What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “sustainable living”? Sorting your recyclables? Maintaining a backyard compost pile? Taking steps to reduce pollution?
Maybe the phrase elicits a more expansive image: a self-reliant community living off the grid, with solar panels glinting on residents’ roofs; and carrots, kale and arugula growing in neat rows in lieu of a lawn. Perhaps it’s a place where small, independent businesses thrive — where everyone makes a living wage and has reliable, efficient transportation to and from work. Or maybe it’s all those things and more.
To some, sustainability is a job title, a college course, a solid concept and a tool for a more promising future. For others, it’s just another overworked buzzword, like “eco-friendly,” “green” or “organic.”
But however diverse and sometimes loaded the word’s associations may be, sustainability necessarily entails some sense of shared experience over time.
Accordingly, Xpress posed the following questions to a wide range of local leaders, thinkers and doers: What defines a sustainable community? What’s Asheville doing right? What are we doing wrong? What do we need to improve?”
City Council member Cecil Bothwell compared sustainable communities to “an old-growth oak tree,” saying, “All of its power, water and nutrients would be locally sourced, with minimal new growth. Its food crop would be consumed locally, with total nutrient recycling on-site.”
Meanwhile, Buncombe County Commissioner Miranda DeBruhl opined, “When it comes to sustainability, the first responsibility of government is to ensure that we can meet our basic financial needs in regard to public safety and quality education without an undue tax burden on our citizens.”
In the following pages, a host of thoughtful locals share their varied perspectives, edited for brevity, on sustainability and what Asheville, Buncombe County and Western North Carolina can do to improve our collective future.
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer
Pollutants are reduced; air and water are clean; public spaces are plentiful and accessible; all ages, income levels and cultural backgrounds have equal opportunity to experience environmental, social and cultural benefits.
Asheville has worked hard to reduce its carbon footprint, with great results. Asheville has constructed sidewalks, funded and built greenways, reduced the amount of solid waste going into the landfill, improved recycling and funded water system improvements with the state’s first “green bonds.” With the input of Asheville’s involved residents, visionary plans for the future of our city have been crafted. Finding enough funding to implement the planning remains a constant challenge.
David Gantt, chair, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners
An organization can never measure success without having targets/goals to know if the bull’s-eye has been achieved. Sustainability plans give Buncombe County the opportunity to choose what type of community we want to become in the future. Once we agree on that, we must work the plan and regularly measure our progress so the public has a chance to objectively decide if we’re doing what we promised. In my opinion, sustainability means preserving our natural beauty while continuing to give all students a great education, citizens an opportunity to have good jobs and homes they can afford, and retired folks a wonderful community to enjoy after working careers end. Our official plan notes that our sustainability is “a balance of environmental stewardship, social responsibility and economic vitality.”
Buncombe County has a very good plan that properly begins with stewardship of our environment. That leads to the educational and economic prosperity we all want and desire. … Buncombe County submits a comprehensive yearly report on how we’re doing with the specific benchmarks and sustainability goals we’ve set for ourselves. I believe the report is objective, easy to read and a fair representation of current sustainability patterns. We need to focus more attention on workforce housing. We should work toward a guarantee that any citizen who works in Buncombe County should be able to find a suitable and affordable place to live. To sustain our current prosperity, we need to find additional revenue for: 1) education, 2) workforce housing, 3) greenway/park/recreational opportunities. If Buncombe County can’t keep up with the two essentials — good education and housing — and near-essential quality-of-life requirements like greenways/parks/recreational facilities, our community desirability will begin to diminish and not attract the companies and business opportunities we now enjoy in abundance. As Buncombe County grows, the expectations that we will make sure everyone has a good education, job, home and retirement will also grow.
Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell
A truly sustainable community would operate like an old-growth oak tree. All of its power, water and nutrients would be locally sourced, with minimal new growth. Its food crop would be consumed locally, with total nutrient recycling on-site.
Asheville is headed in the right direction with its 4 percent per year carbon footprint reduction and stepped-up recycling and waste reduction efforts. Asheville is only scratching the surface on what must be done to meaningfully address climate change, but we’re ahead of most U.S. cities. We need to raise parking meter and garage fees to discourage auto use and expand transit options to encourage people to get out of their cars. We need to do more education around recycling and cut back from weekly to biweekly garbage collection. We need to find ways to install photovoltaics on city building rooftops. We need to do more to encourage planting of fruit and nut trees on private and public property. We need to do all we can to implement a property assessed clean energy program, helping property owners do energy retrofits while putting the “mortgage” for improvements on their tax bills.
Asheville City Council member Julie Mayfield
The answer is different if you think about it from two different perspectives: What makes Asheville as a community sustainable versus what makes a community of individuals live more sustainably. The way I think about personal, individual sustainability is: How do we live, how do we move, what do we buy and what do we eat? To answer “How do we live?” you have to ask what kind of house do we live in? Is it an energy-efficient house? Are we the kind of people who have our air conditioners on and our windows open? How are we using our resources?
No. 2: moving. How do you choose to get around town? Do you use your own power (foot or bike), or do you ride the bus? If you drive a car, what kind of car do you drive? How efficient are you with your trips?
