Future Perfect : Engaging Local Communities In Sustainability

City of Albany, NY

The Capital Region of New York has recently published a draft Sustainability Plan, (CC, 2010, UpstateNyer)

It is an understandably gloomy beginning to the New Year. Global climate change negotiations have failed yet again, this time at a meet held in Qatar in late 2012, leaving the rest of us wondering why they hold these high-level talks with such depressing regularity. State-side, a crippling drought, wildfires and the incredibly destructive Hurricane Sandy has done precious little to break the stony silence emanating from Washington. Does that mean we start going the way of “climate adapters” and stock up on disaster rations? Thankfully, there is still hope for our future. Local governments, both big and small, are stepping up to the challenge of creating resilient, sustainable and vibrant communities of tomorrow. The US is leading the effort with over 600 state & city governments that have incorporated sustainability into their planning processes. These pioneering communities are part of a network known as ICLEI – Local Governments For Sustainability, working together to transform the climate change debate from the bottom up.

The motivations for a grassroots-level movement are powerful. The effects of climate vagaries and the rapid degradation of natural resources are experienced intensely at a smaller scale. Local governments recognize the immediate importance of buffering their citizens from severe weather and safeguarding the health and safety of their towns. However, most city councils have gone above and beyond to envisioning ‘sustainable communities’; places where people would like to put down roots and thrive. What do these communities have in common? For one, they would offer a variety of low-impact transportation options and be significantly more ‘walkable’ than an average car-centric development. There would be a wide spectrum of affordable, energy-efficient housing available for current and future residents. The community would increasingly rely on alternative sources of energy and act as a responsible steward for local natural resources. Businesses would thrive and enhance the economic competitiveness of the region. These ‘livability principles’, according to the Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities, form some of the basic tenets of future-oriented cities. The most important quality of such communities is its inclusive decision-making process and the wholehearted participation of its citizenry in sustainability initiatives. There are, of course, those who immediately identify with community issues and come forward voluntarily.  The vast majority of residents, however, require greater encouragement and city councils have to consider a variety of creative ways to engage its populations and invite a wide variety of stakeholders. What are the best ways of doing this?

Create a vision: The first, and most powerful, step is to make the future tangible. Futures thinking is a process of working with groups of people to create a vision for a sustainable and equitable tomorrow. Doing so brings out a variety of desires and dreams and allows the group to analyse the motivations behind their assumptions. A final image is then pulled together from the different stakeholders and used as a tool to reinforce community values, inspire hope and lead the development of concrete action plans. More on the envisioning process can be found here.

Frame global issues in a local context: Every village, town and city has its own specific set of concerns and issues. Making a connection between global or large-scale problems and community  causes is most likely to engage a set of influential people who are deeply interested in local affairs.   Don’t hesitate to remove the term ‘climate change’ from the message and bring in ‘hot button’ items, such as, high gas prices, shrinking water supplies or poor harvests.

Tailor effective messages: When it comes to the core message of the campaign, unfortunately, one size does not fit all. Once you identify a set of target audiences, it is important to understand their motivations and aspirations and their stance on sustainability. Businesses, for example, might respond better to messages that affect their bottom line, while messages of health and well-being are likely to resonate deeply with young families. Breaking down the impacts of climate change into easily digestible chunks of relevant information helps develop people’s appetite for sustainable development.

Identify appropriate messengers: Local champions, whether they are union reps, political activists, school boards, business people or religious leaders, can take the message of responsibility and ownership further and deeper into the community. A single campaign would require a wide range of such messengers, each with a significant network. It might also be prudent to share the task of communication with local organizations whose goals tie-in with the larger sustainability agenda.

Create multiple opportunities for participation: To keep the community interested and active, it is critical to make participation as painless as possible. This would mean offering multiple opportunities to interact with the planning team, some formal and others casual, such as, a simple ‘Idea Box’ at the market. Using online tools may help reach those who are not very forthcoming at public forums. To keep the interest alive, the campaign must prominently integrate feedback it receives, assuring participants of the validity of their contributions.

Engaging people in the mission of building sustainable communities is a task that requires a great deal of creativity and perseverance. Done right, a sustainable grassroots movement founded on diversity, dialogue and participation can be a very powerful initiative and our best defense against the uncertainties of the future.


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