We need more talking the talk from our leaders

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Eye from Albany
August 2002

We need more talking the talk from our leaders
By Paul M. Bray

Can the walk be successfully walked without the talk being talked? Increasingly in New York State when it comes to environment and planning, the powers that be avoid the talk and try to cover their bases by taking just enough of the walk.

Summer is a good time to take a look at some of the forces at work that determine how state government functions and power is exercised.

Public policy objectives like controlling sprawl development, revitalizing our traditional urban areas through heritage development and protecting our environment get packaged under titles like “managed growth”, “smart growth”, “heritage development” and “sustainable development”. A buzz is created by interested professional and advocacy groups and sometimes, like Governor Parris N. Glendening of Maryland did with smart growth, someone takes the bull by the horn. Through talking the talk, articulating a vision and following it up with laws and programs, they become the exemplar.

Look at New York State and you will see what has to be a very conscious avoidance of getting out there at all on the talk or vision thing even when innovative actions are taken by the Governor and the Legislature.

Let me give you some examples. Have you heard much discussion of managed growth, smart growth, heritage areas or sustainable development coming from the Governor or Legislature? Despite the fact that New York State has the first and most innovative statewide heritage area system in the nation, has invested more than $30 million in 17 heritage areas and has had the State’s legislation copied by the State of Maryland as part of its smart growth program, only the immediate players in New York have any idea what a heritage area is. The Governor rarely talks about heritage areas.

While Senator Rath and Assemblyman Hoyt brought smart growth up on the radar, the Governor sucked most of the oxygen out of the air by giving this sprawl control and urban revitalization effort the vague moniker of “quality communities”. Yes, there was a task force and recommendations and planning grants, at least enough to claim that the State was on the band wagon. But does anyone really know or think New York has anything resembling a meaningful smart growth program when it comes to fostering regionalism or using state funding as a disincentive for sprawl?

Next consider sustainable development. A global conference on the subject is being held in South Africa in August and sustainable development is increasing coming to stand for matters including environmental performance by businesses beyond compliance with required regulation, meeting energy needs with renewables like wind and solar, moving to a hydrogen economy and preserving forests, biodiversity and endangered species. In June a hundred business people paid more than $1,500 to attend on one day conference on sustainable development in New York City sponsored by the Conference Board, a business research association.

One could say that New York State is getting its act together when it comes to sustainable development. The State has a green building tax credit, significant open space and farmland protection activity, increasing steps to foster energy renewables, recognition for good corporate environmental performance and a climate change task force. But neither the Governor nor the Legislature has tied this together by articulating a vision for a sustainable New York policy or done any noticeable talking about the subject.

So what does it matter if the right actions are being taken without talking the talk or crowing about it? While actions can speak louder than words, the State is paying a price for not having a vision expressed and goals set in forward looking areas like smart growth and sustainability.

In a State with the diversity of New York, leaders need to talk the talk and articulate a vision in order to direct, align and inspire action on the part of the wide range of its citizenry and organizations. In the words of business writer John P. Kotter, author of Leading Change, “Without an appropriate vision, a transformation effort can easily dissolve into a list of confusing, incompatible, and time-consuming projects that go in the wrong direction or nowhere”.

Failure to talk the talk or articulate far sighted visions in New York is not a democratic or republican party thing, it applies across the board when it comes to the exercise of power in our time. It reflects the over riding concern with holding on to power whether in the executive or legislature that over rides seeking beneficial change or reform. Keeping matters under control including expectations comes first in State government. Going forward is a matter of picking and poking at undertaking change with the foot lightly on the brake.

If we are going to get sprawl under control and assure a prosperous future for the State’s many traditional cities and villages, our governmental leaders are going to have to get out there with creditable and articulate talk and vision to change the in grained patterns that have driven sprawl since the end of World War II. The same applies to achieving sustainability goals to create a viable economy that integrates environmental and job needs. A robust modern economy depends increasing high environmental quality.

Challenging times require effective leadership talking the talk as well as walking the walk.

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, an Albany based environmental and planning firm. His e-mail address is PMBRAY@aol.com.