Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Nudging communities towards sustainability

Yesterday afternoon I was working from a local coffeeshop and chatting with the owner as I got my tea and settled in. It was typical small talk, for the most part, but we did spend some time on how food can kill a family budget. It's been in the back of my mind since that I'll put in the effort to make and bring lunch everyday, but I'm happy to spend $2 bucks on tea that can't cost more than a few cents to make.

I'm happy to do this because it supports a local business and I want to live in a place where local businesses thrive. I like being able to walk or bike places. I like being a regular. I also think it makes the community stronger, both socially and economically, to have locally owned businesses. A few people who think about long term community development can't change the landscape much by simply buying overpriced coffee at the local bookstore. But I don't think we can (or should) convince others to ban or boycott Borders and their ilk. A subtler, more workable approach is needed.

One of the themes that comes up repeatedly in attempts to address climate change, and with many approaches to all kinds of environmental challenges, is how to work environmental issues into economic models. Externalities is a word that comes up often. The idea is that there are costs associated with pollution that the polluter doesn't pay directly. (Keep in mind that I am NOT an economist. I don't even read the magazine.) If we could make most or all of that cost go back to the polluters via taxes or penalties, then pollution might drop via market pressures without having the government take a too heavy-handed approach.

There must be similar logic in community development. It's in the interest of the town to have more local business, but you can't just ban big box stores. Well, you can, but it a hotly debated idea. I'm sure there are good policies being developed out there for building strong community centric economies. But, once they've been identified, how do you get them implemented on a wide scale?

Another recent hot topic in politics is the nudge. Popularized in the book Nudge, the idea is that changing the default option is almost as effective as sweeping mandates with a lot less effort. You don't have to outlaw frito chili pie at the school cafeteria, just make the healthier choices easier and more obvious.

Maybe instead of trying to generalize local successes to statewide laws, maybe the best approach is to make it easier for municipalities to implement regulations appropriate to their situations. I'm not sure what for this would take and I also suspect that there are folks out there doing this already. I just haven't heard about it.

One of the things I'm picturing is a database of regulations and plans that have been implemented across the country and the world. It would make it easier for planners and city and town officials to apply these ideas in their own community. Maybe even include generalized versions of successful plans and regulations.

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