Friday, December 4, 2009

COMMUNITY IMPROVEMENT: 5 Ways to Green Up Your Neighborhood

Once you’ve made your home more environmentally friendly, it’s time to extend your mission of sustainable development to the rest of your community.

You’ve swapped out your home’s light bulbs, strung a laundry line, and installed a programmable thermostat. Maybe you’ve even replaced your drafty windows. Now you’re ready for more. You’re thinking about reaching out to like-minded souls to see what you can do together to make your community more sustainable. You aren’t alone.

Around the country, loosely organized alliances of green-leaning friends and neighbors are comparing notes and sharing resources. Nobody knows just how many of these eco-coalitions are out there, but they all have something in common: Committed, enthusiastic people who want to make a difference.

Start by finding allies. Consider organizing a block party. Ask your local government if you can close off the street for an afternoon. Share food, drink, and music. Pass around a clipboard and collect emails from attendees who might be interested in working together. Then consider putting one of these ideas into action.

Share your soil
Satisfy your conscience as well as your green thumb by tending a patch of neglected earth. Condo or townhome owners might elect to join a community garden, but wait lists for these plots can easily stretch on for years. Enter groups like Urban Garden Share, which match up property owners with would-be sharecroppers. “It is kind of like online dating for gardeners,” says Amy Pennington, head of the program that currently boasts 240 active members in Seattle.

Property owners list offers of space and water on the website, and interested gardeners typically supply seeds, tools, and labor. Gardener and garden owner can share the bounty. Pennington says that costs and labor usually come out about even for both parties. Depending on plot size, gardeners can expect to spend two to five hours a week weeding, watering, and harvesting during the growing season.

(Un)Forbidden Fruits
Groups are popping up that promote the gleaning of fruit from neglected or overlooked urban fruit trees. One such group is Fallen Fruit in Los Angeles, which offers online maps showing the locations of publicly accessible fruit trees. Fallen Fruit urges others to post maps of their neighborhoods to the website.

The organization is also encouraging homeowners to throw “Public Fruit Jams,” essentially canning parties to share the taste, savings, and sweaty work inherent in preserving peaches, plums, blackberries, apricots, and other fruits. Fruit gathered from public spots like parks is free, and enough canning supplies to get you started will run about $60.

A chicken coop in every pot
Your local-food quest need not limit itself to fruits and vegetables. Many cities now allow residents to raise domestic fowl, and at least one group of neighbors in Seattle is building a community chicken coop. Organizer Elise Koncsek says the seven households involved expect to keep a dozen laying hens, and will share the labor, start-up costs, and eggs.

Keen to follow their lead? “Start with just a couple families, and develop most of a plan for scale, location, building, and financing,” suggests Koncsek, who kept start-up costs down around $500 by relying on donations and reclaimed materials. Figure your egg-laying chickens, which can be ordered as chicks for about $2 apiece, will require as much care as a family pet.

Take the wheel
Many Americans have chosen to downsize the family fleet or even dispense with a vehicle altogether. Instead, they’re joining—or even starting—car-sharing co-ops. “You can always share your car with neighbors,” says Sharon Feigon, CEO of I-GO Car Sharing, a nonprofit based in Chicago. “But a car-sharing organization formalizes the process to avoid some of the issues that might come up if you are sharing more than a couple of people.”

Typically, members pay a fee to join, then get charged by how much they drive. The organization covers insurance and gas. I-GO’s basic plan starts at $6.75 per hour plus 40 cents per mile driven. There’s also a $25 application fee and $50 annual membership fee. According to I-Go, car sharing can save an average family $4,000 a year on transportation costs.

Swap ‘til you drop
So much of neighborhood-scale green work comes down to either sharing what you have or borrowing what you need. So says Debra Berliner, the climate action coordinator for Berkeley Ecology Center, in Berkeley, Calif. “You could do something like a ‘stuff swap,’ where you get together and exchange things,” says Berliner. “It limits the amount of purchasing and therefore the carbon emissions that go into their development, and it also diverts waste from landfills. It creates a more sustainable economy.”

Berliner says the model works for just about everything: books, small appliances, tools. A good-quality hammer goes for $20; a free hammer is, well, free. Budget 10 to 12 hours spread over a few evenings to organize a stuff swap.

James Glave, September 8, 2009

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