Talk Centers on Preserving Character

By IAN FEIN

The chairman of the Martha's Vineyard Commission said last week that Vineyard residents will inevitably love the Island to death.

"Every time one of us comes here and builds a new house and brings another car, we incrementally erode the very quality that made us want to come here," longtime commission member Linda Sibley told a standing-room-only crowd at the Far Barn of the Polly Hill Arboretum. "It adds up slowly, but I don't think we're going to stop until we have so degraded the quality of the Vineyard that most people won't want to be here anymore," she said.

"It's not just a threat - it's almost the natural life cycle of resort communities," Mrs. Sibley added. "Look at the Hamptons; look at the Jersey shore. Why do we think we're immune to that?"

The remarks came last Wednesday during the commission forum Paradise Lost? Are We Loving the Vineyard to Death?

While Mrs. Sibley took the self-described pessimistic path, other speakers offered more optimistic views. But they all agreed that if the Vineyard community wants to preserve or restore the qualities that have for generations defined Island life, it will need to dramatically alter its approach to development.

"Unless we come up with not only a massive community commitment but also very creative - and frankly perhaps radical - ways to both shape the built environment and limit the rate of growth, I think the young ones here will live to see this place go into decline," Mrs. Sibley said.

The commission, which is currently embarking on a broad planning effort to renew its vision of the future of the Vineyard, last Wednesday presented some of its most recent findings about so-called sustainability indicators that give a sense of where the Island is headed. These indicators track changes over time in areas such as land use, energy consumption, water quality, traffic congestion and jobs.

But guest speaker Stephen Kellert, a seasonal resident of West Chop and a professor of social ecology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environment, warned people at the forum that, in an attempt to achieve sustainability, planners often put too much focus on numerical data and not enough importance on the intangibles of everyday life.

"They underemphasize or ignore the factors that do not measure well, such as a sense of place, history, culture, aesthetics, emotional attachment, psychological well being and even spiritual connection to the land," Mr. Kellert said. "The problem is these latter indicators of sustainability can be just as important for the future welfare of a place like Martha's Vineyard as the so-called ‘hard' metrics of economic progress, jobs and biodiversity."

Mrs. Sibley noted that different Vineyard groups have developed progressive means to address the sustainability of certain areas - such as affordable housing, energy efficiency and land preservation - but that these efforts will not have a significant effect on the Island's overall health unless they are tied back to the daily experience of residents.

"Before I thought it was good enough that we were putting away land to preserve," Mrs. Sibley said. "But I think in the end the things that make us feel nourished here are the everyday things. If we get to the point where the every day has been degraded - no matter how many places we can go to to enjoy if we have the time - I don't think we're going to want to be here."

Mr. Kellert identified the prevailing approach to development as the greatest threat to sustainability today. Not only does it consume a large amount of energy and resources while producing a lot of pollution, he said, but it is also destructive in the way it separates and alienates people from nature and from each other.

"What we have is a design failure," Mr. Kellert said. "It is not an inherent flaw in modern development. A new paradigm is needed."

To achieve sustainability, Mr. Kellert suggested that Islanders must look beyond low-impact designs like energy efficiency. He introduced the concept of restorative design - building culturally and ecologically meaningful structures to recover a sense of connection with the natural environment.

"There is increasing evidence that contact with nature may enhance our physical and mental well being," Mr. Kellert said, noting that communities characterized by high environmental quality often have a higher quality of life. "When a place is meaningful to us, it almost comes alive."

As if to illustrate his point, a bird flew into the arboretum barn during Mr. Kellert's explanation and began chirping in the rafters.

Mr. Kellert suggested that new building regulations mandating low environmental impact can be necessary and desirable, but that over the long term they alone cannot achieve sustainability. If people do not understand or support the goals behind these regulations, he said, they will be subverted over time.

He said a community-wide educational effort is the only way to achieve lasting change.

"People will pursue the goals of restorative environmental design only when they become convinced of its utility as a way of advancing and enriching the quality of their lives," Mr. Kellert said. "All of us need to recognize how much our physical, mental and even spiritual well being is contingent upon the quality of our sustained relation to the land and sea."

Commission member James Athearn of Edgartown, who also owns and operates Morning Glory Farm, publicly praised Mr. Kellert's presentation.

"I wanted to say that Stephen Kellert articulated ideas about the value of open space and natural qualities in a way that I've never heard before," Mr. Athearn said. "Those are the words I've been struggling for all my life to describe why I think things ought to go a certain way for Martha's Vineyard. I'm not sure if even fishermen and farmers make that connection."

Tisbury selectman and former commission member Tristan Israel agreed education was the best route, and suggested the place to start was in the schools.

"You've got to start with educating the young people - not only mechanically, but metaphysically, if that's the term I may use," Mr. Israel said. "We have to give them a sense that they can help change their local world just by participating. A lot of young people are leaving this Island because they can't afford to live here and their quality of life has decreased. It's probably a bigger problem than anything else, because if we lose the young people we lose the energy."

Mrs. Sibley seemed to agree with many of the principals discussed at the forum, but she remained unconvinced about the Island's fate.

"Good design prolongs the period of time that the Vineyard remains a nurturing place, but I do think there is a carrying capacity," she said. "Beyond a certain point you can't put more and more cars on this Island no matter how perfectly you design it. Eventually this will be a place that people aren't going to call special. Someone is not going to come all the way from California and endure the impossibility of finding a ferry reservation unless this place is particularly different. They're not going to go through all that to visit another suburb."