When Hurricane Sandy blew through Newton on October 29, fallen trees and limbs were an inevitable consequence. Not so the power outages that followed. Had our homes and businesses been equipped with onsite electric power generation systems such as solar panels and wind turbines with battery backup, the storm may not have left as many in the dark. In that sense, Sandy drove home how vulnerable our built environment is to the vicissitudes of nature, and how much we’ve come to depend on remote, largely fossil-fuel-based power sources to heat and illuminate our dwellings.
Today we routinely rely on distant suppliers not only for electricity but also for most of life’s necessities, from food, clothing, and shelter to cash to culture—and we do so at our peril. This entrenched outsourcing habit has diminished supplies of easily accessible, relatively cheap fossil fuels, accelerated global climate change, and created an increasingly interdependent and fragile global economy—a toxic trifecta that threatens our way of life. But an opportunity to turn this paradigm on its head could be just around the corner. Literally.
A growing number of individuals and organizations in Newton are taking action to shift us away from fossil-fuel-driven, planet-warming globalization and toward a culture of local resilience, empowering our community to produce and consume more of what we need much closer to where we live.
For instance, Greg Maslowe, manager of Newton Community Farm, is working to make the 2.25-acre farm a thriving part of the growing local foods economy of Greater Boston. NCF grows about 20 tons of produce per year, all sold within five miles of its Oak Hill location.
“In the seven years since the farm was purchased our sales have tripled!” says Maslowe. “This is both because we are farming more intensely and the interest in local produce has grown so quickly in Newton.”
In the process, the farm has helped legions of volunteers and visitors from Newton and beyond to learn how to grow their own food, worked with Newton schools to create on-campus gardens, and sold up to 15,000 seedlings each spring to residents of Newton and other communities to plant in their own yards.
Theresa Fitzpatrick has also built local resilience as an organizer for Newton Safe Routes to School at Angier Elementary School, helping families to leave their gas-guzzling automobiles at home and walk or bike to school under their own power. Or take advantage of school buses already en route. Activities range from “Walking Bus Stops” where children can join an organized walking group, to a “Golden Sneaker Award” for the classroom logging the most “kid miles” from home to school.
“Since these programs were implemented six years ago, there are less cars at morning drop-off, more children riding the bus, and more children participating in the ‘Walking School Buses,’” says Fitzpatrick. “Angier had to get a second bike rack because so many children are riding their bikes to school.”
Meanwhile, New Art Center Education Director Claudia Fiks and Exhibitions Director Kathleen Smith are helping to cultivate a vibrant community of local visual artists and arts enthusiasts of all ages. Supporting a faculty of 40 professional artists, the NAC draws over 2,500 students to its classes and workshops and 4,500 visitors to its exhibition space annually, enriching their lives in countless ways.
“The NAC community changed my life, gave me the gift of lifelong friends, challenged me to take my work seriously, and maybe just as importantly, helped me raise my wild and wonderful daughter,” says abstract painter Julie Weiman.
As they evolve networks of self-propelled gardeners, pedestrians, and artists, Greg, Theresa, Claudia, and Kathleen are also helping to reduce Newton’s dependence on California produce, Saudi Arabian oil, and Hollywood culture. Collectively, their initiatives and other likeminded efforts could pave the way to a more interconnected, locally resilient Garden City—either organically over time or by design.
Taking the latter approach, some 24 groups throughout New England—part of 126 in the U.S. and 437 worldwide—are now working to transform their fossil-fueled communities into post-carbon “Transition Towns” that are well-prepared to survive and thrive amid energy, climate, and economic turbulence. Raising awareness, collaborating with multiple stakeholders, and taking concerted action, they are pursuing an integrated strategy to boost local resilience.
However Newton proceeds, one thing is clear: while supplies of cheap, easily accessible fossil fuels are dwindling, human power—ingenuity, passion, and commitment—remains an abundant and renewable resource. Lucky for us, it’s right around the corner.
Photo: Newton Community Farm