What is “Community” to Me? by Plan NH Member, Andrew Cushing
Growing up in Grafton, community looked like newspaper clippings of classmates in the post office lobby. It sounded like static from my father’s volunteer fire department radio at nighttime or the collective “oohs” and “awws” when fireworks exploded in the dark July sky. It smelled like brown sugar and musty curtains – a combination found only at ham and bean suppers in the town hall.
As a graduate student in Philadelphia, community is coming home for spring break to vote at town meeting, where my second grade teacher checks my “ID” and my bus driver’s sister hands me a ballot. It tastes like homemade coffee cake at the one room library and feels darn heavy when you deliver roadside tires to the dump.
Whatever community is, it compelled me to buy a fixer upper in my hometown so that in the coming years I can provide a longer answer.
-Andrew Cushing, Grafton
Plan NH Member Multi-Year Plan NH Scholarship Recipient
“New Hampshire ‘Middle-Child’ Towns” by Plan NH Board President, Rob Dapice
I recently watched a TEDX talk by UNH Rural Extension employee Geoff Sewake (watch it HERE) on the power of rural attractiveness for small communities like the one where he lives in North Haverhill. I recommend the talk. It got me thinking about my own town.
As Geoff points out, people in the North Country, particularly those in communities with populations that are aging and shrinking, could do well by welcoming young adults who are attracted to those places, or those who have an existing connection to these communities, in order to make them more likely to stay.
He repeats “hey, hello, what’s up” as a means of emphasizing how informal this welcoming approach can be. He discusses how young adults can really contribute and make a difference in these communities that have been so depleted by outmigration. And, how showing up to two meetings in a row, for just about any board or committee, will likely result in their being invited to join.
I have lived for five years in Hopkinton, a town of 5,600 just west of Concord. Hopkinton is somewhere near the middle (demographically and geographically) of state trends. Hopkinton and many other communities in New Hampshire are expected to have approximately stagnant populations. I liken our situation to that of the middle child: not as outstanding as the first born and not as one might think. No explosive growth. No ominous decline. A stable population should make everyone happy. No problem, right?
In middle child communities like this one, the question is not so much “will we disappear” or “will we be overwhelmed” but the more complicated and touchy “who are we and who do we want to be?”. This is something that Plan NH Executive Director Robin Leblanc touches on when she says frequently “Communities in our state are so used to planning for growth; they need to start planning for change.”
To illustrate this, observe that certain communities in our state’s southern tier seem to still be booming. For example, Stratham has grown 14% between 2000 and 2010. Then, consider the population of Coos County that has remained virtually unchanged during that same time period and is predicted by the OEP to shrink over the next 30 years. The overall feeling of impending growth or decline makes up an essential backdrop that informs how many citizens are inclined to think about their communities. This shapes discussions and decisions on school budgets, zoning, and economic development.
Hopkinton has the seventh highest property tax rate in the state and has historically had higher taxes than neighboring towns which mostly seem to either have a stronger commercial tax base, a less costly school system, or both. Combined with the reality of declining school enrollments over the past decade, this has made the annual school budget rather contentious.
There are lots of good people involved in the perennial debate over school spending in Hopkinton and the details of what might be cut and what should be cut are not important here. I find the ways in which debaters on both sides seem to bypass each other with arguments interesting. They find their personal arguments compelling, but their reasoning can ring hollow among those whom they are trying to convince.
One frequently cited consequence of a high tax rate is that it will result in more people moving out of town. Assuming the high tax rate is the result of an expensive and well-regarded school system, as is the case in my town, it will also attract in-migration among families who move to town for the school system. This group of new residents who are attracted by the schools certainly includes, but is not limited to, families led by wealthy professionals.
Those who favor a higher school budget often invoke the testimony of other young families who have chosen Hopkinton because of the good school system. My family constitutes a data point in that argument. Those who favor a lower school budget in order to reduce taxes prefer to cite examples of people they have known who have left town because of the taxes. I know a few of the people; they are not imaginary. In some cases, they vacate homes that are then occupied by young-professional families whose stories will be used to justify our current approach to budgeting.
