It’s Time to Reinvest in Maine
If we’re going to be honest with ourselves and say whether Maine is on an upwards or downward swing, as far as how well we’ve collectively cared for our homes, rural areas, roads, downtowns, villages, communities, and the people in them, we’d most likely, and maybe a little begrudgingly, admit that we are not meeting our full potential as a state. That the place we were gifted pre-World War II isn’t looking quite so proud and cared for as it could, and people are struggling more than we’d like.
While Maine pre-1940 was certainly not perfect, the towns, cities, and rural crossroads were thriving places where people actively participated in civic life, took care of their neighbors, and made wise investments in their communities that were rooted in frugality and restraint. Daily life and services were centered in the local community. Even in our most rural places, the next farm over or the village center offered access to news, household needs, and companionship. The world was smaller, closer to home, and we understood what it took to build and maintain our communities.
For the past three generations we’ve diverged from a pattern of building places that focus on community as self-sustaining centers of local life. Major economic and social shifts happened as industry and agriculture were outsourced and replaced by fewer information-based jobs. Lives, neighborhoods and local economies that grounded our communities were dismantled with globalization. We started building places, and adopting practices that were entirely counter to the frugal, self-sufficient, and financially solid traditions that defined Maine communities. Suburban sprawl replaced generations of stewardship of our downtowns, neighborhoods, waterfront, and farms, and has left many more families struggling to maintain access to needs and services.
The last 80 years have left us with collective amnesia on how to build places that reflect what it means to be from Maine - scrappy, frugal, tough, independent, caring. Before, the farmer whose house burnt down in the middle of winter could rebuild a solid, simple but lovely house with details, with no professional help, survive the winter with help from neighbors, and carry on an affordable life. This is the story of my grandmother’s house in Hermon, where she still lives today. Now, the cost of construction has skyrocketed, and we’ve lost track of the once basic knowledge of how to build beautifully and affordably.
This deficit in building know-how has extended to communities as well. We used to, as a matter of course, lay out streets that connected to other streets, and locate homes close enough together to support neighborhood relationships and make good use of the public infrastructure investment. Now we find ourselves building places that don’t come close to covering their costs, because we have forgotten how to build any other way. Today's systems of approvals, finance, and engineering support low density development on new land. Evan Richert, past Director of the Maine State Planning Office, and his booklet in the 90s, The Cost of Sprawl, were ahead of their time. And now, the Strong Towns movement (www.strongtowns.org) is gaining followers from all political stripes who see the failures of the suburban experiment. Lives dependent on car commuting, national retailers for basic needs, coupled with limited housing options for different life stages, and increasing taxes to pay for expanding infrastructure costs, have left us wondering – how did we get here and is there another way?
What if there was a different, better way forward? What if there was a way for Maine to directly reinvest in the hearts of our communities? To help repair our crumbling downtown infrastructure? To breath new life into our historic neighborhoods and village crossroads? To support working agriculture and working forests? To support Mainers where they are?
Beginning in August 2019, Build Maine initiated a “call to action” focused on addressing patterns of development that our State cannot financially sustain and that are at odds with our quality of life, sense of identity, the tourism economy, efforts to attract workers, housing and transportation needs, and our environmental goals. The work involved a diverse and expanding group of leaders from across the state and from varied disciplines who understand the current system, and who are in a position to help change it.
The first step in the process was to develop a shared understanding of our state’s collection of procedures, rules, and cultural forces that produce our existing patterns of land development. With the input from over 70 individuals, a draft “system map” was produced. This system mapping work led to identifying policy recommendations and other solutions that will produce better fiscal, economic, environmental, and quality of life outcomes for our state. This work has resulted in several initiatives, including:
- Draft legislation for a Maine Redevelopment Land Bank, which will help communities get properties back into productive reuse.
- Development Ready Communities Framework, which will inform how the State and Municipalities work together and align state funding with local projects that provide a positive return on investment.
The recommendations from this process will support important work happening at the State level, increase understanding of bigger picture issues, and identify opportunities to align efforts between sectors, municipalities, the non-profit sector, regional, and state government.
This alternative path forward is not complicated, but it is hard. It requires admitting that what we’ve been doing hasn’t always been for the long term good. It requires changing our way of thinking and doing business, and taking a different approach to building our communities. It means raising our expectations for ourselves, and holding ourselves accountable for our decisions and following-through. But if we look deep, takes cues from the past, and work together, we know we can do better. We can choose a path that makes it easier to build and reinvest in communities, at all scales, from crossroads to villages to downtowns.
What does this look like? It could mean a change in rules and new financing options that allow places like Canton, Peru, or Livermore to reinvest in their historic village centers. It could mean allowing houses to become places for retail businesses, similar to the side shops that were once more prevalent across the state, like my grandfather’s TV repair business attached to their home in Chisholm. It could mean changing the rules and financing so that places like Bridgton can accommodate business and investment in their struggling downtown, instead of seeing all new growth happen at the edges of town. It could mean reducing mandates for downtown parking so more productive and valuable activities can happen in the places where we’ve already made financial investments in infrastructure. It could mean embracing rural transportation like popular side by side ATVs and snowmobiles to support short trips to super-local businesses activities.
COVID-19 has made the world feel smaller and closer to home again. It’s perhaps helped many people see their communities differently, maybe a bit more how we used to see them - as extensions of our family, the center of our work lives, places to wander and explore, our home and our safe place. It’s also made us realize perhaps, in case we’d forgotten, how lucky we are to live in Maine. And maybe now is just the right time to rethink what it means to be caretakers of this place, and take greater responsibility for how we shape it and what we deliver to the next generation.
We have an incredible need right now to find broader communities of people, to overlook minor differences and build bigger coalitions, to work together with neighbors to find a path forward that we generally agree is good for our communities and our state.
Planners are uniquely positioned in this moment to engage in conversation and work in their communities and to take a critical leadership role by working with town leaders. It is our job as planners to be at the center of this work, to convene people and reimagine how we grow, how we evolve, how we leave a built and natural legacy that allows us to deeply feel the unique pride that comes with being from Maine. We can change the way we do business and it’s our responsibility to believe we can make meaningful change. We can solve problems in a way that responds to the best of what we’ve been and the best of what we want to become. We can be a state that is both nostalgic and forward thinking, traditional and innovative, prideful and welcoming, careful and risk-taking.
Maine has a chance to work ground up through the complex fabric of our communities, regional governments, non-profits, and state to find a path toward a more a local, scrappy, frugal, tough, independent, and caring future. It means listening and making many small bets that directly help people who live in Maine. It means intentionally rebuilding and reinvesting in our communities and giving everyone a glimpse of a future to believe in.
Build Maine is asking towns, cities, regional councils of governments, non-profits, professional groups, and individuals to sign the Resolution for Community Reinvestment as well as review and provide comments on draft policy recommendations as we continue to move forward. It's time to reinvest in Maine.
Kara Wilbur is a planner and community-based developer. Kara was an original founder of Build Maine and has dedicated significant time to building relationships with people from across the state to find better ways to invest in our local communities and people. Prior to development, Kara worked as a national and regional planning consultant, collaborating with communities to develop strategic comprehensive plans, form-based codes, street improvement plans, and strategies to solve local problems with limited resources.