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Future societies

08/27/07 5:55PM By Bill Shutkin

(HOST) Commentator Bill Shutkin believes that we might borrow methods from documenting a town's past for use when planning a town's future.  

(SHUTKIN) I recently visited some colleagues at the Design Centre for Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. The Centre is doing amazing things in the service of sustainable development throughout Vancouver and the surrounding region. With a population the size of Vermont's and expected to double in a matter of decades, the city is an awesome juxtaposition of the totally wild and thoroughly urbanized. It's a Wilderness City.

Vancouver's a place where land meets sky and water; sleek high rises meet big Douglas Firs, Killer Whales and glacier-studded peaks; where green architecture meets historic buildings; and where Asians and Pacific Islanders meet people from the First Nations, the U.S. and beyond. It's a city without clear borders.

Which puts Vancouver on the vanguard of 21st century urbanism. From native settlement to pre-industrial frontier town to modern city, it's post-industrial, at once a center of commerce and culture and a resort town, a place people choose to live as much for its natural amenities as its economic opportunities. It's no accident Vancouver was selected to host the 2010 Winter Olympics. Today, it very well may be the hippest place on the planet, and then some.

And none of this is by accident. Thanks to groups like the Design Center, Vancouver is full of people with big ideas about the city's future, full of designers, literally and figuratively. Not that Vancouverites don't love their past - there's even a radio station devoted to explaining the city's history to tourists - but they are decidedly forward-looking, aware of the potential they've yet to realize. Still, for all its advantages, Vancouver has its problems, the cost of living chief among them, to say nothing of the risks from climate change owing to their waterfront location.

But if nothing else, they're grappling with these issues with a soberness and intensity like few other places I know and with the resources to actually do something about them.

Returning from the airport after my week away, I happened to drive past my town's historical society, just reopened after getting a fresh coat of paint. It occurred to me that so much of our focus, not only in Vermont but across New England, is backward-looking, is about the past. And this will likely increase as the region's population continues to age and as it does so, likely grows more nostalgic.

Spurred on by issues such as wind energy, internet access and youth flight, many Vermonters have begun a serious conversation about the future, but here it's just getting started.

The recent debate about the climate change bill is a case in point. Perhaps Vermont could take a page from Vancouver's playbook. A design center would be great. But here's another idea. What if every Vermont town, in addition to its historical society, had a Future Society in which stories and strategies about the town's future could be housed and made available to planning boards and visitors alike?

I'll have to see if my local historical society has a room to spare.

Bill Shutkin is a writer, lawyer and Research Affiliate at MIT.
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