Monday, May 18, 2020

Ecopolis—Wesleyan and Middletown in 2050

Submitted by Miles Brooks Wesleyan, ‘20
In the current reality, it is difficult to know what the future will look like. We don’t know when quarantine will end or what life will look like on the other side. It can be disheartening, but we still have our greatest tool: our imagination.

Imagine Wesleyan’s campus and Middletown in the year 2050…

The most noticeable difference is the campus appearance. The University understands the cost and unsustainability of replanting grass every year, treating it with pesticides, and watering it multiple times a week. In the place of grass is a restored New England ecosystem with native flowers and tall grasses. There are benches and seating areas dispersed throughout the campus for folks to enjoy the sun in between classes. The plant diversity on campus brings back the natural ecosystem, including a family of endangered barn owls that roost at the top of Allbritton.

College row is a food forest. Tall sugar maple trees are tapped every winter for syrup; apple trees bloom every spring. Blueberry, blackberry, and raspberry bushes fill space under the trees. Long Lane, WildWes, and Bon-Appetite workers have converted vacant spaces into land that can feed our community. When the fruit is ripe, students can enjoy a snack between classes. Student workers pick the remaining berries and turn them into jams, juices, or dehydrated fruit for the rest of campus to enjoy year-round.

The city mandates that all roofs must have either solar panels, roof-top gardens, or rain-catchment systems. Middletown and Wesleyan run entirely from renewable energy. Wind turbines and solar fields are found on the outskirts of town and parts of campus to power the city.

Major streets around Middletown, like Main St., Washington St., and High St., have wide bike lanes and no cars. Roundabouts and yield signs replace stop lights. Down the middle of these streets, separated from the bike lanes by physical barriers, is a bus lane for the electric rail bus that connects downtown to other towns and the countryside. This transition began with the 2020 Plan for Conservation and Development, and Complete Streets along with other residents advocating for healthier and safer transit options.

Alongside the roads there are more green spaces than concrete. Oaks provide shade for pedestrians, and raised-beds allow passers-by to have a snack. In the height of summer, you can walk down Main Street and pick basil, tomatoes, and cucumbers for a free lunch. Or you can stop by one of Middletown’s many restaurants who source their food from one of the many farms in town. Community gardens thrive in the post-pandemic world because people realize how much space the city has for potential food-growth. In 2022 the city established paid community gardening positions, which assist in feeding the community and expanding the city’s green space.

Community owned businesses fill storefronts on Main Street instead of fast-food and retail. Grocery co-op’s stock their shelves with food from nearby farms and greenhouses, and sell products made by local entrepreneurs. A community clothing shop repairs and constructs clothes. A bike co-op provides everyone with materials and information to make or mend your own bike. There’s a pharmacy that carries prescriptions covered by Medicare-for-all, a recycled electronics store, and a huge art studio for creative minds to come together and make visual, performance, or digital art.

Murals made by commissioned local artists cover every open wall on campus and in the city. The city is more colorful and vibrant than any time in its history.

While most goods and services come from within Middletown’s city limits, there are some imports and exports thanks to the high-speed rail system that connects Middletown to Hartford, New Haven and beyond to New York City and Boston. The high-speed electric rail eliminates the use for Route 9. Now there is easy water-front access. Along the river there are playgrounds, outdoor concert venues, and habitat restoration sites. Since the Connecticut River has been cleaned of all major pollutants, people gather at the dock to swim every summer.

Other than external appearance, Middletown and Wesleyan make equity and representation their main focus. In an effort to reverse the gentrification effect of the University on Middletown, Wesleyan funded the construction of affordable housing on Washington and High Streets. This increases student connection to Middletown, and student groups organize health care, food delivery, and tutoring for members of the community.

