How to Start a Sustainable Community Movement at Home, Work or School
If you care about the earth’s resilience, you probably want others to join you. By building a sustainable community in your neighborhood, school or workplace, you can multiply your impact and engage others around green projects. These helpful step-by-step sustainability tips will show you how to influence others to join the sustainability movement.
What is a sustainable community?
No one definition describes every sustainable community. Each one has a unique vision and purpose. It may help to start by envisioning an ideal sustainable community, as the National Resources Defense Council did in its blog post, “A Trip to Sustainaville” (cross-posted in The Atlantic).
Regardless of their specific sustainability practices, sustainable communities tend to have the following traits in common:
- They think about the big picture in terms of ensuring economic, environmental and social well-being for decades or even centuries into the future.
- Sustainable communities recognize the intrinsic value of clean natural resources, healthy food, wildlife, and the natural environment for their quality of life.
- They maintain a helpful, supportive group dynamic to ensure everyone earns the respect and fair treatment they deserve.
- Community sustainability includes collaboration in decision making processes, so that all members benefit equally. They are also inclusive of people with different backgrounds, abilities, economic means, ages and cultures.
- Sustainable communities make goals, take action and analyze the impacts of their actions to make improvements. They aren’t afraid of challenges and they foresee potential pitfalls.
If your community doesn’t rally around any sustainable values yet, it may seem difficult to propose new sustainability ideas. This is because people in our schools, workplaces or neighborhoods often have wildly differing ideas about sustainability. It helps to start small by initiating a single community project that can eventually lead to more projects, shared awareness and sustainable values in the future.
What are the benefits of increasing sustainability in your community?
Have you noticed that today’s overarching dilemmas like “climate change,” “mass-extinction” and “poverty” give many people anxiety? By taking a proactive approach to improve your community’s sustainability, you can address those challenges, instead of blaming others for them. By focusing on resilience, health and shared well-being, your community can make an important attitude shift from overwhelming fear, disagreement and stress to positive change-making.
Every goal your community reaches gives the group a shared sense of achievement and this becomes part of your story. For instance, if your school reaches a tree-planting goal of 100,000 trees, you can share this story with your friends and inspire even more people. The more that the different community members take ownership for the achievement, the better. That’s why it’s important to have shared decision-making and involvement.
When people in a community take ownership for actions aimed at sustainability, they start to feel a heightened sense of purpose. This can have a ripple effect because each community member grows knowledge and awareness about how to make a difference. They can continue to share their experiences and help sustainability grow beyond the boundaries of your local community.
Each sustainable community project you tackle comes with specific benefits. For instance, a zero waste project has the benefit of reducing waste, while a community garden project provides fresh, healthy food. Yet, when you approach sustainability holistically with long-term commitments, your community will thrive together and build lasting memories.
How to involve members of the community in sustainability projects
So, maybe you’ve decided to start a community project. You have a great idea and you want others to join. Now what? Here are some steps to help you get others to join and support your sustainability ideas:
- Invite the “stakeholders” to a meeting. These are the people who will either invest time, money or resources into your community project. They may be people in power like the CEO of your business, or the principal of your school, but they may also be your core group of friends who are going to take the most action. You should invite the people who will impact your project as well as those who will be impacted by it. If there are too many people to invite, think of who might be the best representatives of your different “stakeholder groups.” These are your key players and you need their feedback.
- Pitch your idea. You can either present something formal in a powerpoint presentation, or you can make it a more free-form conversation, depending on the size and scope of the project. Whichever format you choose, be sure to explain how you got the idea, why it’s important and what impact you hope to make.
- Get feedback. A good way to do this is to ask for people to share one thing they like, one thing that could be improved, and one question they still have about the project. They can either submit their feedback in written form or in a conversation after you present your idea.
- Tweak the project. After you’ve received comments, try to make adjustments so that your project becomes attractive for the other people in your community based on their feedback. This not only improves your project, it makes others feel their opinions are valued and respected.
- Get support for your project. Once you’ve tweaked your goal, it’s time to get buy-in. Write a statement that encompasses your purpose and take a survey to see if your key players would support the project or not. If not, find out why. Try to get a core group of supporters who can give valuable time, money, resources or even mentorship along the way.
- Delegate responsibility. Now that you have some folks on board, it’s time to give them responsibilities. You can do this by expressing gaps or areas of need and asking who would like to fill in. Another option is to assign roles based on experience or abilities. Whichever you prefer, make sure that you delegate according to people’s sincere interests.
- Set SMART goals. What’s a SMART goal? It’s specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. By setting SMART goals, you’ll have a built-in deadline, you’ll connect it to your purpose, and it’s more likely to become a reality. SMART goals give people confidence in your project, which you’ll need in order to keep their sustained interest.
- Take action. Even with a well-laid plan, things might not go as planned, but at least you have the building blocks to get the ball rolling.
- Motivate each other along the way. Recognize wins, and find the positive takeaways from failures. Projects need cheerleaders to make them worth it. Don’t let your community’s actions go unnoticed and don’t let your members lose hope. It’s also a good idea to check in regularly on those SMART goals.
Several key elements are necessary for a sustainable community to have ongoing impacts and survive the ups and downs of a process of change:
- Discussion forum: Sustainable communities need a forum, whether its a meeting place or an online chat group, where community members can discuss their ideas. This forum should include all of the people within the community, so that everyone has a way to contribute to the decision-making process. This means someone needs to be responsible for administering the discussion forum.
