Carbondale Spring is a visionary development proposal for the city of Carbondale, Illinois. This proposal serves as both a local response to the global climate crisis and as a solution to many other challenges and needs facing Carbondale on a local and regional level.
In this post, I’ll explore several important questions about Carbondale Spring.
What is Carbondale Spring? Why do I support it? What can we do to make this vision and plan a reality? What can people in other cities learn from Carbondale Spring?
The local election coming up on April 2 will have a major impact on how this plan unfolds. If you are a Carbondale resident who supports this plan, please vote for candidates who support Carbondale Spring and help spread the word through social media and canvassing.
What is Carbondale Spring?
The full Carbondale Spring proposal (PDF) offers a detailed explanation of what problems it seeks to address, what methods it uses to address them, and how it all ties together into an overarching vision and plan for a new direction for the city’s development.
The short explanation is that Carbondale Spring responds to some of the city’s most pressing needs in a way that is compassionate, empowering, and supportive of environmental justice and climate justice. It does this primarily through four major initiatives: food autonomy, care workers, a cooperative business fund, and a renewable energy fund.
The food autonomy initiative involves growing much more of our food locally by transforming vacant city lots into urban permaculture farms. This would be a great way to reduce our city’s carbon footprint because a significant portion of our food would be coming from within city limits rather than hundreds of miles away. It would also make our city more resilient to disruptions in our access to outside food supplies: political disruptions like government shutdowns (which particularly threaten food programs like SNAP); economic disruptions like growing poverty, unemployment, and rising prices; and ecological and climate disruptions in other regions.
The care workers initiative would create a social safety net in our city to provide or connect people with the resources they need to make it through moments of crisis. Part of this initiative would involve setting up a full-time non-police emergency number and a team of paid care workers with appropriate training to respond to those calls. It would also provide people living in poverty with assistance getting their needs met overall. This emphasis on providing additional care workers is important both for the sake of meeting current needs and for the sake of preparing for any political, economic, and environmental/climate disruptions. If we have an influx of climate refugees, or if people in Southern Illinois have their housing, livelihoods, etc. destroyed by flooding, storms, etc., we need to be ready.
The cooperative business fund would help local businesses transition from an owner-operated structure to a worker-owned co-op structure. This would meet two pressing needs currently facing our city: (a) numerous popular businesses that are (or soon will be) up for sale without a prospective buyer; and (b) numerous workers who would like to own and operate their own businesses, and could provide great services to the Carbondale community in doing so, but don’t have the startup capital. This worker co-op approach to supporting local businesses, living wage employment, and a resilient local economy is based on models that have been successful elsewhere and could easily be applied here with some funding and technical assistance for the transition.
The renewable energy fund would support local households and businesses in transitioning to solar energy. The climate benefits of such a transition are obvious: systemically replacing fossil fuel energy with solar energy would reduce our city’s carbon footprint significantly. There would also be several important economic and climate justice benefits: excellent return on investment over the lifetime of solar systems; free or affordable access to clean energy for participating low-income households; and the creation of numerous high-quality local jobs in the clean energy sector.
Why do I support Carbondale Spring?
The short answer to this question is that I truly believe that Carbondale Spring has the potential to change life in Carbondale significantly for the better. In over twenty-two years of living in Carbondale, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a plan for social change that was this proactive, comprehensive, and pragmatic, all at once. There are still plenty of details to work out, but the overarching vision and plan addresses many concerns that a Carbondale development plan ought to address, and uses research and examples to point to how we can make this broad progressive vision for our city a detailed and practical reality.
The slightly longer answer is that Carbondale Spring operates at a whole nother level that most approaches to community development don’t even consider. Its solutions to the challenges facing our city are deeply rooted in the concept of synergy, or what permaculturists might call “stacking functions.” Each element of the system — each of these four initiatives — serves as a response to several concerns and needs simultaneously.
The food autonomy initiative helps to address hunger, economic justice, and climate justice by increasing local community food production. The care worker initiative addresses many existing social justice concerns while also serving as a pre-emptive response to the very likely rise in need for a social safety net due to climate change and other economic and political challenges in our nation and world. The cooperative business fund may help save several popular local businesses, while also shifting our local economy in a direction that’s more conducive to living wages, worker empowerment, success rate for new and existing businesses, and overall quality of life for workers in Carbondale. The renewable energy fund simultaneously serves as a rapid response to the climate crisis and also a rapid improvement of the economic realities for many local homeowners and businesses. We install more solar; our power bills go down; our carbon footprint goes down; everybody wins, including people far beyond our city limits.
This is a synergistic approach to community development at its finest. All of the other approaches to development that I’ve seen — luring in corporate chains, lowering taxes in certain areas, raising regressive taxes like sales and fuel taxes, making much-needed infrastructure improvements downtown but doing so in isolation from other environmental and social justice concerns, etc. — seem backward and inefficient by comparison. The solutions provided by Carbondale Spring operate at a whole nother level of community development. They address multiple ethical concerns — more food security for low-income people and the community generally, compassionate responses to crisis intervention, more empowerment for workers, more clean energy, climate resiliency, etc. — while also providing an economic boost to the city and region. This runs contrary to the stereotype that social and environmental values can only be served through some form of economic deprivation. Instead, Carbondale Spring offers a vision for how living by our social and environmental values can also lead to a great economic and cultural renewal in Carbondale, the likes of which may inspire other cities in our region and beyond to follow suit.
