A Do-It-Yourself Bike Repair Program in Hartford and West Hartford. An electric vehicle charging station in Essex. COVID-safe farmers markets in Bridgeport and New Haven. Invasive plant management along the Connecticut River. And community gardens, murals, and tree planting in towns and cities across the state.
These are a few of the projects happening in Connecticut in partnership with the organization Sustainable CT. The non-profit guides communities through projects intended to make cities and towns more vibrant, environmentally friendly and socially conscious places to live.
The organization has existed since late 2017, and it created its first set of suggested projects – called “actions” – for towns the following year — a smorgasbord of ideas around environmental conservation, arts and culture, renewable energy and improved public transit.
This year, however, the organization has noticeably expanded its focus, adding in a more detailed approach to affordable housing and equity, and creating an entirely new category – homelessness – as part of its strategy for creating liveable, vibrant cities.
Lynn Stoddard, executive director of Sustainable CT, said that the COVID-19 pandemic and the death of George Floyd and a greater awareness of racial inequities drove the town to focus more on these particular categories.
Take homelessness, for example — Stoddard said the point of their new initiatives was to make sure that locals aren’t only interacting with homeless people at soup kitchens.
“The solution isn’t just, ‘Let’s get them food. Let’s get them shelter on really cold and hot days. And let’s arrest them if they’re making a nuisance for the town,’” she said. “We need to coordinate services to help people find employment, find health care, find housing … It’s not a policing issue. It’s wraparound services that are addressing people’s needs.”
Stoddard says that towns should make efforts to educate the public, collect data on homelessness, designate a municipal employee or task force to the issue, and make sure that there are around-the-clock safe places for those without homes to stay and services that they can access.
Access to food also became a more urgent concern during the pandemic, according to Stoddard.
“We’re seeing a greater need with food insecurity [that was] exacerbated because of COVID,” she said.
COVID required communities not only to double down on addressing food insecurity, often through farmers markets or community gardens, but also to rethink public spaces. In earlier years, she said, the organization funded a number of the traditional community gardens.
But when many became uncomfortable frequenting those spaces because of the pandemic — or, in one case, because the farmer’s market felt very “white” and unwelcoming — communities had to become more creative, said Stoddard. She said one group in New Haven started helping locals plant raised garden beds in their own backyards.
“[They were] really beautiful expansions of the traditional community garden [that recognized] barriers to access,” said Stoddard.
The town of your dreams
Stoddard defines a “sustainable” town as a place where people want to work, visit, and live. Even more than that, she said, it has to be attractive and welcoming to all people, not just a specific group.
“Some people are excluded from living in communities by the way zoning regulations have been set up,” she explained. Barriers can include income, and transportation given that many towns are accessible only by car.
Stoddard asks people to envision what they would like to see in the town of their dreams. She listed a few things that people come up with: walkability, affordability, restaurants, arts and cultural spaces that reflect the community. Just as important is a sense of identity.
“There are public spaces that are interesting and arts and culture that kind of reflects the identity of the community,’” she said.
Environmentally-friendly technology also plays a role. According to Stoddard, people often want to have good local air quality and to keep greenhouse gases to a minimum.
Part of making a community sustainable relies on tapping into its existing qualities, like its natural landscape or history. From there, towns can take actions such as expanding cultural offerings or adjusting zoning regulations to create an area that people want to frequent and where they want to settle down.
Stoddard said that people who live in a community also want to have a sense of belonging.
“We’ve all heard people say, ‘I lived here 20 years, but they still call me a newbie,’” she said.
But Stoddard said she wants Sustainable CT to be flexible. She said that when the organization began, the leaders invited over 200 municipal leaders to come together in working groups to decide what sustainability means in various contexts: arts and culture, transportation, land and natural resources, housing, the economy and public services.
The organization developed an action plan that included each of these categories, and every time a town takes an action, that town earns “points” with Sustainable CT.
For example, a town might create a plan for open space, start an arts program for youth, or transition some of its municipal vehicles to zero-emission models.
Towns must take one action from each category in order to be certified, and those with enough points can qualify as “bronze” or “silver” level. The different levels, according to Sustainable CT, recognize towns that have done significant work toward becoming more sustainable.
Towns can start small. Assessing need in the community might include measuring current energy use or increasing public awareness about sustainability. Then, the towns can get started on the more challenging work of making lasting improvements.
“You try to make it so that any town, whatever the size, there’s a way for them to implement a certain action,” she said.
