Brave new ideas

Asheville’s Design Science Lab had two distinct objectives. The first was to develop strategies for achieving one or more of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. The second, more important aim was to devise approaches for achieving a desired future for Asheville that can be replicated elsewhere, with a focus on sustainability addressed in the areas of energy usage, environmental protection and education.

Over 10 days, the participants came up with myriad solutions to some of the region’s more pressing problems. A lot of the heavy lifting would have to be done by individuals, with support from government and various stakeholder organizations in some cases. In the coming weeks, the full, detailed slate of solutions will be available for all to see via a special Asheville link on the Web site bigpicturesmallworld.com. (The extra time is needed to fully flesh out the proposals and get a reasonable take on hard costs and other issues.)

In the meantime, here’s a sample of the rough ideas and proposals that made the cut:

1. Continue and strengthen the trend of high-density, mixed-use development downtown, mandating a minimum 25 units per acre. Similarly, develop “mixed-use nodes” around the county and region. These nodes — connected to one another and to Asheville by public-transit routes — would concentrate residential and commercial development. Participants believe this would help prevent sprawl and reduce the number of car trips, saving energy and reducing pollution.

2. Since 28 percent of all energy consumption in the state comes from transportation that operates at 13 percent efficiency — creating waste and air pollution — replace the city’s fleet of heavy, diesel-fume-spewing buses with electric-hybrid, ultralight buses.

3. The Swannanoa watershed comprises 4,136 miles of streams and rivers. Only 25 percent of that network is consistently monitored, and 151 miles are known to be impaired. To improve water quality, adopt a uniform floodplain ordinance that sets a minimum 50-foot buffer between waterways and development, planted with native species, and cap the amount of impervious surface in new developments at 10 percent. Impervious surfaces (such as parking lots and roofs) produce runoff that pollutes water sources.

Another potential solution is a “storm-water disconnect” that would divert runoff from local streams. This idea calls for local governments to reduce or even eliminate storm-water discharge fees if homes and businesses reduced runoff using vegetation-covered “green” roofs, cisterns, rain barrels or other rain-catching methods. (Asheville residents now pay a $28 storm-water fee on their water bills, and businesses pay much larger amounts based on their size.)

4. To promote sustainable — and preferrably organic — urban agriculture, establish gardens in all city neighborhoods and schools. (Asheville currently has six community gardens and three school gardens.) This would produce fresher, more nutritious food without using pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers. It would also reduce the need to truck in food from around the country using fossil fuels and creating air pollution.

5. Education is vital to foster increased understanding of sustainability and how everyone is part of an interconnected system. To succeed, however, it needs to be made real and engaging. The Design Science Lab’s eduation panel says it’s committed to devising prototype programs that promote hands-on learning using the “schools without walls” model. Such programs have been operating in places like Washington, D.C., and Rochester, N.Y., for decades; essentially, they turn the cities themselves into classrooms where students utilize museums, businesses and other locales as alternative learning environments.

Another tactic is forging community partnerships with home-improvement stores and other businesses. For example, a promotion that gave away compact-fluorescent bulbs and collected old ones for recycling would educate the public about the enormous energy savings such lights provide while giving people an incentive to use them. It would also drive business to the participating retailer.

6. Work with the city and county to develop effective visualization tools, such as 3-D digital mapping of local watersheds and floodplains. Use local resources such as the community-media center at public-access channel URTV to teach people how to use technology to develop tools that make environmental abstractions visible — and thus understandable — by others.

7. Develop a training program to educate teachers on how to use visualization tools and integrate them into their curricula — in addition to connecting teachers to an online repository of educational resources that can be quickly accessed and utilized.

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