The resiliency of communities

The ability of ecosystems to bounce back from stress and adversity is a measure of their resilience. Healthy ecosystems are more resilient than ecosystems damaged by pollutants. Ecosystems supporting a diversity of plant and animal species are more resilient than ecosystems with fewer species.

Like ecosystems, Vermont’s towns, villages, and cities, and the people living in and around them must also be resilient. They must be prepared to bounce back from stress and adversity. We can all probably recall stories about communities that came together for a barn-raising after a fire or neighbors who kept a family in firewood and food when a parent took ill or was seriously injured. Similarly, in times of natural disaster such as flooding or ice storms, rural and urban communities alike come together to help those in need. In short, we have a history of sustaining one another when hardship strikes.

This commitment to one another has served us well over the years and has made our communities resilient in the face of economic, environmental, and societal changes.

Our on-going challenge is to nurture our sense of place, to care for one another, and to think as much about the future as we think about the present.

In sustainable communities, residents meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainable communities emphasize their long-term cultural, economic, and environmental health and vitality.

Vermont, with its tradition of town meeting, has been heralded time and again as a beacon in efforts to strengthen community life in the United States, but, as in other states, we are struggling to meet economic, social, cultural, and environmental needs in the face of changing demographic patterns. Sustained citizen participation in community affairs— such as serving on parent groups, conservation commissions, and rescue squads—is giving way to a lack of connection between people and their communities. Commuter lifestyles can lead to estrangement from neighbors and a lack of personal connection to the community.

Countering this trend in the southeastern corner of our state is a group of Vermonters who have come together to form an organization called Vital Communities. This group is striving to create an index of citizen-selected measurements, or indicators, to help monitor the long-term health of the Upper Valley. Just as this document uses environmental indicators to describe the state of the state’s environment, so too are indicators used at a community level to describe the health and well-being of a community.

Volunteers involved in Valley Vital Signs monitor the environment, the local economy, and the health and well-being of their community using such indicators as the number of species of nesting birds in the Upper Valley, percent of locally owned businesses, percent of second- and third-graders who can read, and voter turnout at local elections. By creating highly participatory town-wide visioning forums, by empowering residents in Vermont’s Upper Valley to develop Valley Vital Signs, and by giving citizens the tools they need to act in order to move indicators in a way that improves the quality of the environment and the quality of life for members of the community, Vital Communities can help us to live more sustainably.

A watershed approach

Using this concept of place-based conservation through partnerships, the Agency of Natural Resources intends to launch the Watershed Improvement Project in 2000 as a means of formally bringing together partnerships to restore and protect Vermont’s rivers and lakes on a watershed basis. A watershed is a geographic region in which all water flows into a single river or lake; this initiative will focus on the partnerships between state and local interests, including towns, local conservation commissions, and watershed groups, to improve water quality within individual watersheds.

This new endeavor—building on the energy and expertise of 70 watershed, river, and lake associations already in existence—will address the problems of our state’s waterways holistically by identifying the sources of degradation in individual watersheds. When fully implemented by 2005, the Watershed Improvement Project will:

  • Identify on-the-ground sources of pollution within each of the state’s watersheds
  • Enhance water quality by reducing or eliminating sources of pollution
  • Make all Vermont rivers safer for swimming, canoeing, and other recreational pursuits
  • Make all rivers healthier habitats for aquatic species