'They're such dinosaurs," said an acquaintance, speaking about both the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation and the proposed Albion development.
I thought she was being unduly harsh until I attended the Plan Commission meetings, studied the proposal and revisited Envision Oak Park, the village's Comprehensive Plan, published in 2014. I realized that at stake are competing visions for the future.
When the Comprehensive Plan was being developed, I was proud to serve on the citizens' working group focused on sustainability. Every topic-focused group did good work, believing its efforts would make a positive difference to the future of Oak Park. It was exciting to see so much citizen engagement.
The plan's premise, the vision, is to imagine Oak Park from the prospect of the year 2030. Sustainability — environmental, social, economic, civic — was a guiding theme for the whole, and the final document reflects this, its 14 interrelated goals encompassing all four realms in compatible, interlocking ways. The plan expresses all that is best about Oak Park, incorporating our progressive values, desire to support diversity, education, the arts, architectural integrity, and, not least, sustainable business development, while promoting environmental and human health.
Aspirational, for sure, but also, emphatically, not intended to be shelved, as so many plans are. Nope, our plan states that, "continuous use will reinforce the role of the 'Plan' as the playbook and official policy guide for the community."
The Park District of Oak Park gets this. They clearly take both the plan and its vision of the future very seriously. Improving green space, reducing pesticide use, adding native plant gardens, installing solar panels, and offering programs that enhance environmental awareness and human social and physical health: It's easy to draw direct correlations between the plan's goals and their actions.
A real jewel in their crown, of which all Oak Park residents can be proud, is the Environmental Education Center in Austin Gardens, designed, as park district representatives repeatedly stated during Plan Commission meetings, to educate the public about environmental sustainability and serve as a model for sustainability improvements that can be made by homeowners.
Thus on the one hand, we have Albion, enabled by OPEDC and village government, pushing for a development that would directly impede one of our community's best efforts to implement the Comprehensive Plan. Their approach seems so counter to plan goals and so backward-looking in terms of cultural assumptions, context sensitivity and genuinely sustainable design that it really does seem dinosaur-ish, particularly in light of the culturally fraught, environmentally damaged, climate-change-impacted future that is already upon us.
On the other, we have, besides the park district, numerous local green and social organizations and thousands of individual Oak Park citizens who are looking to, and in multiple ways preparing for, the future reflected in the plan. This future not only will require sustainability and resiliency adjustments in the face of real and increasing challenges, but also could bring environmental, social, economic and civic rewards — if we continue the difficult work of implementing the plan in earnest, without undoing material progress already made.
There is an old Native American saying: "The world is as sharp as the edge of a knife." Navigating wisely requires courage, discernment, and foresight, based on a broader, systems-based understanding of reality than that provided by simplistic self-interest.
Oak Park has an exemplary vision and a very-well-thought-out Comprehensive Plan. The Albion project, if approved and built, would betray the trust of thousands of residents and short-sell our community's future.
Will our elected and appointed leaders have the wisdom to listen to engaged citizens and the courage and discernment to take the good, as opposed to the seemingly expedient, decision?
Adrian Ayres Fisher is an Oak Park resident and member of the commission that designed the 2014 Envision Oak Park Comprehensive Plan.
Answer Book 2017
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