Eleven Shovel Ready Principles to Live By

June 1, 2009

Michelle Knapik, Environment Program Director


Image title: Common Ground
Victor Raphael and Clayton Spada
This work is part of the
Common Ground digital arts collection; all art in this series carries the theme of environmental stewardship.

It is not everyday that fifteen organizations representing housing, environmental, planning and transportation sectors within New Jersey come together to talk about intersecting values, let alone craft, and agree to a set of principles that seek to guide policy and project decision making. The impetus for the collaboration is a desire to have the federal stimulus dollars that enter New Jersey contribute to sustainable development, smart growth and community building. There is also a concern that without a guiding set of principles, it will be easy to go off course and invest in shovel ready projects that are shallow in terms of long-term community benefits.

The document title speaks to mindset of the fifteen organizations:  New Jersey Common Ground Initiative: Federal Stimulus Principles (click here to read the document in its entirety). Part of the introductory text frames the comprehensive and forward-looking perspective on stimulus spending:

Today we offer a set of principles to guide stimulus spending and examples of the kinds of projects that illustrate these principles in action.  These eleven principles and examples show how our public investments can be directed to meet New Jersey’s short and long-term environmental, social, and economic needs.

To have a “value screen” for prioritizing and implementing gray and green infrastructure and development projects seems like an important breakthrough, yet the press event announcing the principles did not make any print media, and the Governor’s office has yet to meet with the leadership of these top ranking nonprofit organizations.  There seems to be a feeling that the federal stimulus train has left the station and that there is little that can be done to guide decision making.

At the same time, there are competitive state and federal grants under the stimulus package for which criteria are still being developed, so why not embrace the principles for these?  And what about taking a principled look at projects for which funding is already committed?  Is there no opportunity to tweak project designs or use of resources that will provide some assurances about positive and long-term community outcomes?

What gives here? Is there resistance to applying principled leadership to project selection?  Is there a sense that values will get in the way of “progress”?  Is a collaborative process not newsworthy because it lacks the punch of groups fighting over something?

Since the process that resulted in the principles was about a new way of operating in terms of listening, communicating, and collaborating, maybe the endorsement, adoption and utilization of the principles needs to follow a new path too.  Instead of a major newspaper headline, perhaps the distribution of the principles can go viral through grassroots organizations and local governments.  Instead of a state seal of approval, maybe city, town, borough, township and village seals of approvals will get the job done.

Imagine screening local stimulus projects through the eleven principles from the heart and soul of New Jersey’s nonprofit planning, environmental, transportation and housing leaders for “fit” or “conflict,” and then acting to implement those that fit and revise or scrap those that conflict.  Imagine the level of accountability and measurement if every local project received a thumbs-up or thumbs-down based on the principles.  In this respect, the policy train is still boarding.  It seems that the quality of the stimulus ride will be contingent upon whether we elect to stand on our principles.

How would you guide project selection related to development and infrastructure projects?  Do these eleven principles resonate with you?  If so, please let us know how you might put them to work in your community.

I also offer a note of thank to the groups that sought common ground on this issue:
American Littoral Society
Association of NJ Environmental Commissions
Clean Ocean Action
NJ Environmental Federation
Edison Wetlands Association
Housing and Community Development Network of NJ
New Jersey Audubon
New Jersey Future
New Jersey Conservation Foundation
New Jersey Highlands Coalition
Pinelands Preservation Alliance
PlanSmart NJ
Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association
Tri-State Transportation Campaign
Trust for Public Land