A Grassroots Focus on the Feasibility of Creating Sustainable Village Centers

Sustain Southern Maine, a Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant led by the Greater Portland Council of Governments, has been working over the last year in nine communities as part of a grassroots effort to explore sustainable development in Southern Maine.

While the grant has broad application to many sustainability issues such as climate change, energy use and job growth, this community-level work is designed to find out whether Maine towns – urban, suburban and rural – are truly able to create and support village center type development. These centers would feature smaller lots, multi-family homes, a range of income levels, retail and commercial services, and a high degree of walkability. Ultimately, they are or could be candidates for some level of public transit.

It is well established that these kinds of communities are more sustainable in terms of reduced energy needs, higher health benefits and broader equity opportunities. It is also abundantly clear that smaller, energy-efficient homes in walkable neighborhoods are a relatively rare commodity in Maine. The increase in downsizing seniors and younger one-vehicle couples makes this a real market opportunity, perhaps for the first time in decades.

These nine communities agreed to be testing grounds for Sustain Southern Maine and the process is kicked of by team of planners, developers, architects and landscape architects meeting with property and business owners, neighborhood representatives and municipal staff to brainstorm about where this kind of denser, mixed-use development could take place and how improved bike, pedestrian and road connections could create a better sense of community.

All these locations have been identified already as growth areas; the discussion is around how much growth, what other amenities are desired, how will it all fit together – and whether it is a marketable concept. The ideas are then illustrated as conceptual site plans and brought out to the larger public for commentary.

The communities are Gray, Standish, Westbrook, Portland, South Portland, Scarborough, Kennebunk, Wells and Kittery. For more information on which portion of each of these towns and specifics on what the team is trying to accomplish, go to www.sustainsouthernmaine.org/pilot-communities.

Definitive conclusions from the work are still a few months away. But after spending many, many hours talking with people from neighborhoods as diverse as Portland’s India Street, Standish’s Steep Falls and Kittery’s Foreside/Gourmet Alley, there are a few clear conclusions.

First, there is not much difference in the way people view their homes and neighborhoods, regardless of where they live. Many – even most – want some level of growth and economic development but they are wary of change that comes too fast. Many also understand that new people will move in, but they are concerned about whether newcomers will fit in. “Fitting in” seems largely to be defined as people who will be respectful of their neighbors and contributing members of the community. People unilaterally value the opportunity to safely walk to nearby destinations. And no surprise, they love greenspace. Whether it’s Prides Corner in Westbrook with its farmscapes or India Street with its access to the waterfront, preserving links to nature in all these communities is key to public acceptance.

Other findings include developing new ways to fund infrastructure integral to these centers, how to help communities learn from each other, the challenge of creating new affordable housing and helping municipal officials market these centers effectively.

Many more details and recommendations will be forthcoming in the coming months. Go to www.sustainsouthernmaine.org and Stay in the Loop for updates.