Can Guilderland help save the planet? Maybe if we plan it.

We are living in a time when we have the power to ruin the world as we’ve known it — or preserve and restore it.

Floods are ravaging Kentucky; fires are burning in California. What has this to do with those of us living in Altamont — in Guilderland, New York?


We have a unique history here because of where we live but we also are connected to the rest of the planet. Climate change is caused by each of us and affects the rest of the world.

The town of Guilderland is gearing up now to update its comprehensive plan. That’s an opportune time to look at the town’s past and envision its future.

We at The Enterprise have been telling the story of Guilderland since 1884. In last week’s paper, our top front-page story was reporter Sean Mulkerrin’s look at the Capital District Regional Planning Commission study that examined change in town in the last 30 years.

Inside, we devoted two pages to an essay by historian Bruce W. Dearstyne, who lives in Guilderland, and had a career heading the state archives.

He started with a page-long tour of historic sites in town and then asked why that history matters. We liked his answers.

History, Dearstyne said, “helps us get our bearings at a time of rapid change and transformation. Guilderland’s population is growing, the demographic makeup changing, and the nature of jobs and the economy of the town is evolving as more and more activity moves online.”

Dearstyne liked the pictures we chose to illustrate his words that had people in them. History, he says, is about people and their stories.

One of the pictures was of opening day at the Altamont Fair. The fair is one of just a handful of institutions in Altamont that has survived since the 1800s. Others are churches, the funeral home, the schools, and the newspaper.

The Altamont Fair picture showed women in long dresses and fancy bonnets, men in suits and straw hats — all of them white people — and rows upon rows of carriages with horses patiently standing by.

Now of course both men and women wear jeans to the fair, the visitors come from a wide variety of ethnicities and races, and they arrive by car. 

Yet, with all those changes, something endures, something causes people to gather once a year at the fairgrounds.

Another picture showed the Cobblestone Schoolhouse in Guilderland Center, with the schoolmaster watching the boys at play outdoors. 

Just a short way from that one-room schoolhouse is a sprawling modern high school built after the district centralized in the 1950s, and expanded since. Five district elementary schools, each with many rooms, still have children playing outdoors — on playground equipment, some built to accommodate those with disabilities.

Unlike the children who walked to the Cobblestone Schoolhouse, the children today are largely bused to their schools.. Inside, learning still goes on but chalk and backboards have given way to interactive Promethean boards and, in the upper grades, every student has a digital device to aid in learning.

Even the funeral home has undergone changes we learned when we wrote about Altamont’s in the midst of the pandemic shutdown. It had started in the 1800s as a furniture-making shop, which also produced caskets and in turn became an undertaking business.

Like so much else that was speeded along by COVID disruptions, trends in funeral customs have changed. Do-it-yourself family gatherings — with some people attending remotely — have often replaced large church funerals. Fewer bodies are embalmed for viewing as more people choose cremation.

And, yes, the newspaper has changed, too. Residents still seek the news of their community but, more often than not, they don’t wait for it to arrive once a week in paper form. They check their cell phones for our daily newsletter. They listen to our podcasts as they go about their busy lives. Or they research breaking news and historic events covered on our pages through their computers.

So what has all this got to do with planning for our future in Guilderland?

Institutions that remain viable have changed with the times. But they not only reflect the time in which they currently exist; rather, they draw from the past — knowing what attracts crowds to a fair, providing comfort to the bereaved, schooling youth for the challenges they will face, or providing the news that empowers a community to understand itself and elect its leaders — to create a vibrant future.

What we heard most often in Guilderland as we visited farmers’ markets and parks to survey residents on questions to ask town candidates running for election last November was they were missing a sense of community.

This is no doubt true of many suburban towns. The advent of the car and later America’s highway system allowed people to spread out, each with their own lot, creating what planners now call sprawl.

This sense of isolation — each family in its own fiefdom, as it were — has been exacerbated in the digital era and even more in the age of coronavirus as people tend to relate to one another through their screens, creating silos of like-minded people and polarizing a nation. Gone are many of the fraternal organizations that once brought people together.

Many churches have lost congregants. Volunteer firefighters in town persist in their service despite faltering numbers. Guilderland has replaced its Western Turnpike volunteer ambulance crew with a paid professional one.

We urge those selecting and serving on the committee that will chart Guilderland’s future to think about what would both enhance the town’s sense of community as well as help quell climate change. The two are not unrelated.

The polarization in the United States, unlike, say, in European countries, has prevented us from moving forward in a unified way to combat global warming. Saving our Earth shouldn’t be up for political debate.

The lack of a cohesive federal response means local government becomes even more important.

We’ve already advocated on this page for the importance of encouraging the farming that is left in town, and we’ve commended Guilderland for its emphasis on parks and pathways and its plan to grant tax breaks for those willing to leave their land undeveloped.

But the commitment needs to be bigger and more central than that.

Those planning for Guilderland’s future need to put people at the center.

If community is what residents crave, how do you build a community center? Have public transportation run so residents can set aside their cars? Encourage housing that would attract a variety of people with different incomes? Make paths for cyclists and walkers central so people can get to where they shop or work without a car?

And why not incorporate Climate Smart principals into the plan for Guilderland’s future? The town has already passed a resolution and registered for the program.

As the pledge adopted by Guilderland states, “The effects of climate change will endanger our infrastructure, economy and livelihoods; harm our farms, orchards, ecological communities, and wildlife populations; spread invasive species and exotic diseases; reduce drinking water supplies; and pose health threats to our citizens.”

The resolution that Guilderland has already taken requires inventorying emissions and setting goals for a climate action plan; decreasing energy use and shifting to renewable energy; implementing climate-smart land-use and climate-smart materials management; supporting a green, innovative economy; and informing and inspiring the public.

Environmental health — curbing emissions of greenhouse gasses and encouraging a green economy — should be a central tenet of Guilderland’s updated plan. Homeowners and businesses alike should be encouraged to landscape with native plants and not use valuable water to maintain manicured lawns.

Already, it will take many future generations to capture the carbon we humans have so heedlessly loosed into our atmosphere. Each of us at every level needs to do our part to preserve human and animal life on this planet.

We were moved when a volunteer firefighter in May told the Guilderland Town Board that his district was too pricey for firefighters to afford to live there. These young men wanted to move out of their parents’ homes but couldn’t afford to.

“Right now, there’s not a lot of apartments or housing for us younger guys when we move out of our parents’ houses ….,” said Eric Wells. “We lost two members who had to move out because their rent went up $200,” said Wells.

The study by the Regional Planning Commission showed that Guilderland residents are among the best educated and best compensated in the area, with well over half having earned either a bachelor’s, graduate, or professional degree.

Let’s use that brain power to build a just community, not one that excludes the very people willing to dedicate themselves to literally saving our homes if they burn.

As the world burns and floods around us, we need to build a community with a resilient future.

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