Taking the Pulse of Community Sustainability Leaders
By Cheryl Kollin, Livability Project
“If you had no financial or other constraints—what changes would you like to see in your community?” I recently posed this question to ten leaders from the non-profit, business, academic, and local government sectors who are immersed in building their local sustainability initiatives. Livability Project wanted to take the pulse of green groups that connect environmental, social, and economic community initiatives. We wanted to learn, “How did they envision implementing sustainability in their communities?” “What was holding them back in initiating or achieving that vision?” “What kind of help would they need to move forward?”
Our intention was to understand the needs of sustainability organizations in the regions we serve. Our one-on-one phone interviews with respondents gave Livability Project staff some insights into new green groups popping up in this region and how they want to make a difference in their communities. Of the ten respondents, the non-profits were either just starting or relatively new—with four-year old Bethesda Green the eldest in the region. The sustainable business respondents wear two hats. In addition to their green business, they are engaged with their community’s green group. The local government agency and higher education institutional respondents offered perspectives about helping community groups get started.
Visions for sustainability
The non-profit sector respondents envisioned sustainability as successfully implementing tangible projects, such as recycling, green roofs, wastewater management such as rain gardens, alternative-fueled transportation and increasing walking and biking; renewable energy and energy efficiency in home, institutions, and offices; restaurant grease capture; and community gardens. Those in the government and business sectors envisioned sustainability more in terms of sustainability outcomes, including, more informed and active elected leaders; more robust, ethnically and racially diverse community-based environmental activism; more entrepreneurial businesses cultivated through incubators; and more certified “green” businesses.
One Baltimore respondent envisioned sustainability as a process. “I want to tell the story of place”, modeling after, The Story of Place Institute based in Santa Fe. “I believe we need to understand the evolution of culture, ecological, and economic patterns about a place to devise strategies for [Baltimore’s] future”.
Top barrier to sustainability
While almost everyone named the lack of funding as a barrier to implementing their vision of sustainability, several people said that it wasn’t the most pressing problem. Actually, many respondents named a more formidable issue—fragmentation. Sustainability is built on the premise that environmental, social, and economic issues are interconnected and their solutions must take an integrated approach. Unfortunately, respondents were frustrated about how community issues were typically tackled in silos. Often separate governmental task forces and non-profit organizations focus on one issue such as food access, pollution, homelessness, crime, and job creation without seeing the whole or coordinating solutions.
Even though one respondent’s community created a sustainability plan with input from 1,000 people, he believed it wasn’t effective. “It was a good start but it was completely fragmented. We have lots of categories, but no shared vision of what needs to be done. Climate and energy issues morphed and were channeled into rats and trash. There was little emphasis on continued community building”.
Building your sustainability initiative: ready, set, go?
While there is no one model of a sustainability initiative or organization, there are some common elements. Respondents rated these six components on the high end of importance in order to carry out their initiatives:
• Building or finding an organization that includes many stakeholder groups
• Understanding the community’s assets and opportunities
• Creating a vision and plan for the community
• Marketing and outreach to engage the community
• Creating a central location or center for people to gather and learn
• Developing green programs e.g.: recycling, green building, renewable energy etc.
Are we there yet?
While most of the respondents deemed these aspects of their initiatives important, only half of respondents’ communities were ready to implement these elements. One respondent who offers technical assistance to community groups explained, “We ask each community client we work with what their assets are, but they don’t know what they have beyond what’s written in their Municipal Comprehensive Plan [a planning document]”. Others found measuring the impacts of their efforts daunting. A non-profit respondent commented that, “Funders want to know about impacts, but measuring is hard to do and not otherwise useful”. Alternatively, our higher education respondent offered that, “Communities do not see the value in creating metrics; they want to measure progress that they can see.”
Everyone can contribute to building more sustainability into their community. Non-traditional thinking can unearth untapped assets. For example, a bank’s assets aren’t solely about money. Its staff is also a knowledge asset who could help when securing shared work space, budgeting, or writing grants.
The fledging non-profits want to learn from others working in sustainability —both to share what works and what doesn’t. They cited topics of most interest: how to raise funds; how to engage diverse communities, volunteers, and elected leaders to champion sustainability; and how to integrate metrics into their initiatives. Respondents expressed that their best learning was interactive, such as a workshop that offered learning alongside stakeholders in their community as well as networking with green groups in other communities.
One way to build upon and extend workshop learning and personalize each community’s needs is to offer virtual office hours. One respondent explained her experience, “Clients call in at specified times and get advice from a panel of experts.”
Overall, the survey responses helped Livability Project understand these green groups’ biggest stumbling blocks and identify where they need help. Just by virtue of reporting these findings to respondents, Livability Project takes the first step in fostering cross-stakeholder communication and reducing the geographic barriers that fragment shared learning. Livability Project will integrate the survey’s lessons learned as it assists clients in building their vision of a sustainable community. The respondents’ enthusiasm for pursuing their vision was palpable in our conversations. For those who seek assistance, Livability Project can help communities get ready and set to put their vision into practice.
Cheryl Kollin is the product developer at Livability Project, a consulting and education firm that helps community leaders build sustainable communities. Using the Livability Project FrameworkTM, the firm coaches and trains stakeholders across business, government, and civic sectors to identify and leverage their own community’s assets to fulfill their vision, expand economic opportunities and develop local, green initiatives. Livability Project is best known for its groundbreaking work with Bethesda Green in Montgomery County Maryland and Share Exchange in Sonoma County, California.