All four of these community-led (and possibly municipally-funded) initiatives simply make sense. I don’t anticipate much objection to the plan on that broad front. What I do anticipate, though, is that some of the most vocal public objections to Carbondale Spring will be concerns about the proposed method of funding: namely, the significant decrease in our city’s police budget.
I can understand and sympathize with concerns on that front. No one wants to see Carbondale become a place where more violence, theft, etc. becomes common due to a decrease in police presence in our community. To those who are concerned about this aspect of the plan, I would like to point out three important responses to that particular concern.
First of all, the detailed Carbondale Spring proposal astutely asks the reader to consider the merit of these four initiatives independent of their funding method. If you don’t like the proposed funding method, then feel free to propose another funding method. If these four initiatives will really bring the benefits that we anticipate, then we simply must find a way to fund them. This is more than just an effort to improve Carbondale; this is a visionary plan that may serve as a model for other cities in our region, nation, and world to follow.
Second, the plan presents a strong argument that Carbondale is currently over-policed. If you compare our levels of police funding to national averages for cities of similar size, our funding is way out of proportion to our population, even without considering the added policing provided by campus police. Now, I’ve heard some arguments that police funding levels should be based on the number of calls the departments receive, not the population. A consulting firm has allegedly informed city officials that this higher rate of policing is necessary for this city. But the conclusions of a private consulting firm shouldn’t be accepted without question. They should be reviewed, discussed, and rejected if necessary. To me, their assessment seems to have its roots in an uncritical law-and-order approach to solving social problems. Shouldn’t cities of similar sizes have similarly-size security institutions? If a city has a higher call rate, crime rate, etc., shouldn’t that be addressed through social service programs as much as possible, to address the root causes of poverty and crime, rather than sending in armed enforcers to resolve conflict situations with additional use of force?
That leads into my third response to any concerns about reducing police funding in our city. Even if you don’t believe that Carbondale is currently over-policed, the care workers initiative should speak to your concerns about reducing levels of police funding. Really, an increasing number of calls that police are expected to answer are not in fact situations that are well-suited to a security professional’s skill set and training. Wellness checks, mental health concerns, drug addiction, domestic disputes, complaints about homeless people in residential or business areas — these are all situations that a care workers can be specifically trained to respond to. They are more in line with the work of a care worker than the work of a law enforcer. This is not to say that there are no situations whatsoever where an armed security professional response is called for. I do personally see a value in having some such security institution on hand to respond to particularly violent individuals and situations. However, I also see a value in transferring as much of that work as possible to care workers. Locally, our relatively high rate of police funding offers us an uncommon opportunity to make that transition. Whether you see that as a matter of reducing an excessive police budget, or simply shifting an appropriate funding level from one agency (the police) to another (care workers), the end result is more or less the same.
What can people do to make Carbondale Spring a reality?
The two simple actions that people can take to support Carbondale Spring are getting out the vote and participating in the process of working out the details.
Voting for candidates who support Carbondale Spring will make this vision and plan become a reality much more quickly and effectively. There are a growing number of people who are committed to working on this regardless of the outcome of the elections. However, electing Carbondale Spring-friendly candidates provides an obvious pathway to securing funding for the four initiatives.
Another important way to get involved is by participating in upcoming meetings to flesh out the details and shape the future direction of the plan. Carbondale Spring as it is currently outlined is the result of conversations, research, and visioning conducted by numerous long-time Carbondale residents who have been trying to figure out for years how to make good things happen in our city and region. I’ve been out of the loop on that conversation lately, so I wasn’t a part of the specific process that led to this Carbondale Spring proposal. But that conversation and visioning process is ongoing, and all of us who live in and around Carbondale, and care about this city’s future, are welcome and encouraged to participate.
What can other cities learn from Carbondale Spring?
To some extent, this remains to be seen. If this plan is never fully realized, then there may not be much that other cities can learn from it. But if it is partially or fully realized — which I believe it will be — then there is a great deal that other cities can learn.
Carbondale Spring offers the city of Carbondale a rare opportunity to become a regional leader — and possibly a national or international leader — in an innovative approach to community development. If we actually make this happen, and it goes well, other cities can follow suit. The particular details will vary from city to city, but aspects of these four initiatives, and the overall vision they entail, will surely be applicable for many cities seeking to respond to their local needs while also doing something about broader social justice and climate justice concerns.
Whatever other cities do or don’t learn from it, I’m excited about the prospect of Carbondale becoming a better city, both in terms of its community health and quality of life, and in terms of its contributions to environmental and climate justice. I’m excited to live in Carbondale at this time and hopeful about where we may be headed as a city. And it’s been a long time since I could say that. Let’s take Carbondale Spring seriously, work out the details together, and do what we can to make this vision and plan a reality.