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Let’s Get Specific

‘Albany in 2030 has built on its history and diverse natural, cultural, institutional, and human resources to become a global model for sustainable revitalization and urban livability. The city promotes a balanced approach to economic opportunity, social equity, and environmental quality that is locally driven, encourages citizen involvement and investment, and benefits all residents.”

That is the draft vision statement that has been drafted upon which to base Albany’s comprehensive plan. It is followed by five “vision elements”: safe, livable neighborhoods (“every neighborhood in Albany is a desirable place to live . . .”); model educational system (“. . . promoting excellence in education at all levels . . .”); vibrant urban center (“. . . Downtown Albany is a vibrant mix of business, residential, educational, arts, culture, cultural, and entertainment uses connected to the Hudson River”); multi-modal transportation hub (“Albany’s neighborhoods and centers are connected to each other and to the rest of the region by an extensive, efficient, and safe network of complete streets, mass transit, bikeways, trails, and sidewalks”); and sustainable city/prosperous economy (“. . . providing quality employment opportunities for all residents with a focus on green jobs and technology”).

Important stuff. Hard to disagree with. (In fact, hard enough to disagree with that the polling exercise at last weekend’s round of public forums on whether we agree with each part was pretty meaningless. Like an election with one candidate.)

But if it also sounds annoyingly vague and squishy to you, well, that’s because it is.

Forgive me, I am an editor. I get nit-picky about words. But in a case like this, wording matters. This is our vision for the future of Albany. It needs to be said succinctly, and also in such a way as will inspire people to work for it. Something that sounds like a policy term paper will make people’s eyes glaze over and even the best implementation plan in the world will have no energy behind it.

So, to be specific: Our shining, ideal city 20 years from now is not one that merely “promotes a balanced approach to economic opportunity and social equity,” whatever that means. It’s one where every resident has economic opportunities. It’s not one that “encourages” citizen involvement. Nominally we have that now. Just about everywhere (in a democracy at least) encourages citizen involvement, if often ineffectively or insincerely. No, our vision is of a city where citizens are actively engaged. We don’t want schools that “promote excellence.” We want all our kids to be learning. See the difference? Squishy, passive terms are hard to demonstrably fail at, but they don’t inspire anyone either.

Also, it’s a little hard to see that this vision applies to Albany specifically as opposed to any of the other dozens and dozens of cities that currently want to reinvent themselves as green and global.

“Connected to the Hudson River” is a good exception—it reflects what a lot of people said in the first round of public input, and it’s specific to place. (I think the Pine Bush bears mentioning too as a potentially equivalent and even more unique asset.) We need some more of that, whether referring to the physical and historical characteristics of the city or its social character. One point that comes to mind is balance—between urban amenities and social qualities of a smaller place, lots of culture and quick to access natural areas. That’s a theme that I heard coming up a lot in the visioning process and it is a virtue that is, if not unique to Albany, then at least more specific to it than “history” or “natural resources.” It would be worth working in.

But the big question is how to make this a document that will inspire people to participate in moving Albany forward.

Portland, Ore., has a famous vision statement. It is only two short sentences: “Everyone can always see Mount Hood. Every child can walk to a library.”

So much is encompassed in those 13 words. What goes into keeping the air clear enough to see the iconic Mount Hood, forty miles away? Controlling sprawl, pollution, and auto use and all that goes with that. What goes into every child being able to walk to a library? For starters, accessible public services distributed equitably in every neighborhood and safe streets (traffic wise and crime wise). You get the picture.

Also you can remember it. And it’s tantalizing: something you want to be a part of.

Can we make Albany’s vision more like Portland’s? Maybe not only two sentences, but at least something closer to the spirit? I’d like to challenge everyone interested in Albany’s future to either go to the Albany 2030 Web site ( node/add/share) or host a house party (before June 14, for instructions see, and along with general feedback on the vision statement draft and the fun and important brainstorms about goals and strategies that will support it, also brainstorm a list of simple and inspiring statements like Portland’s that embody your vision for Albany and recommend at least one for each element. I promise to do it too. I look forward to reading yours.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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