Consortium Study Points Pennsylvania Toward a Sustainable Future
Imagine a Pennsylvania with a vibrant economy, clear air, clean streams, and a healthy, growing population.
The Commonwealth has taken a significant step toward that bright future with a comprehensive study of environmental, economic, and social trends in the state conducted by the Pennsylvania Consortium for Interdisciplinary Environmental Policy (PCIEP) and funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Pennsylvania is one of just a handful of states to have completed such a detailed study.
The PCIEP has released a draft report titled “State of the Commonwealth: Is Pennsylvania Moving Towards A Sustainable Future?” which was produced by Temple University Ambler, Duquesne University, and Juniata College, with the Center for Sustainable Communities at Temple University Ambler spearheading the research project.
On Thursday, March 18, the DEP will kick off the Rachel Carson Forum on the Future of Environmental Protection with an overview of the State of the Commonwealth report from noon to 1:30 p.m. at the Rachel Carson State Office Building, 400 Market Street, Harrisburg. Dr. Richard Bowden, PCIEP Chair, will moderate the program, which will be followed by a question and answer session.
“Prevention is easier than a cure. By looking at trends in isolation, as we’ve done in the past, we have had a tendency to react to a crisis rather than looking ahead to find ways to prevent a crisis,” said Dr. Kathi Beratan, coordinating researcher for the two-year project and a Research Fellow with the Center for Sustainable Communities. “The best phrase that I’ve heard to explain sustainability is ‘don’t cheat on your kids.’ Make decisions today that don’t close down options in the future.”
According to Dr. Bowden, one of the primary outcomes of the report should be increased cooperation among state agencies and programs.
“Cooperation is essential — cooperation among the DEP and other state agencies, cooperation among communities and surrounding states — to move Pennsylvania in a positive direction,” he said. “The problems that we face are certainly not unique. We must take advantage of the opportunities presented by common problems to enhance our quality of life and keep our environment healthy.”
The report identifies trends, both positive and negative, in a variety of key categories, including water quality, the environment, social resilience, land use, infrastructure, demographics, health, the economy, education, and crime.
Air and water pollution, for example, has decreased in the Commonwealth since 1970 and the cleaning of polluted sites in the state has been progressing — 1,100 brownfield sites were cleaned between 1995 and 2002. Graduation rates and violent crime rates compare favorably to other states and most community water systems consistently meet drinking water standards.
There is, however, cause for concern in a number of areas as well.
Almost one third of Pennsylvania’s streams do not meet stream standards and almost 175 million pounds of toxic substances were emitted into the air, water, and ground in 2001. Pennsylvania’s transportation infrastructure is in poor condition, income inequity is rising, and voter turnout is in decline.
“Of particular concern is that there are a lot of stresses on our natural systems related to unplanned development (sprawl). Pennsylvania has a fairly unique problem in that it has one of the most fragmented local government systems in the United States — most decisions are made at the local level,” Beratan said. “The trend is that we keep building outward. While our cities deteriorate, we keep cutting down valuable open space.”
Socially, Beratan said, “there is a disconnect between people and their communities.”
“Trust in others, our capacity to work together, is on the decline, which is very disturbing. One of the key recommendations of this study is for the state to help communities build their capacity to move toward sustainability through programs such as Growing Greener and Growing Smarter,” she said. “These programs should be expanded and integrated following the concepts of sustainability and resilience. People are the most valuable resource a community has; getting people connected with and active in their community is vital.”
According to Dr. Jeffrey Featherstone, Director of the Center for Sustainable Communities at Temple University Ambler, this is the first time that the state has had a detailed set of trends and “sustainability indicators” with which to track and evaluate its current and future environmental, social, and economic programs.
“The old process was to essentially track the number of permits and penalties given out in the state to determine the general trends. Now we’re looking at specific resources — how is the state doing on a number of variables and how do they relate to each other?” he said. “No one had ever put this information together in a single report. The state will be able to gauge its programs, particularly if it continues to move towards outcomes-based strategic planning.”
With the draft report completed, there will be a 60-day period within which the public can send their comments on the report’s findings to the PCIEP.