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Putting the Green in Grassroots: Engaging Your Community-at-Large

By Brett Rosenberg
November 19, 2007

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels introduced the session, asking, “How do we put the green back in the grass roots, how do we inspire our residents?” He answered his own question with a description of the Seattle Climate Action Now campaign, symbolized by a large blue flag on top of the Seattle Space Needle. Seattle Climate Action Now is a new effort to give everyone in Seattle the tools needed to start making a real difference in preventing climate change through activities at home, at work, and on the road. It brings together people “across the street and across town to take action to protect the climate for all of us and for future generations.” Nickels then turned the program over to Berkeley (CA) Mayor Tom Bates.

A former state legislator and county supervisor, Bates expressed the challenge of being a mayor, especially as it relates to tackling climate change, by quoting Lyndon Johnson: “When the burdens of the presidency seem unusually heavy, I always remind myself, it could be worse, I could be a mayor.” Bates, who became especially motivated on climate change issues after hearing former Vice President Al Gore speak at the Sundance Summit in 2005, established the Berkeley Climate Action program shortly afterwards. The program involves a comprehensive approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from local activities. It includes green building standards for municipal buildings, fuel efficient fleet vehicles, an ordinance requiring energy efficiency updates in property transfers, and free energy audits among other services.

More recently, Berkeley residents voted for Measure G, which calls for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. A key element of the measure is to engage all city residents and businesses to involve them in the overall effort. Berkeley, Bates said, “is an interesting place – we have every view every side of every issue. Everyone’s smart; they’re all lawyers; they’re all doctors; they’re all self-entitled.” Despite such a range of opinions on everything, the voters passed the measure by 81 percent.

Public Outreach Critical

As the city began the effort toward major greenhouse gas reductions, it became clear that major public outreach and engagement would be critical, especially in non-traditional ways. Recently, the city has expanded its outreach efforts through a framework report, a series of City Commission workshops, dozens of community events, a web forum, and through expert advisors.

One of the major programs to stem from Measure G is Berkeley’s Solar Financing Plan. Traditionally, according to Bates, two of the major problems associated with solar power are the up front costs, and, if financing is involved, the balance is due at sale of the property. This means that most people who invest in residential solar power do not receive favorable financial results because they lose the investment when the property turns over. To alleviate these issues, Berkeley has set up a special “Sustainable Energy Financing District,” whereby property owners are allowed to pay for solar installations and energy efficiency upgrades as a 20-year assessment on their property tax. In a sense, the city essentially issues bonds to property owners, probably at a point and a half below prime, which would allow free solar services in the long run. A special foundation grant provides funding for program advertising and a grant expected from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will provide funding for additional related legal work. A how-to guide is also in the works. The key, Bates said, is the voluntary nature of this and other programs.

Car Share Program

Another innovative Berkeley is its City Car Share program, where residential car share members can use city vehicles during evening and weekend hours. This has removed 15 cars from the fleet and saved over $400,000. Additionally, large residential programs are required to provide bus or other transit passes in order to encourage less driving.

These and other initiatives have people in Berkeley publicly discussing additional ways to make Measure G a reality. “The attitude and understanding are here,” Bates said, “The effort is how to educate citizens on how they can make things happen.”

In the next presentation, Andy Lipkis, the President of TreePeople, a non-profit organization that partners with local government to provide environmental and public education, forestry management and integrated infrastructure management services, spoke about community engagement as the way out of global climate change.

Lipkis began his remarks by reviewing an old paradigm whereby government operated in a closed, macho fashion that implied that it had its act completely together. While suggesting the influence of history and the media, Lipkis mentioned that what goes unsaid in this message is that government has no use for public collaboration. Bureaucracies and other parts of government, Lipkis said, have always operated in a disintegrated, isolated way. However, citing a realization that change is constant and the massive lapse in the overall government response to Hurricane Katrina, Lipkis said, “Failure is compost for success,” implying that a new paradigm has arrived.

Community-Wide Involvement Stressed

In challenging mayors to become agents of change in integrating the disparate parts of their cities, and building on the examples that Mayors Nickels and Bates presented, Lipkis expressed the need to really reach out to all aspects of the community. He then presented a slide of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa planting a tree with residents of local neighborhood, meant to “give the perspective we hold in approaching a partnership with a city…to inspire and support the people…to take personal responsibility and participate in making a healthy, fun, safe and sustainable urban environment as a model for the world.”

Through his work with TreePeople, which goes beyond and deeper than just planting Trees, Lipkis has helped local government in places like Los Angeles bring people together to solve environmental problems, such as improving curbside recycling, stormwater management and disaster relief like that needed with the recent fires.

Lipkis then went into a description of the old government paradigm’s role in providing fresh water to the city, again using Los Angeles as an example. Twenty percent of electricity generated in California is used to bring water to LA and much of that water is lost to leakage or evaporation, according to Lipkis. A new, more organic way of integrating the separate agencies that conduct the colossal undertaking is required to provide an adequate, more reliable and sustainable water supply. This, Lipkis said, can be done in a way that reflects the work of an effective emergency command center, where agencies are guided by a single, integrated entity that both understands the needs of the community it serves due to grass roots engagement, and understands the resources available and the capabilities of the units involved.

“The new paradigm is demanding a new kind of leadership from mayors. You are the only people in the city… that have a view of all the agencies, that sit in the role of ecosystem manager.” As the healers and facilitators of the community ecosystem, mayors can “stop the hemorrhage of cash, the hemorrhage of resources and the hemorrhage of opportunity.”

Connect Everybody

In terms of engaging the community-at-large, the goal, according to Lipkis, is to connect everybody. The outcomes of engagement are heightened literacy of the public and community domain. Currently, Lipkis expressed that the public is passionate but is overall environmentally illiterate and subject to suspicion and manipulation from various sides. One of the most powerful things we can do to increase environmental literacy is voluntary lifestyle change so people have the facts and resources to act now and make active change. “You wind up with a community that is united…the public begins to trust you when you tell the truth and is ready to help,” according to Lipkis.

He then described several items that describe what engagement is: deep education; listening, on the part of the mayor and the city; soliciting help from the public; a certain vulnerability so people can participate; and providing feedback so people know that their participation makes a difference.

It is not simply outreach or putting the word out there. It’s real engagement and investing, but not PR. It can take several forms, such as youth education and service learning, deep stakeholder involvement and deep community participation. Again, Lipkis cited some Los Angeles examples, including its recycling program, which began as an effort to offset an incinerator construction plan. With deep engagement among a massive youth education program, the city experienced a 90 percent participation level in its recycling efforts and was able to forego the plan for incinerators.

This and other examples, according to Lipkis, show the true value of going beyond outreach, and show how true community engagement can pay off. By mobilizing citizens and empowering them to develop a neighborhood vision and carry out environmental projects in their communities, mayors are better able to “connect the dots” among agencies, citizens, businesses and other stakeholders.