These two things capture the biggest pieces in terms of energy use. Then there’s: How do we spend our money? On things imported from China? In local stores? Do you just buy a lot of stuff or do you live a simple life?
And then the last one is kind of the same thing: Do we eat local food that’s in season? Like Michael Pollan said: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Learn how to live a sustainable life on your own.
The city is doing everything we can to encourage or incentivize new buildings to be built to energy-efficient standards. As we’re building and Asheville is growing and developing, we have to ask: Are we building things in the right place? Are we building housing near existing transportation corridors that give residents options on how to travel? Are we building a transportation system that allows people to get out of their cars? Are we creating an equitable system that gives everyone the same level of opportunity?
I think we hit the ball out of the park on the “what we eat” aspect. We have great, locally produced food here, but even in Asheville, there are still food deserts. There are still people who go to bed hungry every night. And that’s not a problem the city can solve on its own, but we can’t be a truly sustainable community until people have enough to eat, a place to sleep at night, reliable ways to get around and to make a living. I think we’re a great place for local business, and the city’s doing great with energy efficiency in its own operations. We do a good job in terms of waste and recycling. But the transportation piece definitely needs improvement.
Asheville Police Department
Effective public safety is one of the keys to creating a sustainable community. It can be difficult to attract businesses, homeowners or other investors to communities that have significant crime or that are perceived as being unsafe.
One way the Asheville Police Department is accomplishing this is through active community policing. By assigning officers to the same area beat each day, they are able to focus on building relationships, gaining familiarity and working closely with members of their communities to prevent and solve crimes. Additionally, each of our three policing districts has two community resource officers who act as liaisons to our neighborhoods, helping identify and resolve community problems. We also have housing and downtown specialty units that work exclusively in partnership with those communities. Lastly, we have a number of programs that enable community members to take an active role in policing, including the APD Explorers and the Citizens Police Academy. As with any department or organization, there is always room for improvement. By creating stability through community engagement, we are working to enhance the public safety and, ultimately, the sustainability of Asheville.
City of Asheville Sustainability Officer Amber Weaver
A sustainable community incorporates environmental, economic and social health into everyday practices. Asheville is a great example of where our greenhouse gas emissions are going down; departments within the organization are focused on economic growth and sustainability, affordability and economic mobility, and a high quality of life. Clean air, water and ample land to play, travel and enjoy. The Office of Sustainability is working on carbon reduction emissions, waste reduction goals, clean energy and the food policy action plan.
Asheville is well on its way to meeting its 80 percent carbon reduction goals, though there’s much work to do to get us all the way there. Interested and active citizens work with the city to help achieve those goals.
Heath Moody, chair of A-B Tech’s Construction Management, Building Science and Sustainability Technologies Department
Supporting local businesses keeps money in the community and often reduces the embodied energy associated with shipping products around the world. Businesses that try to sustainably use local resources minimize the shipping costs, carbon emissions and exploitation associated with many aspects of globalization.
The citizens of Asheville have made their voice heard, and most voted for leaders they feel will represent the people who actually live here, rather than basing every decision on tourists and hotel developers. We’ll see how this plays out, but development must incorporate sustainable initiatives and help foster a healthy environment for locals (living wages = more affordable housing). Asheville citizens also support leaders who believe in science and are serious about solving the many problems associated with climate change. Many in Asheville are fighting for affordable housing and living wages. Many here have also dedicated their careers to sustainability and social justice, which are directly connected.
The city of Asheville has created many sustainable efforts, such as switching streetlights to LED and making recycling more available. There have been a lot of efforts to build more greenways and create safer options for alternative, low-carbon transportation, such as bike lanes. We still have a ways to go in this area, however.
Many say the city should create incentives to diversify. We all love beer, but there are so many other reasons to visit Asheville. Remember, it was the artists and musicians who helped revive the city, but these groups get pushed out, just like minorities, as gentrification drives an already high cost of living higher. Just as in nature, having diversity in our community strengthens us and gives us multiple perspectives on the various issues.
Many fear that Asheville is losing the uniqueness that makes (some would say “made”) it funky and fun. We don’t want a monoculture of wealthy, part-time residents who see our community only as an investment opportunity. Lastly, these beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains are our biggest asset, and we should make sure we protect clean water, air and the health of our forests. Clean water makes good beer, and clean air provides good visibility for folks who come for outdoor recreation or a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Asheville also needs to continue to fight efforts to privatize our public assets. Just as the parkway was created through a social program that gave workers valuable job training while providing a wonderful free resource for all citizens, rather than an exclusive, gated, private drive that’s available only to those who can afford it.
Most city residents seem to share a passion for our community, our shared public assets, and leaders who value ecology and equality. We need to make sure that hotel taxes are put back into local community infrastructure and public assets such as greenways/bike paths; sidewalks; small, local business incubation; education; and city use of renewable energy and resources. For many years, residents have been required to foot most of the bill for infrastructure, since most of the largest employers in Asheville are tax-exempt.
