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Mark Pena with members of Ciclistas Urbanos in Edinburg

We congratulate Julia Jorgensen and Mark Pena as the new co-chairs of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club.  By way of introduction, we’ll be running their stories about how they found their way into the Sierra Club. We talked to Mark Pena about cities, cycling, and Valley environmentalism.

What are the formative experiences that shaped you as someone who cares deeply about the environment?

My memories growing-up in the Valley are filled with a lot of time spent outdoors.  As a child, I remember my father frequently taking us hunting, fishing, hiking and camping.   I developed an even deeper appreciation for the environment through my love of gardening.  I owe this to a beloved aunt who taught me a lot about plants, trees and gardening.   She was a lifelong native of the Valley.  She grew up on a ranch near San Manuel, north Edinburg, and she imparted her wonderful love and respect for nature to me and my siblings.  I spent a lot of time outside with my aunt and through her came to appreciate the simple beauty and wonders of nature.

Which environmental issues do you find yourself engaging with most?  Why?

Over the years I have come to love and appreciate cities and urban life.  So these days, I find myself engaging most on issues of urbanism, livability and the overall sustainability of our communities.  It’s our human habitat and the environment that affects us directly each and every day of our lives.  Cities can be wonderful place and offer inhabitants with great choices and opportunities that inspire happiness and creativity.  The auto-centricity of our cities has deprived us of many of these benefits.  I believe we can create better communities, and it’s simply a matter of developing political will and strong leadership.  It’s a challenge I welcome and enjoy.

How did you come to found Ciclistas Urbanos?

In 2008 I was serving as the Chairman of the City of Edinburg’s Environment Advisory Board.  At the time, the board was exploring and formulating recommendation to make the city more bike-friendly.  Part of the solution was to encourage more cycling in the community, and one of the ideas that came about was to create an organization that could be a part of this effort and be an advocate for cycling and cycling facilities and amenities in the community.  It sounded like a fun way to achieve something positive for our community, so it was an effort I decided to take on.  The rest is history.

Talk about the role of cycling as a pro-environment choice.  What’s so great about it?

I believe cycling is a key to improving the livability of our communities.  One of the major challenges for many of our cities, especially in the U.S., is their auto-orientation.  With livability and sustainability as our goals, we’ve got to discover ways to make it easier and more fulfilling for people to get around their communities using various modes of transportation.  This not only involves automobiles, but also includes bikes, public transit, and walking – the most basic form of transportation.   A bike makes it possible to get somewhere a little faster than walking.  This is especially attractive in our cities which tend to be overly spread-out.   When a city begins to improve things for cyclists, it has a domino effect of making the community better for everyone.   Of course, aside from being a healthy and clean form of transportation, riding a bike is tremendous fun.

What role should environmentally-aware people play in local policy of the RGV?  What role do you feel like you play?

The Valley continues to experience tremendous growth.  Like most of the country, suburban sprawl is the predominant growth pattern of our communities, gobbling up precious farmland and perpetuating an unsustainable built environment which taxes both the natural and financial resources of our communities.  For the health and economic success of our region, it’s imperative that environmentally aware people play a major role in formulating the local policy of the Rio Grande Valley.  Having the fortune of educational opportunity, I feel obligated to do my part to help make a difference in our community.  Also, as a parent I feel a responsibility to impart to my children an appreciation and respect of the environment and an obligation to help improve our community for everyone.

Do you think there is a native Valley environmental ethic?  Do you think that there are shared values inherent in RGV culture that we can tap into in order to nurture that ethic and a more sustainable way of life?  What are those values and where do they come from?

Because of our ranching and agricultural history and tradition in the Valley, I’ve always felt that Valleyites have a special connection with the environment.  Even if we haven’t experience life on a farm or ranch, many of us have grandparents, parents, or other family members who have.  I do sense however that over the last 40+ years, this special connection is disappearing.  So few families and children now ever experience and develop an appreciation for nature.  For this reason, it’s important we ensure that cities include parks and other natural areas, so that people never lose this invaluable sense and connection of being a part of natural world.

What are the most hopeful things you see happening here the in the RGV?

Although growth in the Valley is posing economic and environmental challenges for our area, it has also brought about new opportunities for cities to develop better, more sustainable ways of do things.  Livability and quality of life are now greater priorities in our communities.   Brownsville, McAllen and Edinburg, the 3 largest cities in the Valley, each have active urban forestry programs.  Making streets safer for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians is a conversation happening more frequently among our local governments and transportation agencies.  Complete Streets and Road Diets, ideas which ensure that roads are designed for everyone, are now part of the vocabulary of our city leaders and transportation officials.  Cities have either adopted or are considering adopting Form Based codes to improve the quality of the built environment and make our cities more walkable and appealing.  Our public transportation systems are being expanded and offering a sustainable, alternative mode of transportation for everyone.  Wonderful things are happening, and I’m glad the Sierra Club is a part of it.

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