Blended Together: On Building Soil and Local Community
The dark gray sky warned of an approaching storm as I drove into the small parking lot sheltered by moss-laden trees. The humid summer air clung to my skin beneath the stuffy business clothes I'd just changed into at a nearby gas station. I trotted up a ramp to a purple wooden porch and ducked into the one-story historic house, a manila envelope with a map of trees clutched under my arm and a stack of business cards in my pocket.
Instead of entering a living room off the porch, I found myself in a small government office lobby furnished with a reception desk adorned by a fake plant and a framed landscape print hanging over an antique couch. The sound of casual conversation beckoned me through an archway to a compact, carpeted meeting room. On one end of the space was a wraparound desk with half a dozen cushioned chairs, where a graying man in a suit chatted with a uniformed police officer. Three rows of metal folding chairs filled out the opposite side of the room, occupied only by a mother and son, who gazed through a wall of small-paned windows at the burgeoning thunderstorm. I swallowed and stepped inside, wondering where I would stand when speaking to the meeting attendees, and if any more would arrive.
After driving several hours toward the Georgia coast, I had swung by a vacant property and trudged between gnarled, mature oak trees and clusters of palmetto fronds, taking notes and photos. The wooded tract was flanked by a cleared construction site, its bright sandy soil exposed to the open hazy sky, and a corrugated metal building surrounded by a flat, pothole-riddled parking lot. After the site walk, I changed clothes and arrived at the quaint government facility with a few minutes to spare before the public hearing.
As soon as I was seated in the chamber, a woman in a dark skirt rushed in with a stack of papers in tow. Recognizing her from a government website photo, I greeted the County Engineer with a handshake. Though this was our first time meeting in person, I thanked her for helping me over email and phone calls to organize my talking points and fine tune the site development plan. While the remaining council members arrived, I asked about the engineer’s experience moving from out of state to this coastal community in South Georgia, as both of us were newcomers to the region. We discussed the sprawling trees on the site plan, the ones marked with X's, their request for removal being the subject of my brief presentation. They were likely older than many of the local residents but were in the way of a proposed senior housing development.
When the meeting was called to order, the police officer delivered an update on income from traffic citations as he jingled a set of keys in his pocket. By time the County Engineer moved to a small table at the front of the room, ready to present her list of land use applications to the council for public comment, the rows of visitor chairs were still mostly empty. I almost sighed in relief, while simultaneously feeling a twinge of disappointment in my gut.
As a professional in the land development industry, I had visited local government offices before, but this was my first time presenting at a public hearing, when the doors were open to literally anyone interested in the meeting agenda. While the County regulations allowed for trees to be removed under certain conditions, the elected Council members could levy mitigation requirements, and members of the community were entitled to express their support or opposition to each request. On the receiving end of the feedback, I was hoping for a smooth discussion, having designed the site layout to avoid impacting as many existing trees as possible. But if the tables were turned, would I have shown up to the meeting to push back on the request? Would I even be aware of the meeting's occurrence?
I wondered . . . how many decisions had gone into shaping this land?
More recently, a friend and I hiked on a paved trail snaking along a shaded river, only a few miles from my house. We passed deer munching on low-hanging tree branches, undeterred by our presence. We marveled at this peaceful wooded corridor as we ambled by strangers exercising, talking, and drinking in the sunshine and wildlife. I wondered, reflecting on my own engineering experience, how many decisions had gone into shaping this land? How many trees had been removed? Who had given input on the route and length of the trail, determined its funding source and construction schedule?
In reality, most of us sit oblivious, like the hungry deer along the trail, to these decisions being made on our behalf every day. The urban planning journalist and activist Jane Jacobs popularized the concept of “eyes on the streets,” the idea that the safety and livelihood of shared spaces and thoroughfares improves as the number of participants and observers increases. She could have stayed at her Greenwich Village apartment window with this theory, but instead she expounded on it in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. What’s more, she went toe to toe against powerful real estate developer Robert Moses over the fate Manhattan’s older and blighted neighborhoods, arguing that Moses's expressway construction projects would not revitalize these areas but instead threaten their safety and livelihood by removing small businesses, well-established residents and pedestrians from the ecosystem.
The influence of “eyes on the streets” also extends to indoor venues. There are many public meetings occurring every week in our circles of influence, from city halls to park pavilions, libraries to courtrooms. Gatherings where decisions are made, policies are debated, opinions are collected, and where anyone is invited—though few participate.
Public meetings and taskforces ought to be a conversation, allowing for healthy pushback from local stakeholders on everything from the appearance of buildings, the goals of social service programs, the care of our children and the maintenance of our waterways. When feedback from a diverse range of people is heard with equal attention, the quality of the collective narrative is deepened and enriched, like a harmonizing full-scale orchestra.
The bedrock of a local community’s culture rests on the way its individuals exchange and listen to their stories, values and experiences. Farmer, author and environmental activist Wendell Berry compared this phenomenon to a metal bucket hanging on a fence post he regularly walked past. Over the years, this bucket remained on its perch, collecting leaves, insects, and rainwater, which eventually decomposed into fertile soil.
