noted in their correspondence) both of them have recently suffered the loss of loved ones.

Gary gradually reveals various aspects of his personality, his interests as a writer, his Buddhist practice, his rootedness in the place and the community where he has chosen to live out his life.  And the book’s human interest depends just as much, if not more, on the arc of Julia’s maturation in an academic career with her own credentials as a writer.

Several themes run through all the interviews and letters.  I’ll focus on one, to which others are related, and you can form your own connections to our current local concerns.

In the first interview, Julia observes that the Buddhist group in which Gary plays a leading role, the Ring of Bone Zendo, “emphasizes this place, this experience. You don’t want it to be an Asian import.”  Gary adds that in maintaining a local practice, not “establishing a center that caters to rootless and alienated people that come and go,” they are in a sense “more orthodox, more Asian,” than much of North American Buddhism.

This turn in the conversation leads to description of “a natural society.”  This means “a society in which people live in one place for a good number of years; it means that they know each other personally on a first-name basis; . . . it means that they do not expect everybody to do what they do—a community in its own nature cannot be homogeneous.”

Julia asks, “Would you call yourself a revolutionary?”  Gary’s response must have been accompanied by laughter: “I’d call myself a postrevolutionary!”  This statement, made in 1988, can be connected with “Four Changes,” the visionary manifesto he composed in the summer of 1969, widely distributed at the time and included at the end of Turtle Island (1974)—a slim volume that won the Pulitzer prize for poetry in 1975.  Still in print, and more resonant today than it was back then!

We aren’t yet living in post-revolutionary times, but Gary’s insight was and remains profound.  He is skeptical about large-scale revolutionary programs: “I’m not sure that deliberately applied drastic changes will necessarily get you where you want to go.”  But envisioning a post-revolutionary culture, at the local level (as, for instance, in Burlington, Vermont, or on Bainbridge Island), is crucial to success in any form of broad revolutionary change.

It’s very refreshing, in the present moment, fraught with crisis-consciousness, to read this: “Don’t imagine that we’re doing ecological politics to save the world.  We’re doing ecological politics to save ourselves, to save our souls.  It’s a personal exercise in character . . . It’s a matter of etiquette.”

The word “etiquette” sounded surprising until I recalled that the first essay in The Practice of the Wild (1990) is “The Etiquette of Freedom.”  Modesty, tact, and humility are important traits in Gary’s character.  And his focus on a local culture includes something for us on Bainbridge to bear in mind: we aren’t so “special” as we sometimes think.  “The point is not to let yourself be the main character of what you’re thinking.  If the sense of self is too narrowly located, then people sound like they’re talking about themselves all the time.”

The third interview bears the title “Enjoy It While You Can.”  Some passages are very broad in scope: “we are capable of beginning now to think of the whole Planet Earth as our place—which nobody was quite up to before.  They didn’t have quite that much information.”  But his focus remains specific.  He reminisces about building Kitkitdizze with a group of friends, working full time through the summer of 1970, “using as much local material as possible, no power tools, doing things all in the old way.”  Many who were involved still say it was the best summer of their lives.

Julia asks him for his thoughts on old age, sickness, and death, to which he replies, “Enjoy it while you can! Because soon you won’t even have that.”  At that, they must both have laughed a lot.

Posted in Books, Buddhism, Community, Cooperation, Individuality, Place, Reviews, Stewardship | Tagged , , | Comments Off on A Poet & a Scholar: Interviews & Letters from a 30-Year Friendship

“Nature Must Not Win the Game”

Jon Quitslund

This post was composed last month, and then the holidays intervened.  As is appropriate in January, it looks both backward and forward.

Back in December, my friend Charles Schmid showed up, as he usually does, as a watchdog participant on the COBI committee charged with improving City policies related to significant trees, vegetated buffer zones, and the forested areas of Bainbridge Island.  At the end of the meeting, he passed over to me a clipping he had saved from the Kitsap Sun newspaper.

I used to write a bi-weekly column for the Bremerton paper.  That experiment started me on the path I’m still following, with no end in sight, in the writing I’m doing now under Sustainable Bainbridge auspices.

