Column: Reflections on Developing Sustainable Communities

Column: Reflections on Developing Sustainable Communities

Arlington County is a wonderfully progressive community that I was proud to have called home for 27 years. As chief naturalist for the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and as a private citizen working with my community, I was able to discover and share the rich natural and human history of the region and to help advance the cause of sustainability through energy conservation, organic/local agriculture, and promoting a sense of place. This past May, my family and I moved to Colorado.

After a few months away, I recently visited Arlington to deliver a series of talks. One talk was on outdoor education and another on my new book, “In the Eye of the Hawk; Reflections Along the Potomac.” The third presentation suggested implications of Gaia Theory (the scientific principal of Earth as a single living system) for urban energy and agriculture.  Back home in Colorado for a few weeks, now, I’ve had the chance to contemplate my trip to Arlington and ruminate on messages I took and returned with. The following thoughts on sustainability, offered for Arlingtonians’ consideration and feedback, stem from these reflections.   

After having spent a summer in the remote Rockies and then moving to the small town of Louisville (in Boulder County), Arlington seemed like a very busy and crowded metropolis to me. Although neither Louisville nor Arlington comes close to being sustainable in terms of energy use, this fact is driven home more forcefully in an urban environment. The volume of cars, the numbers of elevators and escalators and the huge amount of building space to heat and cool all represent large sustainability challenges, and they reminded me of the profound need and opportunity for reducing our energy use. As it turns out, both Boulder County recently finished an ambitious “Sustainable Energy Plan” and Arlington County in the midst of formulating a very similar “Community Energy Plan." Arlingtonians can visit to familiarize themselves with the Arlington Community Energy Plan and to learn how to get involved. This is a world-class sustainability effort whose success will depend on how well it is understood and endorsed by citizens. Learn what this effort is all about and lend your active support. 

A sidebar to my thoughts on energy has to do with water. Arriving from the parched, arid west, I had occasion to walk along the Potomac River on a warm, humid day. The first thing this drove home with me was the paramount importance of water conservation where I live now in Colorado. However, water is a vital issue even in the seemingly water-rich Mid-Atlantic as well, both for its own sake and because of its relationship with energy. Tremendous amounts of energy are needed to treat drinking water and sewage — 4 percent of our national energy usage, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. The institute likens running a faucet for 5 minutes to lighting a 60 watt bulb for 14 hours. Thus, the impacts of water use are synonymous with the impacts of energy use — global warming and other pollution, resource depletion, mountaintop removal, and more. As important as water conservation is and will be in dry climates, it can and should be a part of the sustainability equation in Arlington as well.

Urban agriculture was another area that made a “sustainability impression” on me during my visit. The demonstration vegetable garden at Arlington Central Library had progressed beautifully since last I saw it, and I was delighted to hear more from friends and colleagues about the newly formed Urban Agriculture Task Force.  The task force, whose charge is to examine a wide variety of opportunities for expanding and improving local gardening, farming, and other local food production, is a fantastic opportunity for Arlington to advance its evolution towards a more sustainable community. As with the Community Energy plan, what comes of this group’s efforts will depend on the level of public understanding and support. I encourage Arlingtonians to find out more at  and to get involved.  

As someone who sees the well-being of my children and my community tied inextricably to how well we address the enormous resource challenges ahead of us, I’d truly like to see Arlington and Boulder Counties lead the way towards a more sustainable future. In my estimation, ownership and participation in such efforts is more likely to develop when communities of people come to see themselves — and all of humanity — as being seamless continua of Earth’s living system. This is one reason I have been a long-time advocate of Gaia Theory, the science and metaphor of a living planet, and why I came to speak in Arlington about its implications for urban energy and agriculture. Beyond traditional ecology and even “Earth System Science” (which it spawned), Gaia Theory provides a context within which all aspects of human life can be thoughtfully considered as part of the ecology of our planet. These include energy, water and food, certainly, but also our behavior and beliefs.   Through this lens of a living Earth, we can find the stories, symbols and metaphors that compel and motivate us in sustainable directions. As Arlingtonians work on their energy plan, develop strategies for local food, and explore other elements of sustainability, it would at least help — and it may be essential — to explore, discuss and develop an “Earth Ethic.” I personally look forward to continued sharing and collaboration on these topics and issues with friends and colleagues in Arlington.   

Martin Ogle was chief naturalist of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority between 1985 and 2012.  He was a member of and was a member of the Arlington Community Energy Plan Advisory Group, the Arlington County Visioning Task Force (1999-2001) and many other groups and organizations in the community.