In his 1988 essay The Work of Local Culture, Berry writes, "In the woods, the bucket is no metaphor; it simply reveals what is always happening in the woods . . . The ground must be protected by a cover of vegetation and . . . the growth of the years must return—or be returned—to the ground to rot and build soil. A good local culture, in one of its most important functions, is a collection of the memories, ways, and skills necessary for the observance, within the bounds of domesticity, of this natural law. If the local culture cannot preserve and improve the local soil, then, as both reason and history inform us, the local community will decay and perish, and the work of soil building will be resumed by nature."
"The growth of the years must return—or be returned—to the ground to rot and build soil. A good local culture . . . is a collection of the memories, ways, and skills necessary for the observance . . . of this natural law." - Wendell Berry
We might think of participants of public hearings as caricatures touting unreasonable or dangerous ideas, retirees with too much time on their hands, or protestors with bulging neck veins in a stuffy school auditorium. But seemingly boring decisions about property zoning, school policy, and park or roadway improvement projects regularly pass under the radar without any scrutiny, often resulting in widespread repercussions.
The Pleasant Hill neighborhood in Macon, Georgia is known for being the birthplace of Rock and Roll legend Little Richard. But in the 1960s, the predominantly African American community was severely impacted by the construction of Interstate 75, which bisected the neighborhood and displaced many residents through eminent domain of private property.
Peter Givens grew up in Pleasant Hill, moved away for several decades and then returned in the early 2000s to care for his elderly father. As an adult he recognized more clearly the legacy of the inequitable interstate project and began to organize a coalition to petition the state government to make amends. The community's efforts have resulted in a pedestrian bridge over the interstate, several public parks, and a community center honoring local history. Even with his family responsibilities, Givens envisioned and pursued a brighter future for his neighborhood, persisting in a conversation that led to tangible change. While the state has not followed through on all its promises, his grass-roots advocacy has influenced how future roadway projects are implemented across the country with a greater focus on community input.
Our local governments do not always implement programs and development code responsibly, but we as citizens fail to live up to our potential when we neglect to vote, show up, offer our opinions and voice our needs.
Even as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of virtual public engagement meetings, which offered greater flexibility and ease of access, nothing compares to the organic connections and perspective gained in public spaces. Simply showing up as an observer can offer remarkable opportunity for growth and depth of insight. Amateur journalist Amiri Banks recently wrote in Canopy Atlanta about his affection for the underappreciated green spaces in his community, including the paved trail where I saw the deer chewing on leaves. While Banks's wandering in nature caused him to reflect on the troubled history of DeKalb County, Georgia—the forced displacement of the indigenous Muscogee Nation, the inhumane conditions of enslaved people on Southern plantations, and modern-day sewer spills into local stream. But he also took delight in the healing power of public parks, stressing the importance of their continued investment in his essay.
"Nature invites people to unplug from the colonial mindsets of excess and selfishness that contribute to inequality, violence, and increasing desocialization," Amiri Banks writes. "Restoring our broken relationship with the land can help mend our relationships to each other and reestablish connections to the collectivist mentality of our rural roots."
While I presented the tree removal request in South Georgia, I ended up standing at my seat, the back of my knees pressed against the cold metal chair as I motioned at the site plan displayed on a flat screen TV. After answering a few questions, the majority of the councilmembers voted to approve the application, with only one dissenting vote. As a condition, the developer was required to pay for a bond ensuring the protection of the remaining trees surrounding the construction site and the new trees planted in compensation. In turn, the community would gain more housing for senior citizens, an ever-growing demographic. However, no unelected community members shared their opinion in the meeting. While they wouldn’t have been able to instantaneously change the local code or deny our application, additional participants could have voiced their support of more housing developments or advocated for increasing the tree removal penalties in the County regulations.
When I left the public meeting, the sky was clear, signaling the storm had skirted around the city and moved up the coast. I'd be heading back north soon, but the nearby residents would be living with the results of the council hearing, decided upon by only a few witnesses.
As Jacobs, Berry, Givens and Banks all attest to, getting involved in local public networks offers benefits to everyone—whether it's a "friends of the park" volunteer event, a neighborhood watch group, a school board meeting or a library book club. While our democracies are riddled with gaps in equity and justice, they have time and again been championed by ordinary people who raised their voices and dedicated themselves to the grand, communal experiment of deliberation and self-representation.
Of course, engaging in these opportunities may result in awkward conversations, uneasy compromises, or situations that make us feel misunderstood or ignored. But if we don't step out and show up, important community decisions will be made by a monolith of limited voices, to the detriment of our natural environment and local culture. While we can't individually be involved in every aspect of society, we can each seek to engage with one initiative that resonates with our personal interests and values. Then, perhaps our singular voices can multiply, and the reputation of our public discourse can move beyond mudslinging or hearsay, reflecting instead our common humanity and the diverse experiences embodied across our communities.
Like the slow growth of rich soil in the fencepost bucket, even a trickle of voices can build into an undeniable source of positive change when diverse and blended together.