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Act local, start now, think big: 10 “yes in my backyard” steps to a more sustainable community

Wendy Tomajko builds a cucumber trellis at the Croton-on-Hudson community garden Photo credit: Marc Fader/SolutionsWendy Tomajko builds a cucumber trellis at the Croton-on-Hudson community garden Photo credit: Marc Fader/Solutions

In Carmel, New York, Town Supervisor Ken Schmitt put it this way when we met him: “We’d like to know how we can save money.” After a career in local law enforcement, Schmitt got himself elected supervisor a few years ago only to inherit a municipality with aging infrastructure, outdated codes, and a population very wary of property tax increases.

Schmitt leaned forward. “Do you have many wood-fired boilers in Croton? We have folks putting in outdoor wood boilers to save money on heating their homes and water. But some neighbors have been raising strong health concerns over what is coming out of the flues of these wood boilers.”

Supervisor Schmitt’s question hit on two major motivators for local communities to measure the environmental impact of their ongoing lifestyles and develop realistic climate action plans: saving money and protecting public health. As much as the climate choir likes to talk to itself about gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalents, the atmospheric message has little application for the average local resident or shopkeeper. But when we shift the discussion to childhood asthma rates, algal blooms in local lakes, or runaway energy costs, everyone’s eager to find solutions.

A recently published book, The Climate Solutions Consensus, describes the state of what we know about climate disruption, how to think about solutions, and how to work together with enough scale to make a difference. As the authors of that book, we would like to highlight some steps communities can take toward creating climate solutions.

The good news is that natural- and social-science experts agree we have lots of solution paths for adaptation or mitigation to avoid catastrophe. The climate choir needs to turn technical data into social information that allows these solution messages to become “me too!” What we need is a bottom-to-top rethink of how we address climate change, starting in a town near you.

Municipalities can and must learn to ask for information, share this knowledge with like-minded groups, and turn data and ideas into action plans. Here are 10 “Yes in My Backyard” (YIMBY) steps to kick-starting your community’s effort to become more sustainable.

1. Tap national and state expertise: Joining ICLEI—Local Governments for Sustainability costs a few hundred dollars and gives a municipality access to experts and tools specifically designed for community-scale implementation. Joining the Climate Registry for a few hundred dollars earns municipalities points in the recent Recovery.gov grant award process and affords access to training and tools as well. Signing the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement costs nothing and puts you “on the map.” Taking your state’s climate pledge will give you a good supporting document to append to any grant requests.

2. Tap local expertise: Recruit a team of local citizen-volunteers to advise your municipal leaders on the intersection of energy, the environment, and the economy. Balance the group between gardeners and gearheads to include both biological and physical concerns. As advisory to a mayor or supervisor, the group can be charged to lead the greenhouse gas inventory effort, recommend reduction targets, and develop a climate action plan. Remember to think big. Build a network of like-minded municipalities. For example, the new Northern Westchester Energy Action Consortium (www.nweac.org) has pooled energy-efficiency efforts across 13 municipalities representing 190,000 residents in New York. The consortium has already landed significant state and federal grant funds to create pilot projects for home energy retrofit ramp-ups and to measure emission impacts in order to develop climate action plans for its member municipalities.

The town of Croton-on-Hudson encourages the use of compost bins, which reduce the amount of residential waste generated. Photo credit: Marc Fader/SolutionsThe town of Croton-on-Hudson encourages the use of compost bins, which reduce the amount of residential waste generated. Photo credit: Marc Fader/Solutions

3. Measure the easy stuff first: As Lord Kelvin said, “If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” What does your town, school, or business spend on heating, cooling, and lighting its buildings, fueling its fleet, and fertilizing its fields? If we want to save money and enjoy healthier lives, we need to get serious about taking stock of how much we spend on stuff that may have negative impacts. The task can seem daunting, so start with what is most readily at hand. Generally, annual energy costs for a municipal government will be easier to acquire than for an entire residential sector. So start with the more accessible municipal energy bills to measure consumption and estimate emissions. The corollary is to keep track of what you have missed, so you can retrace your steps as better data come your way. For example, the indirect energy and emissions costs embedded in employee commuting, the use of solvents and fertilizers, and the disposal of solid waste may be more difficult to ascertain. If you skip these at the outset, flag them for revisiting later on: they may represent 15 percent or more of actual emissions.

4. Help grow clean energy in your state and region: The bad news is that our years of reliance on building large centralized power plants have created tremendous sunk costs that look more like liabilities than assets these days. The good news is that renewable energy sources are viable in every corner of the continent. Ramping up a locality’s renewable energy portfolio can be accelerated when local governments use their own purchasing power to buy clean local energy. A good source is the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (www.dsireusa.org).

