A West River “Walkabout” Breakthrough

by Allan Appel | April 3, 2006 11:03 AM |

Sixty walkers set out from the sundial in Edgewood Park to see — and connect with — New Haven in a fresh way.

“We’re nursing a new concept,” Nathan Bixby, a thoughtful man in his 30s, and one of the founders of the New Haven Bioregional Committee, said as the walkers gathered Saturday. “That concept is what we call ‘breakthrough economy.’ It means we reach a point where a shift occurs such that the human and natural systems finally complement each other.
“And the most exciting thing,” he went on, “is that New Haven is poised so that this breakthrough is beginning to occur right here in our city.”
“Whoa! Right here, and right now? But why and how New Haven?”
Before Bixby could answer, he moved off to huddle up with fellow environmental activists who were arriving for the New Haven Bioregional Committee’s “walkabout,” that was just beginning to assemble in Edgewood Park, their third since the organization was founded last fall. Your reporter vowed to catch up with him.
However, the shift Bixby referred to – or certainly the excitement about it – seemed to be starting already, on Saturday morning, if the 60 people assembling around the sundial in the park were a measure.
The “walkabout” we were about to begin would take us from the park, across Chapel Street, around the tennis courts, and following the brown meandering path of the West River down through the tall grass, then through a nasty landfill and emerging, finally, at New Haven Harbor at City Point.
“The idea,” said Siobhan Merrill, another of the committee’s founders, “is that people, regular people from all walks of life can get out to walk about their city; to know that their city is part of a planet, which is a living place. I thought that to go from here, a relatively civilized municipal park, down through some gritty sections of landfill, and then to the water’s edge will give us a much better idea of how all the parts are connected so that we can think more clearly about urban planning, and a sustainable future.”
“’Connected’ is the key word,” said Fred Cervin (at left in photo, beside Merrill), the third founder of the committee. (The fourth founder, Roger Uhlein, was busy laying out the precise route of the walkabout with Dave Reher of the West River Watershed Association.) “You see, the aim of the committee was to bring together people and groups in New Haven who care about a whole variety of issues – land use, ecology, the people involved in putting up new buildings, even important new buildings like Yale’s new cancer center have a major impact on the natural setting – and bringing them together, not at a table but in a kind of communal walking together through the living system we share.”
New Haven has, by the organizers’ estimate, some 30 to 50 environmentally focused groups. That’s a lot for a city New Haven’s size. It’s explicable due to the large number of undergraduates studying the subject, and, of course, the world famous Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
But that’s not the only reason.
“This work,” added Cervin, “also appeals to people who have a sense of urgency, who are in a way anarchists, and some of it does go back to the 1960s. Which is to say they feel the need to do things on their own.”
“In fact,” Cervin went on, “one of the key elements in the idea of a ‘bioregion,’ which is a concept created and promoted by Peter Berg, an activist (for more on the bioregion idea, see his site: planetdrum.org) whom the committee brought to New Haven last October, is this: People, and not the experts, should take responsibility for the place they live in – hence the walkabouts – to discover where they live and see its life and its interconnections.”
The idea is clearly catching on. After the kick-off with Berg, the committee was inspired to implement his idea of bringing people to New Haven’s bioregion with the walkabouts. Twelve people attended the first walkabout, which focused on the Mill River watershed area. Some 20 participated in the second, which explored the area of Beaver Pond.
Yet how could they explain three maybe four times that many who were now crossing the road, descending to the river in a merry green parade, enjoying the sun emerging from the morning’s rain clouds? It was more than the reflection of a bunch of good listserves.
I asked a young woman named Tamara Shantz what brought her. “I’m a master’s degree student,” she answered, “at the Yale Divinity School. And what I’m really interested in is the intersection of the environment and faith. I’ve got an internship this year in the Inter-religious Environmental Justice Network based up in Hartford. We work with faith communities so they take seriously the idea of purchasing clean energy for their churches.” She felt she had the theological part covered, but wanted to know more about the land and the ecology.
Walking beside her was Rosie Kerr, a graduate student from one of Yale’s other schools, Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). As she walked, her eyes were up in the trees pointing out a dozen or so green parakeets up in the pines.
Why were they chattering so? she asked the dozen students who clustered around her.
The kids were participants in the Yale New Haven Saturday Seminars, a program of 26 Saturday outings, all on environmental themes, taught by a team of F&ES students and New Haven public school teachers. These students were all here voluntarily, and they were focused on those birds.
While many of the walkabout’s environmental activists and graduate students of course knew each other, there were, said the organizers, dozens of new faces, which brings us back to Nathan Bixby and, according to him, the breakthrough moment occurring in New Haven.
I caught up to him as the West River curved through the tall brown grass – was it phragmites– behind the tennis courts.
“The umbrella groups are really coming together,” Bixby (pictured) said, mentioning, in addition to the New Haven Bioregional Committee, the New Haven Environmental Coalition, the Urban Resources Initiative (which operates out of F&SE) and the New Haven Ecology Project, which operates the city’s “green” charter high school, Common Ground. While these and all the others were not brought together under one roof until 2004, Bixby feels a critical mass is being reached for citywide environmental breakthroughs.
Bixby pointed to the success of the bike paths, to the fact that New Haven was the first city in the state to commit itself to use of 20 percent renewable resources by 2010, to the program of municipal free downtown parking for hybrid vehicles, and many other achievements.

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