Sustainability oriented conferences can typically be counted on to deliver compacted learning, immersion into the forefront of thought innovation, and strategic networking. Hopefully, and especially true with this year’s West Coast Green, it will impart a palpable renewal of inspiration for and dedication to doing the good work that is so needed in the world. Yet, they can also leave one feeling left a bit short on impact; a worthy investment into capabilities and possibilities yes, but a concrete impact no. Until now. The ‚ÄòCommunity and Development Design Charrette’ chartered new territory in harnessing the power of thought leaders across diverse skill sets and geographic location, under one roof, to participate in a group process to produce a positive contribution to a local and real need.
The subject matter was West Oakland, CA, the epitome of a challenging case study in economic, social, and environmental justice. One in five children have asthma. Schools look more like prisons than places of learning and development. There are many liquor stores and fast food restaurants, yet there is one bank and no grocery store. This is in an area of 20,000 people, 45% of which have no high school education. West Oakland abuts one of the globe’s busiest ports and absorbs its constant activity of noise, exhaust, and toxins.
The first session in the packed Hilton ballroom was spent setting the stage for the mission at hand. We heard accounts of rebuilding demoralized neighborhoods from John Knott, who has led an unthinkable turnaround in Noisette, the historic center of North Charlston, SC, which held statistics as shockingly unjust as those of West Oakland. We heard accounts of rebuilding demoralized people from Mimi Silbert who has spent 37 years bringing the spark to the kindling of human potential through Delancey Street Foundation’s investment into the lives of convicts and addicts and those that society had given up on. We learned that when given the chance, no place or person is beyond the hope of revival. Kemba Shakur and some of the staff of Urban Releaf, who has planted over 12,000 trees in Oakland, presented ‚Äòthe local landscape’ of West Oakland. Throughout all of these veins ran a parallel truth; real wisdom and potential is rooted in community.
In part II of the charrette, the flipcharts came out and we got down to business. The room was broken out into tables of eight, including facilitators, W. Oakland community members, and conference attendees from design and development professions and beyond. The mission of each table was to develop a set of shared guiding values and a list of strategies and actions that could be incorporated into a Master Plan for land use in W. Oakland. What created the sense that something important was underway was the knowledge that this was not just an exercise. Eco-City Builders is working with various city departments to help develop a sustainable urban village master plan for W. Oakland. The plan will employ efficient land use planning and ecological city design and will serve as a model to other cities. Eco-City and WCG teamed up to deliver the opportunity for the conference to make a real contribution to Eco-city’s work in W. Oakland. This may have been the first time a conference like WCG drew on the skills and best practices of participants and the perspectives of local stakeholders in a collaborative process in order to make a real contribution to a real project. I believe that all of us were able to walk away from the conference with the satisfaction of knowing that while we may have come to learn and receive we were able to leave with a bit of the gift of giving.
Bret Walburg is a second year student of sustainable business at the Presidio School of Management. You may also find him peddling around the streets of San Francisco, poeeking in doors and window in a hunt for inefficient lighting. He sells lighting retrofits throuugh the SF Energy Watch rebate program. He can be reached at email@example.com