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Save the Planet on Your Own Block

Seven steps to thinking and acting locally

by Jay Walljasper

Published in E magazine


In Baltimore, neighbors worried about the fate of Mount Vernon Place, a four-block inner city park that sat neglected and little-used. It seemed the symbol of a once-vibrant neighborhood in danger of losing its economic and social footing. But instead of giving up and moving out, local citizens founded Friends of Mount Vernon Place to revitalize the park. They started with a few clean-up days, which led to bigger things, such as a flower market and a book festival. And that brought greater attention from city maintenance crews and, finally, a new master plan for reviving Mount Vernon Place. The park’s turnaround has increased neighborhood pride in a place now referred to as the “heart of Baltimore.”

Welcome to the new world of environmentalism. We think of greens rallying to protect rainforests, coral reefs, deserts and other distant yet critical ecosystems. But that’s just one aspect of protecting the planet. Many activists are now working close to home, too, joining up with neighbors to restore and preserve their own communities.

These new environmentalists make streets safe so children can walk to school. They lobby for sidewalks and benches and neighborhood parks. They transform outdated shopping malls into neighborhood centers complete with housing and lively public squares, sidewalk cafés and convenient transit stops.

You find them everywhere from Hollywood, where the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative turned a forlorn northern bus stop into the gateway for a vital urban village, to Philadelphia, where a gang-infested stretch of vacant lots in West Kensington was transformed into community gardens. This kind of down-home activism ultimately preserves wild places at the same time it revitalizes urban and suburban communities. Improving quality of life in neighborhoods means people feel less urge to abandon existing communities for brand-new homes in sprawling subdivisions carved out of forest, marsh, desert or farmland. And neighborhood environmentalists’ efforts to reduce traffic and renovate existing homes and infrastructure make substantial contributions to halting global warming and minimizing energy use.

Jonathan Porritt, former head of the British Green Party and now a leading advocate for sustainable business, declares, “Most people think the environment is everything that happens outside our lives. We need to acknowledge that the environment is rooted in our sense of place: it is our homes, our streets, our neighborhoods, our communities.”

Thinking globally and working locally has long been a mantra for the environmental movement. To join this emerging movement, look around your neighborhood to see what places—parks, gathering spots, natural amenities, quiet nooks, play areas, walking routes, commercial centers—could be protected or regenerated. Think about what changes could be made to reduce pollution and environmental degradation. Here are a few ideas for you to get started in bringing the green movement home.

1) Team up with your neighbors

When you get a half dozen or so heads together—especially folks who are united by a commitment to the place they live—there’s no limit to what can be accomplished. This principle has been proven in neighborhood after neighborhood as people join forces to spruce up, clean up and green up their communities.

The idea of forming Eco Teams—five to 10 households taking steps together to live more ecologically— has taken root globally with more than 40,000 people in 18 countries joining with their neighborhoods to make a difference.

Jennifer Olson and Per Kielland-Lund, who joined one of the eco-teams sponsored by government agencies and local businesses in Madison, Wisconsin, enthuse, “We were able to implement many changes in our daily lives that we wanted to…It feels good to be part of the solution and not only the problem.”

In Golden, Colorado, a dozen people from the Harmony Village community meet monthly over breakfast to explore local and environmental issues. Member Dan Chiras, who hosts the discussions in his kitchen, says the group proposed that “residents install solar panels on the roofs of their homes, and that the village use energy-efficient compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs in outdoor fixtures. They routinely write letters to politicians, and recently saved a nearby piece of land that was slated for development.”

More than 100 residents of the Boundary Street neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, have become in-volved in a project to restore native plants along the banks of a local creek. “We’ve tapped into neighborhood expertise—one guy has a Ph.D. in biology,” notes Dick Roy, one of the leaders of the restoration project. “We’ve taken advantage of all the good energy to make our neighborhood more environmentally stable.”

2) Think globally, eat locally

Mealtime in modern society raises a host of serious environmental, social and nutritional issues. The vegetables on our plates may have traveled more than a thousand miles across the country and the fruit halfway around the world, while our meat and dairy products were likely produced at a factory farm. Each bite we take was probably doused with pesticides, antibiotics or preservatives along the way, and massive amounts of fossil fuels were burned in growing and transporting the food to our table. And, of course, packaged food shipped from far away never tastes as good as a meal made from locally grown ingredients. Happily, the last few years have seen a boom in local, organic foods. Whether it’s from a backyard garden, a public market, a community-supported agriculture program, or truck farmers in the area, local food nourishes our souls as well as our stomachs.

The People’s Grocery in Oakland, California, is a literal moveable feast—a portable market that brings healthy, homegrown food to community centers, schools and senior citizen centers in poor neighborhoods. Panorama City, California, a largely immigrant suburb northeast of Los Angeles, has transformed an old shopping center into a Mercado-style market as a lively alternative to a Wal-Mart across the road.