My column was originally published some time in 2005.   I find in it some uncanny resonance with our situation today, and I don’t think I’m capable of writing as well now, so I’m republishing the old column, slightly revised.

. . .

An article on an inside page of the New York Times for Dec. 27, 2004 caught my eye, and I tore the page out to save it – something I rarely have the presence of mind to do.  The reporter, Andy Newman, worked into his story some ideas that are relevant, I think, to the life of our Bainbridge Island community right now.

Mr. Newman describes his discovery of an enigmatic quotation in a subway station below 42nd Street in Manhattan: “Nature must not win the game, but she cannot lose.”  This wasn’t the work of some graffiti artist; it appears in a piece of public art (“Under Bryant Park,” by Samm Kunce) that replaces the old blank wall tiles.

Curiosity prompted Mr. Newman to talk with others who had paused to think about the riddle on the wall.  A patrolman with the transit police said of our contest with nature, “It seems like we as a people in this city have to overcome everything to live.”  He added, however, that since nature is bigger than we are, all around us and within us, we’re only contending against ourselves.  “It’s like a double negative, a Catch-22. If we win, we lose.”

The words on the subway wall come from C. G. Jung, one of the fathers of psychoanalysis and of psychoanalytically oriented inquiries into the ancient and modern cultures of the world.  The sentence appears in Jung’s Alchemical Studies.  Here it is again, with some explanatory context:

Nature must not win the game, but she cannot lose. And whenever the conscious mind clings to hard and fast concepts and gets caught in its own rules and regulations – as is unavoidable and of the essence of civilized consciousness – nature pops up with her inescapable demands.

Meredith Sabini, the editor of a collection of Jung’s writings on nature, explains that Jung saw in human nature an unconscious, instinctual component that contains both wisdom and wildness.  Jung thought that human nature must be disciplined by civilized consciousness.  In the modern world, however, that consciousness has developed a wildness of its own, contrary to nature.  If discipline by civilizing impulses and institutions goes too far, not nurturing but threatening what is felt to be essential to happiness, the consequence, within an individual and even in the fabric of a culture, will be an eruption of nature’s “inescapable demands.”

Why does civilization, seen in relation to nature (both the non-human environment and the biologically determined aspect of our own being), always tend to go too far?  Why do we strive to “win the game”?

These are questions I can’t answer, but I think that if we fail to ponder them, and to restrain our impulses by so doing, we are asking for even more trouble than we see around us today.

Anthropologists have studied the forces, both conscious and unconscious, at work in the creation of everything that is culture, not nature.  To illustrate the difference: Humans have a natural aptitude for language learning, but languages define our culture, not the natural order of things.  So the nature/culture dichotomy is cultural, not natural.

In nature, nothing has a name, and a cyclical flux is the way of the world.  Sometimes the flux is pleasant, sometimes it’s frightening: we don’t doubt that the sun will come up every morning, and we respond with shock and awe to such dark forces as earthquakes and tsunamis.  Nobody owns anything, and neither the sun nor the tsunami takes any notice of us.  Can we be forgiven for adopting a defensive or aggressive stance toward nature?

Without mythology and beliefs that reach beyond the physical world, we would have no understanding of death, no way of compensating for personal losses, no social fabric.

The profound otherness and indifference of nature prompt fear in many people, and the instinctive responses of ‘fight or flight.’  To an extent that seems to me tragic, modern civilization reinforces those instincts.  It’s been said that human beings are very good at two things: self-deception and exploitation.  We have our culture, not our innate characteristics, to thank for those ingrained habits.

In the pluralistic society we have been blessed with, it should be possible to come to terms with otherness – even to celebrate it.  If our survival depends on confronting both terrorists and terror with courage, it also depends on our achieving a sustainable economy within the limits set by nature.

. . .

That last sentence, in all its abruptness, is just as I wrote it in 2005.  A lot has happened since then.  Are we more ready now to confront terror and terrorism with courage, and at the same time to confront the local and global consequences of climate change, caused by our advancing (pardon my irony) civilization?

This was to be my last post in 2015, and now it’s the first for 2016.  I’ll be writing about the Comp Plan update throughout the year.  The schedule for completion of the Comp Plan was recently revised, and the Planning Commission will be occupied with that, and with related work (notably, regulations to protect and conserve groundwater, and an update of the island-wide transportation plan) through September.  Stay tuned.