- Knowledge-base: If your community members don’t know about the broader importance of their actions, they may be less inclined to improve sustainability. At least one community member should develop informational materials that explain how a community’s sustainability goals, targets and actions link to global trends in sustainability.
- Progress tracking and monitoring: Sustainable communities need a means to define, measure and analyze their progress. This means someone needs to be in charge of record-keeping, notifying the others of progress and celebrating wins by planning events. When it comes to asking for grants or funding from outside sources, this element is essential.
These key features ensure the community gains self-awareness, achieves its goals, makes mutually beneficial decisions and progresses smoothly.
7 community project ideas to improve sustainability and solutions
One: Go zero waste
Cities and communities across the U.S. are “going zero waste.” On a smaller scale, communities can also take on this challenge. The goal of zero waste may never be achieved entirely, but setting high goals gives people a way to dramatically cut back.
The essential ingredients for a zero waste community are as follows:
- Composting - Community composting cuts down on food waste, which contributes to eight percent of global carbon emissions
- Systems of reuse - Reusable container supplies, community swap/sell forums and art or building projects from discarded materials are all helpful for promoting reuse. Provide educational resources about how to upcycle, renovate and repair worn or used items.
- Recycling guides - Help your community recycle more effectively by using multiple stream recycling and collection and educating them about recycling contamination.
- Reduce - Make community-wide plans for reducing unnecessary waste.
Two: De-carbonizing projects
Communities that take on climate change show they’re serious about sustainability. Here are some of the best ways to take action:
- Switch to community solar or wind energy - renewable energy is getting much easier to access, thanks to large-scale community solar and wind projects. These are projects that allow users to access renewable energy from a large solar panel or wind source through their existing utilities. That way, there’s no need to install your own energy equipment.
- Build rooftop solar - if your community wants to be in control of its own renewable energy, it can invest in rooftop solar panels.
- Ride share, bike commutes, mass transit and electric vehicles - Create a project to promote less carbon-intensive forms of transportation. If your community uses shared vehicles for transportation, look into purchasing electric vehicles.
- Divest and reinvest - Your community can divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in sustainable businesses. Sustainable investing is on the rise and communities are often in an excellent position to take action this way.
- Carbon-free voting guide - Help your community support local candidates and initiatives that tackle climate change by making an informative voting guide.
- Project Drawdown goals - Project Drawdown has compiled the most impactful things you can do to cut down on climate change today. Use it as a guide for decisions your community makes about its own resources.
Three: Healthy, local food
Healthy, local food helps reduce the transportation emissions of shipping food and it helps local businesses. In addition, you can improve your local water health by choosing organic, plant-based food. Agricultural nitrate and phosphorus run-off from livestock biowaste and agricultural fertilizers has a devastating impact on freshwater sources. Here are a few ways to improve your community’s approach to sustainable food:
- Community garden - Setting up a shared, community garden is an excellent way to spend time in the dirt and provide free food for the local community.
- Plant-based Mondays - Designate one day a week to healthy plant-based food.
- Local shopping guide - Create a resource that provides a list of the most sustainable local food sources to shop from within your community and ensure that all of the shared food for your group comes from those businesses.
Four: Wildlife-friendly green space
Green space is important for our physical health thanks to the clean air and natural cooling it provides. Studies also show that our mental health benefits from spending time in nature. Green spaces are also important for increasing local biodiversity. You can add them to any structure or open space in your community.
Remember to think outside of the box with green spaces. For example, bus-stops across Holland are covered in bee-friendly gardens. You can create green spaces on rooftops, design vertical green walls or even transform a sunny room into a greenhouse.
With the community’s involvement, you can share the responsibility of designing, purchasing materials and building a beautiful shared garden with bee- and butterfly-friendly native plants.
Five: Tree planting and stewardship
Another way to take part in greening your community is by planting trees. Trees are both an important climate change solution and a wonderful way to protect your community from harsh storms, heat waves and floods.
Remember that the trees you plant should be native plant species so they blend in naturally with the local ecosystem. You should also have a plan for stewardship, to ensure they don’t get removed or cut down in future years.
The most obvious tree-planting solution is to have a tree planting day in your local community. The Arbor Day Foundation provides excellent resources on how to do so.
When you decide to take on a tree-planting project, you can also utilize services that focus on tree planting to tally up the total number of trees you plant worldwide. Examples include Ecosia, the search engine that plants trees, and One Tree Planted, a global non-profit charity focusing on tree planting.
Six: Library of things
Create a forum where people can share resources like lawnmowers, ladders, barbecues or even large vehicles. The same way libraries entrust us to borrow books, your community can entrust its members to borrow other things. This eliminates the need for every household to own tools or equipment that collect dust in storage. Check out the original Library of Things in the UK to see how it works.
Seven: Eco-friendly events
This is one of my favorite ways to spread awareness about sustainability. Make an event that has a sustainable message. Whether it’s a zero-waste event or a weekend beach cleanup event, you can host events that both inspire your community about sustainability and give people a chance to socialize. Be sure to promote your event using social media.
Why community sustainability matters
If you already believe in the value of personal sustainability, then community sustainability is a natural next step. The problem with individual action is that it doesn’t necessarily influence others to improve their sustainability, even though a critical mass is necessary to make a dent in most sustainability issues. By creating community projects centered on sustainability, you have a realistic outlet for making a larger, more lasting impact.
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