In some places, it’s not just farmers coming to town but farms. Enterprising gardeners are moving onto many of Detroit’s abandoned tracts of land, producing everything from salad fixings and eggs to alfalfa and goat’s milk. In Burlington, Vermont, six percent of all fresh produce consumed in this northern city is grown at a 260-acre organic farm that’s inside the city limits. The former junkyard has been reclaimed by the nonprofit Intervale Center as a showcase of what’s possible with urban agriculture.

3) Become a guerrilla gardener

Remember Johnny Appleseed—the legendary horticulturist who roamed the countryside sowing seeds across the prairie that later grew into bountiful apple trees? You can play that same role in your community by planting flowers and even vegetables in vacant spots. Mother Nature has a remarkable way of repopulating empty lands, and you can nudge her along by tossing a few seeds through the chain links in a fenced-off property, planting some wild roses in a drab median strip or growing vegetables alongside a local business that doesn’t bother with landscaping.

Some green-thumbed New Yorkers went even further by planting gardens in waste lands. The Clinton Community Garden, now a lovely oasis in the heart of the once-infamous Hell’s Kitchen district, began when a group of 48th Street residents noticed tomato plants growing out of the rubble on a vacant, neglected lot. The neighbors rented the city-owned property through a special program, cleared the area and built paths out of bricks found on the site. A serene public garden was created in the front while the back portion of the lot was parceled out to residents who wanted to tend their own vegetables and flowers.

Today, the Clinton Garden enlists scores of volunteers to plan and care for the herb garden, rose beds, grape arbor, rock garden, Native American medicinal plants, beehive, lawn, shrubbery, trees, paths and a special display of more than 100 plant species indigenous to New York. The garden is open to the public from dawn to dusk and hosts picnics, pot luck suppers, chamber music concerts, gardening classes, herb workshops, a harvest celebration, art festivals, many birthday parties and a citywide Summer Solstice celebration.

4) Transform your neighborhood into a village

One of the worst environmental disasters to hit America was the idea that homes, shops and workplaces should be strictly segregated from one another. The sad legacy of this “single-use zoning” means that driving a car is now necessary to fulfill even the most fundamental human activity such as buying a loaf of bread or going to school.

As anxiety mounts about climate change, pollution, diminishing resources, proliferating sprawl, rising gas prices, and our expanding waistlines, it only makes sense to arrange our lives so we can meet many of our daily needs without climbing into a car. That was the natural pattern of human settlement for all of history until the suburban boom of the 1950s.

Good neighborhoods all over the world, in big cities and small towns, function as villages. Celebrated architect Andres Duany defines a village as a place where many of the needs of daily life (grocery, school, café, hardware store, park, childcare center, transit stop and perhaps an ice cream shop, library or video store) are within a five-minute walk of home.

Along with his wife Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and other leading architects, Duany launched the New Urbanist architectural movement. Over the past 15 years, New Urbanism has begun to change the face of North America as successful suburban and urban developments in nearly every state prove people’s desire to live in walkable communities.

An even bigger trend breathing new life into neighborhoods and easing the strain on the environment is the return of local shopping districts. What were once soda fountains and haberdasheries, and later vacant storefronts or makeshift apartments, have been reborn as restaurants and stores once again. Entrepreneurs, many of them recent immigrants or young people, are leading this charge to revitalize commercial streets in inner cities and inner suburbs coast-to-coast.

5) Imagine your neighborhood with half the traffic

What would your neighborhood look like if people were valued over automobiles? Cars, after all, are the biggest source of environmental problems in modern society, according to researchers at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In their handbook The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, they write, “Alas, many of the things that cause the most damage are pretty fundamental to the American middle-class way of life. Nowhere is that fact more evident than in our reliance on the automobile.”

One of the most interesting thinkers taking on the car question is David Engwicht, a former seminary student and window washer who began looking at transportation in new ways after hearing about plans to widen a road near his home in a suburb of Brisbane, Australia. He attended a public meeting inclined to think widening was a good idea, but changed his mind after hearing neighbors’ stories about how increased traffic would disrupt their lives and diminish the sense of neighborliness.

Writing a pamphlet outlining his thoughts and later the book Reclaiming our Streets and Towns, he suddenly found himself an international spokesman for the idea of “traffic calming”—a new invention to tame reckless motorists by making physical changes to streets that force drivers to slow down and pay more attention to pedestrians. The aim is to give drivers a visual reminder that they must share the street with people—on foot, on bicycles, in wheelchairs and in baby strollers. Speed bumps, narrowed streets, stop signs, brightly painted crosswalks, on-street parking, median strips down the middle of streets, bans on right turns at red lights, crosswalks raised a few inches above the roadway, and curbs that extend into intersections all help make the streets safer and more pleasant for pedestrians.

Engwicht’s ultimate goal is to reduce the volume of traffic in our communities by as much as 50 percent, as well as reducing its speed. He weaves a compelling (if fanciful) vision of the future, prophesizing that in 30 years people will still use cars, but most likely as part of co-ops where several households share one vehicle. Cafés, groceries, bakeries, shops, and small parks will pop up in the middle of what today are residential streets.