Posted in Climate Change, Cultural Change, Nature vs. Culture | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on “Nature Must Not Win the Game”

“NO on KXL”: Does This Change Anything?

Jon Quitslund

In the days since President Obama announced that he was, at long last, nixing the KXL pipeline, stories about the decision have had prominent places in the news cycle, and my email inbox has been crowded with messages from environmental organizations and political players celebrating, saying “We did it!” – and usually asking for a “chip in” contribution, so the good fight can be carried forward.

I haven’t heard much from the other side, but I’m sure the partisans of Big Oil and business as usual are only biding their time.  And they do have other issues to deal with, other fronts on which to mount massive resistance.

One of the themes in news reporting and commentary has annoyed me.  I’ll call it the “So What?” reaction.  It’s being said that both sides in the argument over the KXL pipeline indulged in exaggerations, and the final victory (or the defeat, if you will) is “largely symbolic” – and maybe not so final anyway.

Does exaggeration on both sides of the argument mean that both sides were wrong, so now it’s time to forget about the whole thing?

Show me a victory that isn’t largely symbolic, and I’ll tell you that either it doesn’t amount to much, or that we’re likely to regret it.  When one side in a conflict is devastated (the South in the American Civil War, for instance), seeds are sown for a longer and deeper sort of war.  The fundamental differences become harder to resolve.

There’s urgency surrounding a host of tough choices and political decisions that pertain to climate change, and they have practical, not-so-symbolic implications.  I trust that the talks in Paris will lead, though maybe not soon enough, to decisions that can’t be dismissed as “largely symbolic.”  I’m also confident that, for the time being at least, the multinational energy corporations will remain powerful.

But beyond the need for decisions by world leaders, affecting the lives of millions around the globe, there’s a need for profound cultural changes, affecting the distribution of power and resources.

How do cultures change?  Well, it’s complicated, and not only on the grand scale of nations, but within communities as small as ours.  We like to think that decades are distinctive and tipping points have a forever-after significance, but most real change is gradual, an accumulation of trends and alliances.  In that gradual process, symbols are essential to the definition of goals and the organizing of consensus.

Our time is a time of flux, of competing efforts to define the direction change is going to take.  To put it crudely, things are simultaneously getting much better and much worse.  And “better” and “worse” are relative terms; what one person regards as a good outcome or a victory will seem deplorable to someone.

Does that mean we’re all locked into relativism, with no basis for actions rooted in strong convictions?  Not at all!  I’m wary of ethical and spiritual absolutes: they simplify, and they usually demonize anyone not of the same persuasion.  But everyone needs principles – a focus for loyalty, a source of meaning and value, a well-examined sense of purpose.

So for personal reasons, and for broadly defined cultural reasons, certain things are “largely symbolic,” but all the more valuable for being symbolic.  And certain events also possess great symbolic value.

We should, of course, be wary of demagoguery, whereby an event of questionable importance gets misrepresented (with crucial facts left out or added in).  We should be even more wary of mass hysteria, which is all too easy to stir up these days.

If we don’t recognize the affirmative power of symbols and act accordingly, we’re at the mercy of the same old, same old – the status quo and the daily grind.  Let’s work hard to avoid the predicament that Yeats described in “The Second Coming” (1920): “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

I started this piece a week ago and didn’t see my way through to the end.  I’m wrapping it up and publishing in the aftermath of awful terrorist attacks in Paris.  And those events are not largely symbolic; they rise to another level of significance.  How they may influence, or distract from, the U N Climate Change Conference remains to be seen.  The threats posed by terrorism and by unchecked man-made climate “forcing” are vastly different, but we can’t afford to neglect either one.

I hope to see you Wednesday evening at the Lynwood Theatre for “This Changes Everything,” and maybe also, earlier in the day at City Hall, for EcoAdapt’s workshop on Comprehensive Plan responses to the local impacts of climate change.


Posted in Activism, Climate Change, Community, Comprehensive Plan, Cooperation, Creativity, Cultural Change, Energy, Environment, Organized protest, Values | Tagged , | Comments Off on “NO on KXL”: Does This Change Anything?