Whether we realize it or not, city planners rule our lives.
They design the streets we drive and the homes we live in. They, along with developers, architects and city officials, wield enormous power over what the landscape that we encounter every time we step outside.
But what if young people had a say in what they’d like to see happen in their community and encourage city planners to implement that vision?
On Thursday, a group of students at Casa Grande High School will do just that, presenting their plans for a more walkable, greener and community-minded city to local planners and others involved in shaping Petaluma’s urban landscape.
The students’ ideas are many and include a giant community garden at the downtown SMART stop nourished with water diverted from the Petaluma River, a free bicycle program similar to the one implemented in Amsterdam, energy harnessed from the tides of the river, a new homeless shelter next to mail processing center on North McDowell and rooftop gardens that grow food for low-income families.
“Our planet is really messed up,” says Chantrelle Drake, 18 and a senior at Casa Grande. “But it’s also our choice to do something about it and we have to save it.”
Since fall, Drake and nearly 60 of her classmates in the school’s Green Careers pathway have been learning the principles of sustainability and how they could be used to improve everything from local transportation to housing and jobs.
Students worked with Planning Commissioners Curt Johansen and Alicia Kae Herries and heard from speakers like former director of parks and recreation Jim Carr, Petaluma transportation manager Joe Rye and Tanya Narath, who heads the Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy in Santa Rosa.
“The students are so far ahead from where I was in high school,” said Narath, whose organization trains leaders about sustainability issues. “They asked tough questions about developments in Petaluma, big box stores, alternative transportation and the trade offs the community is facing around those decisions. They were really engaged.”
The project was created by Todd Siders, a Casa Grande U.S. History and Government teacher who wanted to give students in his Ecological Economics class a more real-life understanding of economic principles.
“I’m not doing anything so new that it doesn’t meet the standards, but we are focusing on things that traditionally get left out of typical economics course like the environmental cost of something and looking at alternative economic indicators,” Siders said.
For simplicity’s sake, students in the class were told to disregard cost so long as their ideas were not too far-fetched. Instead Siders told them to envision what type of town they would like to see Petaluma become, then create it using the guiding principles of sustainable development.
"They are not bogged down by the bureaucracy, but are in a place that can harness anything and that’s what really puts a smile on your face," said Planning Commissioner Kae Herries. "When you sit down and listen to the students, what they say is that they want to ride their bike to school or be able to walk to more places. Their mindset is already toward sustainable communities."
Students concur that this is a project unlike any other they have ever worked on and shifted the way they look at everything from shopping for groceries to what happens to trash once it's thrown away. Some have been so inspired that they have even started their own compost bins and gardens.
“It’s refreshing to have people ask us about things like the transportation system and design and want to know our feedback,” said Alex Cardona, 18.