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Dream Bigger

by Miriam Axel-Lute on February 4, 2010

Is 2030 soon? Depends who you ask. Through the buzz of the Albany 2030 visioning forums I’ve heard people say that it’s both too close and too far to be focusing on.

“We need something we can act on now,” say those who think it’s too distant, too pie in the sky.

“What about planning for the next generations?” say those who think it’s too close. Shouldn’t we be planning for some of the massive changes to come from climate change and peak oil, things that will be affecting our grandchildren but may not have fully hit in 20 years?

In journalism we say that if you’ve pissed two opposing sides off equally, you probably did a good job, so I don’t consider this divergence to be very problematic, especially because it’s arbitrary. There’s nothing special about 2030. Presuming it’s a good plan, implementation of Albany’s comprehensive plan will start immediately (unless there’s a delay where we have to put people who want to implement it in power) and its impact will likely carry on for longer than 20 years.

What 2030 is, beside a branding tool, is something concrete to hang our hat on when we try to look up from our shoes and next week’s agenda and generate a vision for our city that we can all bend our planning toward, rather than cobbling together a piecemeal set of responses to a grab-bag of complaints.

I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed talking with some fellow Albanians at last Saturday’s 2030 planning forum and doing just that.

It’s hard. I heard reports from some of the other meetings that the time allotted to discuss vision quickly slipped into interim steps. “Have a functional anti-gang program in place”? I mean, yes, we need that, but is that a top-ten feature of the Albany you want to live in in 20 years? I know some of us are impatient for action, but dreaming small cuts off possibilities before they are even considered. Our reach must exceed our grasp.

But I must say that though I think this is a danger, that I was far more heartened than frustrated by the experience. I saw some incredible spirit coming up from a group of people who not only cared about their city, but really, truly liked it and believed in it. I have often been known to say that it feels like the city has a self-esteem problem, so the enthusiasm, optimism, and meeting of the minds I heard on Saturday about what we liked about Albany and envisioned for Albany was powerful, welcome, and somewhat unprecedented. (Our discussions about the top challenges/opportunities were important too, but they get so much more air time in general.)

We talked about loving Albany’s size—large enough to have truly urban benefits, culture, walkability, public transit; small enough to not be overwhelming and offer quick access to outside green space that comes with smaller scale. We talked a lot about how much we like the people here, and the pervading friendly lack of pretentiousness. We talked about location—in a great capital region, and at a convenient crossroads of a larger region. We talked about affordability without compromised livability and how the housing bubble—and bust—mostly passed us by. We talked about our wonderful local businesses and public spaces like libraries and parks and our diverse (along just about any of the lines you could mean that) population.

And the top vision that the Saturday group voted on at the end encompassed many of these ideas—we envisioned an Albany for the people (and more broadly the mix of people) who live here now (i.e. not suddenly shifted for the richer/poorer, etc.) but where everyone in the city is living in a “neighborhood of choice,” a safe, walkable, amenity-filled neighborhood that is somewhere they want to be; somewhere full of opportunity for people at every stage of life. It’s a good thing to be able to generate a vision that is in large part about protecting and enhancing what’s good about your city and wanting to extend it to everyone.

Other vision elements people came up with included a vibrant green jobs sector, access to the waterfront, being an arts and culture center, having a progressive, enlightened school system, a transparent, responsive government, and making better use of our historic and natural resources. There is, of course, plenty of room for improvement and I hope we keep these big goals in mind when we get to specifics in phase two.

There will be a more complete accounting of these meetings from the planning consultants who are collecting all the responses, of course. But before then, if you have something to add and didn’t make it to the forums, it’s not too late. You can still host a house party and submit the collective wisdom of your neighbors, colleagues, etc. to this phase of the process if you do it within the next two weeks. Go to Albany2030.org or call the city’s planning department (434-2532 ext. 35) to find out how.