Last week, Katie and I visited three coastal communities in South Carolina and Georgia making great strides in the field of sustainability. We had a chance to see firsthand how each community uniquely expresses itself using the same basic palette of maritime forest, marshland, and ocean dunes. 

In each community, sustainability leaders eagerly pointed out to us their native wildlife and described the strategies they use to ensure peaceful coexistence of humans and native species. As part of the Atlantic Flyway, birding opportunities abound on these islands, and they have set aside nesting areas for pileated woodpeckers, osprey, wood storks, snow geese, and so much more. Residents and visitors also enjoy sightings of dolphins, alligators, horseshoe crabs, and turtles, making these places truly feel wild. I saw alligators (for the first time!) in every community: one floating in Hilton Head Island’s garden pond at Town Hall, two babies in the Camp St. Christopher’s Herpetarium on Seabrook Island, and several adults sunning on lagoon banks on Skidaway Island, including one visible from a Club dining room.

Katie and I met Joellen at The Landings community on Skidaway Island to discuss how the Sustainable Communities Program could build on their many resident-driven environmental and social initiatives. Previously they completed an environmental assessment and a few projects for AI’s Green Neighborhoods Program, but the Community Association wants to further their commitment to sustainability. They have been working with Joellen for years, and all six of their golf courses are certified. We had the great opportunity to see short presentations by 15 community groups who work on everything from the turtle hatchery to the community garden. I explained how a sustainability planning process will help them to better communicate about their assets and values to community residents (prospective and current) as well as help coordinate existing initiatives. After the presentations, I received many comments that residents and Board members were surprised how much they learned – either about community projects they didn’t know existed or aspects of sustainability they hadn’t considered before.

Being in the region also offered an opportunity to check in with two communities that are in Stage Two of the Sustainable Communities Program: Hilton Head Island and Seabrook Island. A visit by AI is always a good time to bring new committee members up to speed on past accomplishments and make a case for the benefits to pursuing sustainability. It also gives us a chance to connect members from our golf course and Green Lodging programs with the local planning process to draw more of the community into conversations about goals, priorities, and projects. By fostering an ethic of sustainability in the region, AI is helping these communities contribute to an overall sustainable regional economy and the protection of important coastal ecosystems.

Following the lead created by initial developers of Hilton Head and Seabrook, such as Charles Fraser, town staff and dedicated volunteers are responsible for many innovative policies and projects that have created the beautiful atmosphere you see in these special communities. Strongly enforced tree preservation policies ensure that live oaks dripping with Spanish moss stretch over most neighborhood streets and beach boardwalks. Even the Walmart had integrated its building and parking lot into the existing landscape. 

Now that green infrastructure and water conservation are catching on everywhere, it seems like no big deal that these communities used parkland for stormwater management and reuse community wastewater on golf courses – but these were cutting edge strategies when they were originally implemented.

While each of these communities faces its own unique challenges, they are all seeking to create more sustainable economies based on their place-based identities. With more tailored promotional branding, they will be able to attract the type of resident who will value the natural beauty and not expect to knock down every tree on their lot, have a non-native lawn, or avoid wildlife interactions. These communities offer a variety of housing stock that encourages a diversity of income levels and recreation options that include golf, biking, kayaking, and birding, drawing families looking for an active lifestyle. Recreational opportunities based on wildlife and open water in turn encourage environmentally-sensitive lifestyles.

Through the sustainability plan process, active and engaged community members will now join forces with community leadership to identify projects needed to enhance their natural and cultural assets. Check this space in the coming months to hear more about forthcoming projects at Seabrook, Skidaway, and Hilton Head such as converting malls to open air shopping, supporting new farmers markets, and installing solar panels on community centers, just to name a few.

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