Slayton: Villages and Downtowns

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(HOST) The recent merger of two environmental organizations got commentator Tom Slayton thinking – about the importance of small towns and villages in today ‘s Vermont.

(SLAYTON) One of the things that make Vermont unique is the fact that we still have villages and small cities that work – that are pleasant to live in, and where daily life is not a major hassle.

A quick trip to many other parts of the United States makes clear that this is not the usual state of civic affairs. Across much of America, villages have been gutted by strip development and sprawl, and small cities are dying, even as suburbs and strip malls eat up the open countryside.

And so one reason to keep Vermont’s villages and downtowns functioning and vital is that they are an antidote to suburban sprawl. I’ve been thinking lately about some other reasons.

I like Vermont villages, first of all, because they are unique expressions of their time and place. Villages anywhere in Vermont are almost always complex accretions of history, custom, and hardscrabble economics, amalgamated over time. Every one is different. And for that reason alone, they are interesting – more interesting than the uniform highway culture that has sapped the uniqueness out of many other parts of rural America.

Rugged little Island Pond, for example, is as different from white-steepled Craftsbury as can be, even though the two towns are less than 35 miles apart. Yet both are interesting places to spend time. Newfane isn’t Brattleboro, and Brattleboro isn’t Bellows Falls. Each and every one of those places is distinct and, in a sense, irreplaceable because of that distinctiveness.

Villages and small cities are good places to live because they are built on a human scale. Most of them are pleasant places to walk, and when you walk you almost always meet people. There’s a social virtue there – and an environmental one, since walking doesn’t burn gasoline and thereby minimizes the walker’s carbon footprint. Villages make good environmental sense.

Downtown and village architecture is a daily reminder of our shared past – our history. The historic preservation movement did a lot more than preserve individual buildings – it gave us a shared historic fabric that we can live in today. And a reminder that life has been lived here for a long time – more than two centuries, in fact.

I noticed recently that one of the leading advocates for villages and downtowns – Smart Growth Vermont – will end its independent existence and become part of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. John Ewing founded Smart Growth Vermont (it used to be known as the Vermont Forum on Sprawl). He and others have worked hard for more than a dozen years to maintain the integrity of those unique expressions of our present and past. The merger of the two organizations makes very good sense because it means the fight to save our villages and downtowns will continue.

They’re an important part of the fabric of Vermont – just as important, in my mind, as working farms and green-forested mountains. We need them all, because they help make Vermont different, unique – and uniquely livable.

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