Expanded efforts toward equity
Although Stoddard said that the organization was invested in equity from the start, it has expanded the number of actions that towns can take to address diversity and inclusion. This year, the organization is offering points for municipalities that have their staff members take equity training or create a town-wide statement about equity.
The organization asks each town to consider how any decisions they make will affect the different populations that live in the town, whether it be people of different ages, races, genders, or physical abilities.
“We ask the community to look within, see who lives in their community, and acknowledge that not all those people have equal access to things,” she said.
The organization provides the towns with equity coaches to help them with this work. The goal, said Stoddard, is to connect with a greater diversity of people in the community and to create solutions together that will work for everyone.
“Think about who you are as a community, and why you might have the majority of your people living in one age range, because it’s not that friendly for seniors to get around,” she explained. “Or the majority of people are white because zoning may have restricted African Americans from buying homes in your community historically over the years.”
According to Stoddard, the Community Match Fund, which began in September 2019 to fund locals with ideas about how to improve their communities, was also an effort to increase equity.
Sustainable CT matches a portion of the funds donated to the projects chosen by a community. The organization has donated $938,000 to 170 projects in more than 70 towns since its Community Match Fund began in the fall of 2019.
Stoddard said the organization wants to make the selection of projects a more democratic process.
“We wanted to kind of change the power dynamics of who decides what projects are right for a community,” she said.
Stoddard said that the organization relies entirely on private donors for their funds, and that they are always looking for more people to chip in. She said that people with potential projects have an “insatiable” appetite for funding.
Equity also dovetails with the issue of affordable housing, another topic where Sustainable CT has expanded its focus.
Towns can now earn points by putting aside funds for affordable housing and offering density bonuses to developers who ensure that at least 20 percent of their housing is affordable.
Stoddard said the efforts come from a “growing awareness of racial inequities” across the country.
“A lot of that is very ingrained in systems,” she said. “And so, even if people raise awareness about racism, a lot of the zoning laws come from a time when certain neighbors were red-lined. Black people couldn’t get loans from banks. And then just, over the years, zoning has kind of reinforced that.”
One of Sustainable CT’s suggestions is that municipalities create an incentive housing zone — an area near public transportation or where there is already significant development. The state offers municipalities funding to help with planning, design and engineering costs in these areas.
A city or town can also decide to allow accessory dwelling units and micro houses without requiring special permitting or hearings, and set uniform standards for approving all types of housing.
Another option would be defining “family” more broadly, said Stoddard, so that more unrelated people could live together in a single-family home. Stoddard said many of these ideas came out of conversations with the group Desegregate CT.
The organizations are currently collaborating on a pilot project along with five towns in the greater Hartford area. The project aims to bring city planners together with people who live in areas where housing inequity exists in order to find solutions.
Even when community partners have the best of intentions, challenges can still arise. Being sustainable in one area can sometimes clash with others — for example, the effort to provide affordable housing and still conserve wetlands and open space. Stoddard said it’s about finding balance.
“A community is juggling all kinds of priorities that need to be melded together,” she said.
Battling “brain drain” and climate change
Projects that make towns more affordable, accessible, and interesting have another advantage, according to Stoddard, attracting young professionals who might otherwise move out of the area.
“People talk about the brain drain and college students leaving Connecticut to live in cooler places or find jobs,” said Stoddard.
Sustainable CT has a fellowship program that engages 15 college students each summer. The students work with town mayors and officials and present them with their own visions of an ideal community. She said that several of these students later went on to work with city and regional planning agencies.
Meanwhile, a growing number of towns are jumping on board with their own ideas. Last year, North Stonington organized a “walk audit” to spark discussion about how accessible the town is by foot. Bolton hosted a Black Lives Matter protest and is discussing the creation of a diversity council. Old Saybrook hosted a number of sustainability events including an electric vehicle car show, a coastal clean-up day, and a community-wide book-reading.
Stoddard said that the organization is considering new actions that towns can take to address climate change. These actions might include reducing greenhouse gas emissions or becoming carbon neutral by a certain date. Shoreline communities might look at ways to mitigate sea level rise, and inland communities might focus on adapting infrastructure like roads, stormwater drains, and sewage treatment plants to be more storm-resilient.
It’s inspiring, Stoddard said, to be able to give towns a concrete way to mitigate problems that can seem large and overwhelming.
“It’s easy to get bogged down reading the news, and seeing the fires and the floods and Black Lives Matter issues not being addressed and all kinds of things. And yet, our program really looks at the positive solutions,” she said. “These small changes, community by community, ripple out and really do make a difference.”
Banner photo: Chester Elementary Open Air Meeting Space (Credit: Sustainable CT)