How to Turn Your City Sustainable
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Sustainability from the Start
Photo by Lisa Munniksma
Recycling services are an important factor in measuring your city's sustainability
Dunwoody faced a different kind of blank slate. On Dec. 1, 2008, it became the newest city in the United States and the 19th-largest city in Georgia, with about 40,000 residents. Its first two years of operation included the creation of a comprehensive land-use plan and the kickoff of various master plans, all of which contain or are expected to contain references to sustainability. However, with an established infrastructure, a car-based culture, limited green space and divergent opinions about how to preserve the past while embracing the future, the green journey has not been smooth or certain.
Councilman Heneghan remains focused on the city’s long-term sustainability.
“I believe that when I have the ability to make a difference, I have the responsibility to do so,” says Heneghan, who took on many issues in his popular blog even before running for office. “And I was hopeful we’d be able to make the small changes needed to set us on a sustainable course as a city. Now, those little things have the potential to add up to make a big difference.”
He offers this advice for those in Dunwoody and elsewhere: “Citizens can help city officials stay focused on sustainability by writing comments on blogs and letters to the editor of your local newspaper. Elected officials definitely follow these exchanges of ideas and opinions. I know this firsthand.”
Good Policy = Good Food
With an established sustainability plan, Baltimore is focusing on six of its 29 sustainability goals, including those related to food systems, and it appointed Freishtat as its “food czar.” Freishtat says that title can be a misnomer because, as she explains, “I’m not here to tell people what to eat. I’m here to help them have access to choices.”
Freishtat oversees the city’s efforts to establish Baltimore as a leader in sustainable, local food systems through strategies such as increasing the percentage of land under cultivation for agricultural purposes, improving the quantity and quality of products available at food outlets, increasing demand for local food by schools and residents, and developing an urban agriculture plan.
“I want to emphasize how important food policy is,” Freishtat says. “With strong local food policies, a city can offer farmer-friendly terms, such as longer lease agreements, so urban farms can flourish and increase access to healthy, affordable food in food deserts and throughout the city.”
Neighbors See the Light
Folks who live in Creekside Estates in Salem, Ore., are not so different from the other 60 million people in the United States who live in neighborhoods with homeowners’ associations. They want to preserve the appearance of their neighborhoods so they can maintain property values; however, many of these neighborhood associations have outdated covenants that restrict practices increasingly seen as desirable.
“When I asked the Architectural Review Committee for approval to install a solar photovoltaic system on my house and it said no, I would have gone about my business,” explains Lohrman. “However, my neighbor, Burt Bogart, wanted one, too, and that kept me involved.”
Lohrman chronicled the “solar story” on his blog, Sustainable Creekside, and he used the blog to educate and connect with others in his neighborhood. He sent a mailer to his neighbors to announce the website and invite participation in a survey, which revealed support for solar. He and Bogart then helped write new solar-installation guidelines for the neighborhood.
On Earth Day 2010, the Creekside Estates Architectural Review Committee approved the new solar guidelines. About six weeks later, the first solar panels in the neighborhood were installed on Bogart’s roof.
Lohrman suggests that others who live in neighborhoods with homeowners associations “read your neighborhood’s covenants, know your state laws, communicate with your neighbors about environmentally related issues, look for other neighborhoods that have dealt with similar issues, and be persistent.”
Effecting Sustainability Change
Your city may already be on the sustainability train, or it could not yet be aboard. Take a look around you:
Are there bike lanes? Sidewalks? Parks? Are there public recycling bins, farmers’ markets, community gardens, solar panels? Are people representing all aspects of the community serving on commissions at city hall? Are there independent, local businesses? Do schools have no idling, walk-to-school, classroom composting and other “go green” initiatives?
Does your city purchase environmentally preferable products and services, conserve water and protect the city’s trees? Does it encourage local food production and provide incentives for alternative energy and other green-building features? How about turning off power overnight, supporting transportation alternatives, using nontoxic and native landscaping solutions, and encouraging or requiring recycling?
If these initiatives aren’t immediately apparent, consider whether you could be the sustainability champion your community needs. Start with research. Scan your city’s long-term vision, sometimes called a general plan or comprehensive land use plan. Learn about your city’s intentions regarding transportation, green space, real estate development and more.
Read master plans for economic development, transportation, parks and green space or particular areas ripe for redevelopment. Inquire about a sustainability plan or food-policy council. Check out your chamber of commerce, too, for encouragement of local businesses, specifically “green” ones, which could be anything from a café that claims zero waste to a carpet-cleaning business that avoids harmful chemicals.
The smallest step you can take is also the largest: Get involved. Attend meetings at city hall. Encourage your community leaders to consider sustainable practices when making decisions. Bring your children so they can see how decisions affecting their future are made.
Some folks are swayed solely by numbers, so seeking out and sharing the details you uncover about sustainable practices may help engage people. Some people respond well to personal stories of those trying to make a difference and to successes from other cities around the world. Some people just want to see sustainability in action so they can start to understand it better.
As Wallach recommends, “If you want to get involved in creating a sustainable city, just plant something in your yard. Start there, and grow.”
About the Author: Pattie Baker blogs about sustainability at FoodShed Planet and writes for publications and corporations committed to sustainability. She is an avid home and community gardener and a 10-year CSA member. She now only attends meetings in her city that require a pitchfork.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2011 issue of Urban Farm.
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