Transforming communities is difficult. Old habits after all are hard to change. Setting up goals is one thing, but implementing them is another.
Planning for sustainable communities cannot succeed without the deliberate participation of affected communities. A strong and cooperative bottom-up grassroots model can effectively engage communities and eventually push local authorities to develop plans and visions based on the will of the community. Change can start through a simple conversation between community members that leads to the growth of an idea, which in turn leads to action.
Communities all over the world, whether small or large, are struggling with various ongoing economic and environmental challenges. Malnutrition, rising debt rates, climate change, and the high dependency on fossil fuels are just a few of them. Sustainability practices offer solutions that allow communities to adapt to challenges and to recover from setbacks. Communities that are able to do so are ones that show high levels of resiliency. It all begins with an idea that influences the community to change towards sustainability. The question, however, is how can a single idea reach the public and affect it? I have come across two approaches. One is a direct approach that depends on building a conversation between community members about sustainability. The other is an indirect approach that depends on behavioral science.
In the city of Totnes in the United Kingdom, environmental activist and author Rob Hopkins has worked on infusing communities with sustainability ideas through lectures and conversations with concerned citizens. He then started implementing small projects with community members that have included creating community vegetable gardens, introducing the Totnes Pound, which serves as a voucher supporting local products, and advocating alternative transit modes. This grew to become a worldwide movement that continues to motivate communities to change their daily practices and become more sustainable and adaptable to environmental and economic crises. Transition Town Totnes (TTT) was established in 2006, but since then has built a network of 1800 initiatives and has engaged thousands of community champions in 43 countries around the world through The Transition Network, a charitable organization that emerged out of TTT. The Transition Network has been working to inspire, encourage, connect, support, and train communities as they self-organize around the Transition model, which involves creating initiatives that build resilience and reduce CO2 emissions. Today, The Transition Network provides guidelines and examples of how proactive communities can initiate sustainable projects dealing with food, education, transportation, building, local governance, and energy.
The concept of Transition that has emerged out of the Transition Network is ongoing and is achieving its goals. It is putting intelligent and practical solutions out into the community to make change a possibility through conversations as well as different and diverse community initiatives that are documented on its website. Its activities have proved to be highly inspiring and motivating for other communities, leading to building capacities and expanding awareness and knowledge. Here in Vancouver, Transition Network inspired a group of people to create Village Vancouver, which has several initiatives and sustainable projects all across the city, like beekeeping, establishing a local currency, developing local farming, and implementing alternative transit modes. All this is carried out through continuous events and workshops that keep awareness and the sustainability conversation going.
The second approach to influencing people into adopting sustainability practices is based on peer / neighbour pressure. In his Ted talk, energy expert Alex Laskey explains how home owners become more motivated to save energy when told how much energy their neighbours are saving in their homes. Such an approach was applied in The Tidy Street Project in Brighton in the United Kingdom, which was implemented through the CHANGE project. This initiative aimed at developing awareness regarding energy use by displaying the consumption of each house along Tidy Street in comparison to Brighton’s average home consumption through using graffiti art displays on the street itself. The displays also showed how much some of the houses along the street were able to reduce their energy consumption, which triggered their neighbours to do the same. In the first few weeks of implementing the project, average energy consumption in the street dropped by 15%.
All these examples show how change is possible through creative participatory methods. Economic and environmental accomplishments involve a major social component. The challenge in any social project is to keep people interested in it. It all starts with a vision and depends on building a network of proactive citizens who maintain a continuous conversation addressing best sustainability solutions and behaviors, and also motivate and build awareness within the community. Once communities connect and come together, change becomes much easier to accomplish.
Graffiti art displays were used in Tidy Street in Brighton to develop awareness regarding energy use by displaying the consumption of each house along the street in comparison to Brighton’s average home consumption.
Nourhan Al Kurdi
September 9, 2013
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