“The front yards will become the center of social life,” he says, “as people...enjoy each other’s company, with plenty of time to relax, reflect and play. If you’re going somewhere by car you’ll feel that you’re missing out on so much. ”

6) Cut down on your driving

For most Americans, life without a car is unimaginable. Still, according to the U.S. census, a surprisingly high number of households manage without owning one:

households: New York City, 56 percent Washington, D.C., 37 percent Philadelphia, 36 percent Boston, 35 percent Pittsburgh, 30 percent Chicago, 29 percent San Francisco, 29 percent

In these households, people generally get more exercise, feel healthier, know their neighbors better, and have money left over in the household budget for vacations, special purchases and savings. If you live in an area with adequate public transit or good walking conditions, you might consider a car-free life. Even the occasional splurges on a taxi or rental cars will seem a pittance compared to what you would spend every month in auto payments, gas, repairs, licenses and insurance.

Of course, 100 years of all-for-the-auto urban planning makes it hard for some of us to simply forsake cars. Yet every one of us could easily drive less. On average, U.S. households make more than 12 separate automobile trips a day. You might be surprised how many of your travels could be done on bike, foot or bus. Instead of driving to the gym to exercise, for in-stance, take up running, walking or biking around the neighborhood. Save up your errands and do them on just one trip rather than a dozen.

Car-sharing programs can also reduce your dependence on autos, letting you get by with one or none until that moment when you must pick up a sick child at school, cart home some heavy item or journey out to the country on a Sunday afternoon. In the Norwood-Quince neighborhood of Boulder, Colorado, 40 people have joined a car-sharing club that rents cars by the hour. There are now 17 carsharing programs in U.S. cities with 100,000 members in total, mostly in big cities but also in places as small as Fort Wayne, Indiana; Nevada City, California; and Rutledge, Missouri (population: 103).

7) Save the Earth by enlivening your neighborhood

One of the most widespread myths about our environment is that living “close to nature” out in the country or in a leafy suburb is the best “green” lifestyle. Cities, on the other hand, are usually viewed as a major cause of ecological destruction—artificial, crowded places that suck up precious resources. Nothing could be further from the truth. The pattern of life in the country and most suburbs usually involves long hours in the automobile each week, burning fuel and spewing exhaust. City dwellers, on the other hand, have the option of walking or taking transit. The larger yards and houses found in suburbs and rural areas also extract an environmental toll in energy, water and land use.

Activists working to preserve natural places, such as the Cascade Land Conservancy in Washington State, now make this a focus of their environmental work. Gene Duvernoy, the group’s president, presents a powerful slide show of the projected expansion of sprawl in the Seattle area to local groups.

He drives home the point that if people don’t feel excited about the places they live, then suburban development will continue its destructive march. Ron Sher, a sustainable developer in Seattle who has worked with Cascade Land Conservancy says, “We can’t force people to live in cities if they don’t want to. So we must make our neighborhoods compact, congenial, comfortable places where people want to live.”

The problem is that almost everyone can readily point to a place where compact, dense development was not done right. And in nearly every case, what bothers us is not the density of human beings but the density of cars. Put pedestrians first with good walkways and a landscape that is human-scaled, and you’ll have a neighborhood that will appeal to all kinds of people. It’s worth noting that the places people dream of visiting on vacation—European cities, picturesque small towns, even Disneyland once you’re inside the gates—are perfect examples of compact development.

Ugly high-rise buildings are the other reason the mere mention of the word “density” strikes fear in the heart of many neighborhood residents. And the truth is, most high-rises built over the past 50 years deserve that disdain. They suck all the life up from the street with sterile service entrances, huge garage doors and dull parking lots, leaving a dense but dead neighborhood below.

But look to Vancouver, British Columbia, where high-rise architecture has been reinvented over the last several decades. The city is full of handsome buildings that touch the ground in a respectful, attractive way that adds to, rather than subtracts from, existing street life. The high-rises also taper as they ascend upward, allowing in more sky and sunshine.

The city of Chicago shows that urban density is not incompatible with the green American dream. Three million people live there in a surprisingly small geographic footprint. Outside of the notorious public housing projects (many of which have been, or are being, torn down) and a narrow stretch of high rises on the lakefront, the overwhelming majority of Chicagoans live in single-family bungalows and comfortable low-rise apartment buildings surrounded by lawns. This helps explains why the Windy City gains more attention every day for its lively, green, livable neighborhoods. And one of the area’s most up-and-coming neighborhoods is the next-door suburb of Berwyn, which has a population density higher than the city itself with hardly any high rises.

These are not radical ideas, and the public is usually supportive—once they’re implemented. The congestion charging plan for London (commuters pay $8 to enter the city during the work day) initially inspired heated opposition, but as traffic eased up so did the naysayers. Today, London’s congestion district is being expanded, and New York City may follow suit, though Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed congestion tax stalled in the state legislature. Should the law pass, the result would be a friendlier, more walkable New York with the added benefit of cleaner air.