The Island Plan wraps up its look at specific aspects of the Vineyard’s future by focusing on the human side, the social environment. A forum on April 30 will look at some challenges facing the people of the Island and how we can best adjust to changing circumstances. The focus is not on specific services or facilities, but more on how community character, health and human services, education, and arts and culture affect the Vineyard as a whole, and how we should plan for them in the future.
Vineyard life reflects small-town America. It is marked by strong community connections, a high level of public involvement and empowerment, strong attachment to the land and sea, and a special relation between year-round and seasonal residents. For many, the Island is a refuge from the mainland’s commercialism, crime, and values. Behind the rural façade is a community of great sophistication.
But concerns have been raised about community changes, such as increased polarization by income, the threatened loss of the middle class, and the decrease in the number of families with children. The median age already surpasses the commonwealth’s by four years, and by 2020, the year-round population between the ages of 60 and 70 will triple; it could grow even more with seasonal residents retiring here.
How can we maintain the Vineyard’s strong sense of inclusiveness, the economic continuum, and increase understanding among groups?
With respect to health and human services, the Vineyard is well served with a range of facilities and entities that provide high quality services. Can the Vineyard achieve greater wellness in the broader sense, to become a healthy community?
This depends on individual lifestyles and behavior, on interpersonal relationships within families and the community at large, and on the quality of the community’s environment.
Poverty, mental illness and substance abuse incident rates here exceed levels in much of the commonwealth. The low population density leads to heavy car use, less walking, and means that many people live in isolated situations, making it more difficult to socialize and to get help in an emergency. The aging population will need more services, including home-based ones. The isolation and limited population of the Island make it difficult to offer a full range of medical services, so people will continue to go off-Island for some specialized treatments. Island isolation makes it difficult to train staff, and the high cost of housing and living makes it hard to attract and retain specialized personnel.
We also have excellent facilities when it comes to education, but face special challenges because we are an Island. The Vineyard’s physical isolation from colleges, universities and the other resources of a metropolitan area limit educational opportunities — whether public school, continuing adult education, or professional development. The high cost of housing and living is a significant challenge in recruiting and keeping teachers. Professional development in all fields is more difficult than on mainland locations which have easier access to evening college courses.
The question is whether we can make the Vineyard more of a school without walls by doing an even better job of allowing students in our school system to become more active participants and learners in the broader community, and by enabling all residents and visitors to pursue education throughout their lives.
The final topic is arts and culture. The Island has a thriving arts and culture community, involving and supported by both the year-round and seasonal populations. In addition to providing creative expression and personal fulfillment, arts and culture are important to the Vineyard economy, directly in terms of the business they generate, and more substantially in terms of their indirect contribution to the Island’s role as a destination resort. However, there is a sense that we have not done as much as other similar areas, perhaps because the arts and culture community is fragmented.
Can the various groups and individuals work together more to support the arts and take full advantage of the cultural potential of the Island?
With this forum, we’ll be wrapping up the Island Plan’s basic information gathering and analysis phase. Over the next few months, the steering committee will work on a draft document for discussion this summer.
Mark London is executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. The social environment forum takes place on Thursday, April 30 at the Tisbury senior center at 7 p.m. A discussion paper is available online at IslandPlan.org (search for “social environment”).