With all the development at Mission Hospital (a health facility), why aren’t they required to provide green spaces and/or greenways as part of their ongoing development? There’s a community college, a high school and a hospital on Victoria Road, which is riddled with potholes and very unsafe for pedestrians and those trying to reduce traffic and carbon emissions by riding bikes to those institutions.
Most of these large, tax-exempt employers don’t seem to place a high priority on sustainability, though A-B Tech did just build its first LEED-certified building. Many would love to see them do more to combat climate change and promote health at the local level.
Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy
A healthy, sustainable community means having the resources and people to support itself in a healthy way over the long term — and the appropriate connectivity between those resources and people. That can mean having access to clean water for drinking, or farmland for growing fresh, local foods. We also need the ability to exercise and enjoy outdoor recreation without having to travel a long way, made possible by multimodal transportation, including bike and pedestrian pathways.
It means allocating funds to protect our natural resources — a driving force behind the region’s record-breaking popularity — and supporting local farm and food initiatives. We’ve made great strides in protecting the vital land and water resources that sustain us, but more still needs to be done. As Western North Carolina and Asheville in particular show up more and more on national “best of” lists, we will continue to face development pressure. We need to be thoughtful in planning for the future, so we’ll all continue to enjoy the aspects that have made this region so popular.
Sustainability, to us, means affordability, access to transportation and reasonably priced food, safety and permanent housing. We offer the appropriate level of case management support to help keep people in housing, creating a sustainable foundation to build the rest of their lives on.
We work to make people’s lives sustainable by actively addressing one of human beings’ most basic needs: housing. We do this for our most vulnerable community members: people living in poverty or with traumatic histories, mental illness or physical disability. And for every neighbor, every family with children that we move into housing, we think about which factors have to be addressed to make it sustainable.
Buncombe County Commissioner Miranda DeBruhl
When it comes to sustainability, the first responsibility of government is to ensure that we can meet our basic financial needs in regard to public safety and quality education without an undue tax burden on our citizens. To that end, environmentally sound measures that save our taxpayers money should be pursued at every opportunity. However, to pursue political environmental initiatives at the expense of public safety, education or our overall financial stability is irresponsible.
Our county staff has done a wonderful job of divesting unused and underutilized assets, removing vacant and/or redundant positions and responsibly complying with federal mandates. However, the board must guard against the urge to spend our taxpayer dollars on wants rather than needs. Basically, it’s common sense.
Kit Cramer, president and CEO, Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce
A sustainable community provides access to affordable housing, high wages, multimodal transportation, a supportive environment for small businesses and quality health care for all its residents.
Ben Teague, executive director, Economic Development Coalition Asheville-Buncombe County
The hallmark of a sustainable economy is quality jobs that provide higher wages and career opportunities across a diversity of growth industries. Our community and business leaders have united around the AVL 5×5 Vision 2020 campaign to sustain our economic vitality.
Jeff Joyce, director of public policy, Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce
Looking to go greener in your business operations and be recognized as a leader in sustainability? Join the Workplace Challenge, which launches on Earth Day in partnership with the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and the city of Asheville, to find easy ways to reduce waste, energy and water usage while increasing recycling.
Josh Dorfman, director of entrepreneurship, Venture Asheville
For Asheville’s high-growth startups and tech companies, sustainability represents an opportunity to create innovative solutions that are in demand in the global marketplace, that improve our quality of life and bring our civilization into greater balance with nature’s ecosystems.
Bill Dean, CEO of The Collider:
Technology and innovation are the strength of the U.S. economy and will remain as the sustainable way to raise productivity and wages. At The Collider, we have a technology-driven growth strategy based on the environmental and climate sciences industry. Our framework, empowered by the many scientists now living in Asheville, will drive innovation around an environmental and climate ecosystem, which we believe will create and attract more business to Western North Carolina. With support from the community, we are confident that our work will contribute significantly to our region’s sustainability.
Buncombe County Commissioner Joe Belcher
It’s a buzzword — really, it’s just a buzzword. I moved here 30-something years ago, and I wanted to stay here because I loved the people and I was able to grow in my industry and make a choice to stay here, go to church here, send my kids to school here. So there must be a desire on my part — on the individual’s part — to want to stay here, to want to live here, to want to participate in the church, in the schools and all of that.
So we have got to create an environment that makes people want to stay here. And in order to stay here, you’ve got to make a living. In order to stay here, you want it to be safe. You want people to have access from one point to another. You have to have good infrastructure. For me, personally, being a traditional person by nature, I want the community, I want the churches; I want the places where the kids can go and enjoy themselves and love living here. I want them to be able to open a business. There are things that are different here than 20 years ago, and that concerns me and may concern a lot of these kids. So let’s just make sure we create an environment where they can stay. If you don’t want to live here, then the rest of it doesn’t matter.
We need to make sure that the jobs that we have are sustainable. I would rather see the advanced manufacturing sector grow and attract the jobs that are going to last. If they’re not able to go to college, kids can get employed right out of high school working for these companies as skilled laborers, such as electricians, welders. And those companies may be able to give those kids some sort of higher training, should they desire to go on. But the message needs to get out to create a sustainable workforce. I want these kids to stay here.