5. Spur clean energy locally: One of the big infrastructure problems we have in North America is heavy reliance on large centralized power plants that use a highly fragmented distribution grid to reach distant markets. Together with conservation and efficiency measures to lower future demand, a key solution is the growth of reliable, decentralized power sources that are closer to local customers. Why not form a regional intermunicipal utility to operate a smart grid that earns by saving? Adjust local codes to avoid penalizing photovoltaic, wind, and geothermal installations. Encourage cogeneration capacity in combined heat and power districts for your business or industrial zones. Develop local smart-grid demonstration projects to help you and your neighbors prepare for the energy Internet revolution and reward collective action. Lobby your state officials to replace net-metering energy policies, in which utilities credit you for any renewable generation, with stable feed-in tariffs¬. Only five U.S. states have some form of a feed-in tariff. Feed-in tariffs guarantee eligible power producers access to the grid with long-term contracts. They also obligate utilities to purchase renewable power at prices related to the base cost of generating that power. Stable contracts at higher prices will offer incentives for locally distributed power generation.

6. Make roads bicycle and pedestrian friendly: Take the transportation sector seriously. Bicycle sharrows—a road lane shared with motor vehicles and marked with an arrow chevron to indicate bicycle traffic—can be designated for little more than the cost of signs and striping. Host an annual bicycle-pedestrian week to highlight the benefits of human-powered transportation. However short, a good walking or bicycle trail will be used if it offers safe passage with pleasant views. A funny thing happens when people walk or bicycle: they wave at each other and sometimes even stop to talk.

7. Aggregate demand for good stuff that saves money: The more that residents compost, the less goes into the municipal solid-waste stream. That saves money. But good compost bins are expensive. If a municipality hosts a compost bin and rain barrel truck-sale day, it can work with vendors to offer bins at much lower costs to consumers. When Croton-on-Hudson does this, residents pay half what they would at retail and get a free, live compost demonstration when they pick up their bins. And thousands of pounds of solid organic waste are diverted from the curb to the yard, saving the village thousands of dollars in solid-waste handling costs.

Leo Wiegman walks away from the Croton Bay estuary, which locals use for fishing and boating Photo credit: Marc Fader/SolutionsLeo Wiegman walks away from the Croton Bay estuary, which locals use for fishing and boating Photo credit: Marc Fader/Solutions

8. Relearn the foodways: Take the taste buds of your town’s residents seriously. The community garden movement has been booming. Create a local community garden program. Relearning how to grow our own fresh food can have a catalyzing impact much deeper than the roots of any particular tomato plant. What are the benefits? Adding a beautiful growing green space to a previously unused parcel. Contributing fresh produce to friends and neighbors and local food banks. Creating educational programs for children and adults about how to garden. Allowing residents with no access to gardens to grow food for their families and for the community.

9. Seeing is believing: Use photos, video, webcams, illustrations, and any other visualization tools at your disposal to create pictures that can capture your various efforts. Every picture tells a story. Images help people remember what they have read. Social media use photos in myriad ways. Ask photographers what kinds of images of local events they think would help get your message across.

10. Adopt smart growth land-use tools: Local governments play a vital role in defining local land uses. From building codes to zoning to such seemingly mundane matters as defining what work you can do from your own home, municipal and county governments can provide incentives to foster more efficient future development. From transit-oriented development concepts to antisprawl measures, from cluster subdivision allowances to mixed-use incentives, the devil is in the details. But those details lie fully within the authority of local governments to update and bring into concert with the community’s long-term resilience. Nobody likes red tape. Green tape is the opposite of red tape. So invent green-tape policies to streamline and modernize local policies in your community.

Crafting a sticky message for all stakeholders is so important that we devoted a third of the Climate Solutions book to these social aspects of climate engagement. Today’s climate policy discussions focus on how rapidly we must decelerate the rate at which we add carbon to the atmosphere. The White House’s Cass Sunstein seems to suggest we have more time than 350-proponent Bill McKibben thinks. McKibben postulates it is already too late to avoid steep catastrophic climate-related changes. Under the Obama administration, at least, our federal government is once again allowed to operate based on facts. Washington is putting big money into research, development, demonstration, and deployment of necessary policies and technologies. The stimulus funds are proof of this expanded federal effort. Another positive shift is the realization by federal and state agencies that more funding needs to go to bottom-up information and communication strategies. We have entered the land of try-everything-to-see-what-works. These proactive changes offer municipalities unprecedented grassroots opportunities to create local initiatives. The United States alone has 16,000 local governments. So do YIMBY in your town today!

Some more links for this article

The Climate Solutions book that David and I published with Island Press has online content available here.
Our local Consortium's (see #2 above) home energy efficiency program's interim website is here. That program has $2.4 million in "Better Buildings" funding from US Dept of Energy (under EERE's EECBG) as one of 35 states, local governments, and organizations that received $486 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding to ramp-up energy efficiency building retrofits in their communities.

Editorial Notes:

Solutions Online is the primary venue of Solutions and the core forum for discussion about how to solve the world's mounting environmental, social, and economic problems. All content is under the Creative Commons-Share Alike license.

For a UK perspective for dealing with local governments see here for a description of the new Transition Guide to Local Governments: Communities, Councils, and a Low Carbon Future. -KS

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