Should town policy favor longtime residents on fixed incomes to ensure that the community retains its character? Or should it be crafted to draw enough younger and wealthier people to town so that our town can buck the demographic trends of stagnation/decline? Of course, there is no easy answer.
I grew up in a town that has been so overwhelmed by rich people that I feel like it has become unrecognizable in the two decades since I left; it is not an accident that I chose not to return to it when I moved back to New England. If we continue down the road of high-performance, high-cost schools without restraint, we will become another Concord, Massachusetts in a decade or two; people will come for the schools and will be seen hammering the “For Sale” signs into their front yard the day after high school graduation.
However, the schools are a real attraction for Hopkinton. Like every New Hampshire town that depends on volunteers to keep the machinery working, Hopkinton is a better town for its tireless volunteers. Many of these volunteers were attracted to Hopkinton because of the school system. The School Board and the Superintendent deserve credit, in my opinion, for presenting a conservative and responsible school budget.
But the school budget is not the point here. The point iswe all need to listen to each other. If you are preparing to make an argument that is incredibly resonant with you—about how you and your friends all moved to town because of the great schools, stop for a moment. Consider how your argument might sound to someone whose longtime friend and neighbor just moved out. And, to be fair to my demographic peers, if you are getting ready to stand up at a public meeting and tell those of us who want to improve their school system that they should move to Massachusetts, be respectful of the fact that not everyone who loves New Hampshire shares an identical philosophy.
Of course, school funding is an incredibly contentious issue in New Hampshire, especially its middle-child towns; I think that listing the lawsuits over state funding of education in the past 20 years would make for a longer document than this essay. But that is a topic for another day.
Who doesn’t love the transition between hot summer days and frosty winter nights? Well maybe not everyone, but who doesn’t love a fall festival? In New Hampshire, we are so fortunate to have beautiful mountains, lakes, coastline and fabulous fall festivals.
In August, we were fortunate to collaborate with the City of Laconia in a Community Design Charrette. With the Orton Family Foundation, the City of Laconia, Re-Imagine Laconia and passionate citizens, the Plan NH team recommended possible adaptations to the Land-Use Chapter of their master plan. Some of our suggestions included integrating traffic calming techniques to Beacon Street downtown and connecting Weirs Community Park to Weirs Beach with a walkway. Now it’s up to the City to discover how our ideas and suggestions could help their needs.
During charrette, we also discovered their excitement for hosting New Hampshire’s 25th Annual Pumpkin Festival!
On Saturday Oct 24th head to Downtown Laconia to carve pumpkins, run a 5/10k on the WOW trail or help the City attempt a world record! Check out the schedule of festivities taking place between 10:00am-8:30pm.
Laconia has so much to offer with its incredible location, historic buildings, fabulous coffee shop and delicious burritos and much more. If you find yourself with nothing to do Oct 24th, head to Laconia, grab some hot cider and march in a costume parade!
At the very least, celebrate the season somewhere in this great state with family, friends and community.
We had the good fortune to attend a very interesting conversation last week – one of 10 that will be held around the state. The focus was/is the food system here in the Granite State. There were over 50 people in the room, including farmers, nutritionists, educators, restaurant folks, nonprofits and more.
a food system includes all processes and infrastructure involved in feeding a population: growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, consumption and disposal of food and food-related items. It also includes the inputs needed and outputs generated at each of these steps. A food system operates within and is influenced by social, political, economic and environmental contexts. It also requires human resources that provide labor, research and education. (from the program handout)
The NH Food Strategy is an initiative to develop a strong and connected network of organizations, institutions, agencies, businesses and individuals that contribute to the NH food systems.
The purpose of the statewide conversations is to identify goals, key leverage points and action priorities that together will form strategies to achieve a food system that works for everyone in New Hampshire.
