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The Importance of Integration

August 19, 2009

integrationWhen working on anything, it is imperative to have a view of the end goal. This, however, can be extremely difficult when working for ideals like community involvement, agricultural sustainability, or environmental stewardship.  What’s the goal when advocating for such causes?  Every citizen adding input to every decision made on every community action, or the complete removal of pesticides and fertilizer from the agricultural industry, or bringing about an end to every environmental hazard that has cropped up in the last hundred years?  Certainly not.  When working for a cause, it is very rarely an all or nothing affair; concessions are made, there are boundaries and conflicting ideals that must not be crossed or sullied.

The difficulties that arise because of these issues have led to the parceling of environmental and community issues into different sectors.  By dividing large issues into more manageable small ones, it can be easier to handle difficult situations.  As a result, the Clean Air Act of 1970 focused solely on air issues, wildlife was managed in a different sector along with land management, water quality was given standards through the Clean Water Act, city planning was left to city planners and local governments, and agricultural issues were covered by the USDA.  This system has worked very well in many instances: there is less lead in the air, many waterways are cleaner, hundreds of endangered species have been saved from extinction, cities continue to function and grow, and America is able to produce enough food for itself and other counties.  Divvying responsibility between agencies has made clear boundaries and defined who is responsible for what, but it has also led to a lack of integration and dreadful inefficiencies.

With the advent of complex Third Generation environmental issues like climate change and loss of biodiversity the segmented approach to environmental policy has shown its true colors.  Likewise, as communities begin to face interrelated issues in all sectors like transportation, food deserts, fluctuating energy prices, urban sprawl, industrial agriculture, and a depletion of social networks, the importance of integration becomes apparent.  All of these issues are comprised of a number of small but difficult components.  Transportation issues alone are affected by city planning, zoning laws, highway development, walkability, the presence of bike paths, the number of residents willing to share their vehicles, the affordability of a bus system, the location of jobs, the size of goods that require transport, and the average distance every citizen wants to travel annually.  Without all of the movers and shakers in these areas, any transportation network built for an area is incomplete, and often as a result, after a road network is constructed, it needs to be enhanced to provide room for a new stakeholder at extra cost.

Since environmental groups often cover such a huge range of issues, integration is often imperative to successfully advance towards the larger goal of sustainability.  This means that when working on a local foods initiative, the farmers and the foodies need to be sitting at the table alongside the city planners, the business owners, the teachers, the legislators, and anybody else who wants to add their two cents.  Although this will make for longer meetings, it will also ensure that the plan that forms is one that is at least semi-acceptable to all stakeholders and can ensure that a plan is actually implemented instead of being held up later because of unforeseen environmental hazards or zoning restrictions.

Bringing more parties to the discussion table can also bring more support later if a good plan is formulated. Also, having experts from different fields present from the beginning will help put the project in a larger context.  It will help develop an idea of how community involvement and public transportation will be affected by a Sunday farmers market.  This developed understanding keeps a larger picture in mind and can eliminate alienation of would-be partners.   More partners and less alienation is a wonderful thing for a movement like environmentalism which is too often associated with radical and harmful behavior.  What’s more, integrated planning ensures that a plan is well thought out and complete before being presented to a city council, town board, or state representative and increases the likelihood of success.

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