The city and Wesleyan have created a Center for Restorative Justice (CRJ), where people can hear their neighbors’ experiences, settle disputes with facilitation from a neutral individual, and host after school activities for youth. The CRJ is also home to community organizing. Monthly community meetings are conducted to inform citizens of changes around the city. Every street in Middletown is required to send one representative, and that representative is responsible for communicating updates to their streets. The CRJ allows all peoples’ voices to be heard and participate in Middletown’s future planning.

The catalyst for this change in Middletown was the threat of climate change and trauma of COVID-19 that lasted throughout the 2020s. Coronavirus showed us the vulnerability essential workers, people of color, low-income citizens, and undocumented immigrants. It taught us what goods and services are necessary for survival, and those that we can do without. We realized that climate change would exacerbate similar problems in our society unless we took action. 

In the 2020s, Middletown made urban renewal and climate justice its priorities, and received grants for its ambitious ideas. Wesleyan created a fund to support the community members and used its endowment to make long term investments for student well-being (like a 100% renewable campus and more counseling staff). Together, Middletown residents and Wesleyan students came out of quarantine energized to make Middletown an ecopolis. They volunteered for local projects, advocated for laws to promote sustainability, and made changes to their behavior that set the stage for major structural and systemic change.


This future is in no way impossible. It will require all of us working together. We should include everyone in the process, and seek to equitably bolster those ideas most important to Middletown's diverse population

I encourage every reader to please leave a comment. List one thing you would like to see in the future of Middletown and Wesleyan that was not mentioned, or expand upon an idea that was brought up. Ask your questions about how we will make this happen, or if this is the most equitable way to do things. We, as residents of Middletown, have the capacity to create this future for ourselves.


Unknown said...

Way to go, Miles!!! Your vision accords with the "reevaluation of values" outlined by Juliet Schor (Wesleyan ’76) in her 2011 book "True Wealth." Her thesis boils down to the recognition that we have to live to live, not to consume. Thank you for all your contributions to Wesleyan, the COE, and Middletown during your four years!

Henry Suski said...

This article is a powerful step towards creation. You have created a vision that people can see, consider, and take action towards.

Spain, Morrocco, Portugal said...

Hi, I love this! I serve on the Conservation and Agriculture Commission in Middletown, and there are a lot of us who share the same vision. Thank you for posting this!

Brian Stewart said...

I last saw barn owls at Wesleyan in the 1990s. They roosted in the belfry atop South College, as I recall. Lit from below by reflected moonlight, they looked like ghosts.

The vision of Ecopolis Mr. Brooks has given us is appealing, and I too would like to know what others think. What is the path? Efforts such as this to forge a vibrant and resilient community are likely to be ignored in a time when calls abound to return to "normal". How can we move forward into a future that will doom efforts to return to lost times? How can a vision such as this avoid being derided by some who will label it a progressive fantasy? In my view, the fantasy is the notion that the old "normal" can stably return in an era of increasingly wrenching change. How can a meeting of minds be hammered out?

Luke said...

Miles: this was excellent, and all possible to accomplish. I think to me the biggest thing that stands out to me is the role that the University must play in being a part of Middletown, one that encourages equitable growth rather than using its financial power to seemingly bend the city to its will. Investing in youth centers rather than pulling funding, installing alternative energy systems, and creating an environment that appreciates the biodiversity of New England, rather than harmful, and in my opinion boring, green lawns. We must change the way we think about space and those around us, and this is a great example of how to do so.

Luke said...

Miles: this was excellent and inspiring. Thank you for writing. I think to me the biggest thing that sticks out in your piece is Wesleyan's role in Middletown. Too often, the university uses its financial power to bend the city to its will, rather than being just another part of the city. The university must invest in all aspects of equitable city life like youth centers, renewable energy systems, and affordable housing, instead of pulling funding from places like Green St. It must understand that investing in Middletown in the right way is investing in a better future for the school. Wesleyan must create an environment that appreciates the biodiversity of New England rather than the harmful, and in my opinion boring green lawns. The City and the University have the means of implementing the changes you imagine, and it must happen sooner rather than later.