Not long ago a reporter called me. She had gotten word at some conference that interesting things were happening in Randolph County, West Virginia. She heard that the Randolph County Housing Authority staff had received HUD community challenge grants and were using these and other matching funds to embark on a variety of sustainability and livability initiatives. They had conducted a transit study, a housing study, and some neighborhood mobility studies; studies I had worked on and thus her call to me. Still, she asked, what's so special or different about this place. It was a logical "so what" reporter question.
"Where do you live?" I inquired.
"Have you ever been to West Virginia?"
"Sorry, no," she replied.
Ah, where to begin? She sorely needed some context. Rural Randolph County is in the heart of the Allegheny highlands, a 1000 sq mile county, with 28,000 people - 8000 of which live in the City of Elkins. It is rural, and not near any major metropolitan area. It faces many challenges that other Appalachian communities do, poverty, lack of economic opportunities. Many industries are natural resource based, wood, coal, agriculture, tourism and recreation. Like many Appalachian communities, the people are resilient, proud, hard-working and possess a hearty I-can-do-this individualism. Survivability is a more common theme than sustainability.
Where Seldom is Heard
From a planning perspective the county is still somewhat like the wild west. A comprehensive plan was attempted a few years back, but the process was aborted due to some outspoken local opposition. Zoning exists in the city, not the county. There are no planners on staff, only code officials, assessors and administrators. The efforts to put Randolph on a path to sustainability (view the Vimeo video below for their own words), I argued, is in itself a remarkable 'so what' difference. They are operating in an environment that is traditionally hostile to planning and so far have had positive results, and that itself should partly answer her so what question. But there is more.
They are thinking about the aging population, about housing needs, about how people will get around, and whether can they walk, ride bike or take transit. Is housing where it needs to be? Is it near services, work and amenities. Are neighborhoods accessible to destinations? Is the housing stock diverse enough to allow for youth to stay, for older people to live, for employees of potential companies to find housing? They are thinking about the land use, housing and transportation systems and framework. They are talking with people in the community. They are doing all this, and have the general support of local elected officials, and have generated much enthusiasm.
Good Article, But Here's My Take
In my estimation she did a good job with her article. She did her homework. She found a hook, namely the Silver Tsunami (link to article) aspect of how they are wrestling with plans to cope for a fast aging population. The article is informative. The video (below) produced by AmeriCorps volunteer with RCHA, is the story in their own words, and worth the view. But my personal take away from this effort is that the RCHA staff are taking initiative. They are making a lot happen with little, and are embracing a holistic approach to sustainability that looks beyond just housing availability and affordability. They are working nimbly and humbly and are managing to move things forward for Randolph County, and are taking a long-term view of both issues and solutions. They are thinking in a proactive and integrated fashion, and that for me is the "big deal" answer here.