Quite frankly, it has been only in the past few years that we have become aware of the serious issues around food – and that New Hampshire has some sobering statistics, such as (and these are just a few):
There were 60 groundfish fishing vessels in NH in 2000. Now there are 14.
9.9% of NH households are classified as food insecure – ie, they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. And 38% of this population are children. In 2013, 8.5 MILION pounds of food went to food agencies in NH.
As of 2012, over 50% of farmers had a second job to help make ends meet – so as much as farmers would like to focus on growing good, healthy food, it is not always economically feasible
Not everyone has access to healthy food choices (like fresh vegetables or meats or non-packaged food) – some places are too rural and others live in neighborhoods with only convenience stores. Remember, not everyone has transportation to larger grocery stores or farmers’ markets.
Without healthy food choices, obesity rates go up (doubled in last 15 years) and diabetes is more common (9% of NH residents as of 2012)
There are many, many individuals and organizations that care deeply about this, and are working in their own ways to address it and related issues within their own communities. However, what is needed is an overarching strategy, along with collaboration and cooperation, to figure out how to meet the challenges of economics and education (which now there is a lack of) to support a statewide effort.
Density, or compact design, is a concept that is once again gaining traction across the country, including here in New Hampshire.
Basically, by putting buildings closer together, and/or including a mix of uses in one, open spaces may be preserved and money can be saved. In downtowns, neighborhoods or other development, density can also be achieved by infill – filling in spaces amongst what is already there, rather than, say, taking more open land.
We usually think of this as being a big-city or larger-town thing, but good examples exist in our smaller communities, too. Think of Harrisville, or Center Ossipee: in each, one can walk to different destinations. The photo above is that of the Greenfield (NH) Meeting Place, with a little restaurant on the ground floor and living spaces above and around.
And this is not a new idea. Most of our “traditional” New Hampshire and New England towns have relatively dense, or compact town centers and neighborhoods.
Plan NH and the NH Housing Finance Authority are continuing their partnership to identify good examples of density in towns of all sizes across the state.
Examples are compiled and are being entered into a database (in development) that will be available to anyone. Developers, planners and residents alike will be able to see what well-planned density can look like here in New Hampshire.
We invite you to participate: look around where you are. Are there good examples of compact design? It may be a new neighborhood or an older, established one. You may have a town center where the Post Office, Library, and general store – and maybe even a school – are in close proximity. Or you may live in an older neighborhood with houses close to each other.
Please, show us what you have found. For more information and submission forms, go here
UNH released two reports today – one for Southern NH and one for Northern NH – that are intended to help municipalities and regions plan for their futures with warmer temperatures and more “extreme precipitation events” over the next few decades. For more information, and to download the report, GO HERE.
We have mentioned elsewhere on this site that while we still need to plan for growth and development, it is becoming increasingly important to plan for change. Higher temperatures in the summer will mean increased stress on our health, our crops and gardens, and our energy sources. More “extreme precipitation” weather events may mean, among other consequences, more flooding, greater risk of tree damage (and subsequent damage to power lines, houses, vehicles and even people) and higher plow budgets.
But while much of this may fall under town government to address, we recommend that the entire community be involved in conversations around specific issues. As citizens, we need to be part of the solutions – we are are all in this together. Thinking together about such questions as “How might we be sure our older neighbors who live alone are safe and warm during or after a blizzard?” How might we be proactive about protecting our historic buildings?” “What can we do to help, as a community, those who live/have businesses on flood-prone properties that may suffer severe damage in the next big storm?” “What can we as a community do to prioritize needs should we lose electricity/power/heat/roads … and how to address them?”
And, as said earlier, these are challenges, but they are also opportunities to think in a new way about what you want for your own town or neighborhood, to think about everyone who lives there, and what you can do to deal with a changing future.
We are interested in your stories – what are the challenges you are talking about, how are you talking about them, and what are you proposing?