Making Great, Sustainable Places

What makes a place sustainable? That’s a pretty big question – and it’s not just about being green.  Green Mountain employee Sarah visits The High Line in Manhattan, a sustainable place transformed by a proactive community.

What makes a place sustainable?  That’s a pretty big question – and it’s not just about being green.

Sustainable can mean all kinds of things, but since we’re talking about places, it means being able to endure by maintaining social, economic, and environmental well-being.

I would say a sustainable place is a thriving, vibrant, GREAT place.  Somewhere people want to live, interact and invest in for a long time.  That can mean places where there are a lot of unique, interesting businesses to patronize, or places where there are inviting public spaces to meet and mingle with your neighbors.  And yes, also places that have minimal impact on the environment through responsible use of resources like energy and water.

Sound good?  Does it remind you of anywhere you visited, lived, or perhaps even live in today?

For me, it reminds me of a place I visited while I was in New York City this summer, the High Line.  The High Line is a public park that runs through several neighborhoods on Manhattan’s West Side.  However, it’s not like any park I’ve ever seen.  The High Line used to be an elevated freight line, constructed in the 1930’s to lift dangerous freight trains off Manhattan’s streets.  Over time, train traffic disappeared and it fell into disrepair.  Basically, it was an eyesore by the 1980’s.

New York's High Line Park Sarah at New York's High Line Park New York High Line Park Building

Today, the High Line is a beautiful 1.5 mile-long public space owned by the city of New York and operated by a private conservancy.  It’s covered with native plants, benches, water fountains, and meandering walkways.  Local businesses, like ice cream trailers and artisans, set up in the shady spots.  I’m told it’s one of the most beautiful places to see the New York City skyline at night.

The High Line is a sustainable place, transformed by a proactive community.  And even though there are a lot of ‘green’ things about repurposing an old train track and turning it into a park, there’s more to it.  I could see clear signs of economic activity, like buildings along the High Line being renovated and built.  You could access the High Line easily by subway, bus, walking, or biking.  I even observed two friends run into each other by chance, stopping to reconnect in a way that may not have happened in a less pleasant spot.

I’ll end with something that’s been on my mind ever since.  What makes your neighborhood great and sustainable?  And what changes, even small ones, would make it even better?

P.S. – If this gets you thinking, head over to the Project for Public Spaces to learn more about the concept of ‘placemaking’ and sustainability.